Jim Winkler and Saddam Hussein

Jim Winkler is the General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. In a United Methodist News Service release, Kathy Gilbert reports that Winkler said, “The sad fact is that conditions are so bad in Iraq due to our invasion that life was better under Saddam Hussein – and that was an era of fear and misery.” Winkler made the comments at the 2008 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference (January 31 – February 2).

Winkler is at least partly right. The Saddam era certainly was a time of fear and misery – and the word “misery” is quite an understatement.

Winkler also believes that life was better under Saddam Hussein, and that assertion is not so much right or wrong as it is morally non-determinative. The average citizen of Germany was much better off in 1939 than in 1946. By the end of the war, Germany was in ruins and starving. A large percentage of its people had been displaced from their homes. A large segment of Germany was in Stalin’s hands and would remain under communist dictatorship for decades. Life was better under Hitler than it was in post-war Germany – unless, however, you happened to be a Jew, a communist, a gypsy, a homosexual, a mentally disabled person, a member of the Confessing Church or a political opponent of the Reich. Things also weren’t so great (or soon wouldn’t be) if you were living in nearly any other European or North African country. To judge the conflict only by the differences between pre- and post-war standards of living is morally short sighted.

Likewise, the Ba’athist elite sunning themselves by the pool at one of Saddam’s many palaces certainly had it better in pre-2003 Iraq than they do today. Many ordinary Iraqis probably did too – unless you happened to be a Kurd, a Shi’ite, a Marsh Arab, a political opponent of the regime, a member of the Olympic team, an attractive woman who caught Uday Hussein’s eye (or a member of the woman’s family) or a person that in some other way displeased the thugs in charge.

I spent some time at Uday’s house of rape after we arrived in Baghdad in 2003. It had become the headquarters for one of the units that I served as a chaplain. I even conducted a few worship services there for soldiers. I don’t how many prayers it will take to cleanse the evil from that spot.

Human rights groups complain about Abu Ghraib (rightly) and Guantanamo (a complex matter), but Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay used murder and torture in a fashion several orders of magnitude worse than even the most outrageous, unfounded allegations against the United States. Locals told us that the difference between Uday and Qusay was this: Qusay used murder and torture in a cold calculating manner. Uday just liked it and did it for fun. When we offered some wayward sheep to a the people of a village near one of Saddam’s palaces, they recoiled in horror. Those were Saddam’s sheep! Oh, the horrible tortures in store for the family of anyone who dared to touch Saddam’s property.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Google away. Or start here:

The Crimes of Saddam Hussein (Frontline)
Saddam Hussein Crimes and Human Rights Abuses (UK Govt)
Soccer Players Describe Torture By Hussein’s Son (NY Times)
Prison Stands as Testament to Saddam’s Evil (Defense Link)
Uday: Career of Rape, Torture and Murder (The Guardian, UK)

And of course the war Saddam initiated with Iran cost a million lives, and the war he initiated with Kuwait ultimately led to the 2003 invasion.

The difference between pre- and post-invasion Iraq, by the way, are not nearly so great as those in pre- and post-war Germany. Prior to 2003, the infrastructure of Iraq had already greatly deteriorated. What I found in Baghdad was something akin to a rotting log. On the surface it looks whole. Apply any pressure, and the whole thing collapses. The invasion itself caused relatively little physical damage – except that it removed Saddam’s boot from the neck of the Iraqi people. In Baghdad, buildings damaged by the war were few and far between. No Iraqi town or city looked anything like any city in Germany after WWII. You could drive widely throughout Baghdad without seeing any physical damage from the war; you couldn’t drive 50 feet without seeing evidence of long-term decay.

It is this removing of Saddam’s boot from the neck of the people, however, that has occasioned the violent power struggles that are now taking place in Iraq. Saddam maintained control with ruthless violence, and by pitting one faction against another. When Saddam fell, Al Qaeda saw the power vacuum as an opportunity to swallow up another failed state. Long suppressed tribal and religious animosities flared up, with many parties looking for ascendancy or revenge. In the power vacuum, Iraq’s criminal element also had free rein. In some ways, the situation in Iraq resembles the situation in the Balkans following Tito’s death. The cork had been pulled from the neck of the bottle, and the pressure inside cause the contents to come bubbling out. Dictators like Hussein and Tito had maintained the semblance of order by brute force. Remove the force, and the violence waiting to erupt does.

Saddam’s absence has created a large number of problems for Iraq. Even so, if you had been offered the chance at any time between 1991 and 2003 to wave a magic wand and make Saddam’s apparatus of repression go away – poof – would you not have done so? If you could have said “Abracadabra” and made made Saddam, his sons and his henchmen disappear without violence or bloodshed at all, wouldn’t you have done it? If you could have blinked your eyes or twitched your nose and made Hussein nothing but a bad memory, seriously, wouldn’t you have thought it worth the risk?

The left likes to blame the U.S. and the U.K. for the crimes committed by Al Qaeda terrorists, sectarian murder squads and criminal bands since the invasion. It is true that if we hadn’t deposed Saddam he would have maintained his monopoly on terror. So who is to blame? The people who commit the violence? The people who removed the tyrant? Or the tyrant who set the conditions that would make the resulting chaos inevitable? (Of course there are those who use tortured logic to make the U.S. responsible for all of Saddam’s crime’s in the first place).

Personally, I am not sorry that Hussein is gone. His regime was evil and I have absolutely no regrets about seeing it crumble into dust. With his departure, my only concern now is how to help the Iraqis build something good for themselves from ruins that Saddam left them. I wish Jim Winkler shared my hopes for Iraq.