In Kanan Makiya’s famous Republic of Fear, The Politics of Modern Iraq, he wrote about how torture and horror had become the norm under the Baath Party in Iraq, and how that brutalized the entire society. The whole country was ruled and united by the fear generated by the regime. The government made violence the norm, and implicated hundreds of thousands of people in its use as informers, members of the security forces, etc. This was all part of the system of control that kept Saddam Hussein in power for so long. Makiya said that this made everyone a victim of the oppression, even the perpetrators. That was aptly shown by an interview with an Iraqi man named Jasim who became a torturer for the Baath, and who was later interviewed by the Iraq History Project.
Jasim got a job with one of the five man security agencies in Iraq as a torturer. His first day on the job, Jasim saw a woman electrocuted, which made him sick to his stomach. Then when it came time for him to beat his first prisoner he couldn’t do it, and his supervisor ordered his hand broken as a result. Eventually he began applying punishments, and with money from his new job he was able to buy his family a home making them beneficiaries of the abuse that he was dealing out. He became an alcoholic to try to forget all that he saw, and later left the agency, and turned to religion to try to ease his conscience. Jasim perfectly encapsulates the brutality of the Baath rule, and how it victimized everyone involved. Here is a transcript of part of the interview with Jasim.
I felt ill as I watched Abu Husam torturing people. It was hard for me to control myself.
A short while later, they brought in a woman who refused to inform on her husband, who was a member of the Dawa Party. Abu Husam undressed her. He made her sit on a chair and tied her down. He connected electric wires to her hands, feet, and breasts. He began to shock her. She was shaking and screaming. She began to drool and then she fainted. Abu Husam took her out of the chair, dressed her, and called the guards to take her away.
At that moment, I hated myself. I knew that soon I would become like this man.
At the end of my training that day, Nazem came in and ordered me to go home. When he saw my condition, he took me home and we spoke. “What happened to you, Jasim? This is only the first day. You were only watching. What would you be like if it were you that had been working?
“What did those people do?” I asked. “They did a terrible, unforgivable thing. They want to overthrow the government. They want to destabilize the country. If that happened, there would be chaos, terror, killing, and looting. Don’t believe that any of them are innocent! We are the innocent ones!”
He dropped me home. My mother saw I was sad and asked, “Is there something wrong, son?”
I looked in her eyes, shining with happiness, seeing me return from my first day at work and filled with the hope that we would soon have a better, more settled life. I couldn’t tell her what happened that day. “Nothing, Mother, I am just not used to this new job.” “Everybody finds things difficult at the beginning,” she said, “but they get used to it”
I spent that night thinking about how I was supposed to hold the cable and beat people. I was filled with pain. Then, I remembered Nazem’s words, saying those people were criminals and traitors. I began to tell myself that they deserved what was happening because they had betrayed our nation. I convinced myself that they must be punished. Soon, the three days of training were over and the day I was to start working had arrived. I didn’t sleep that night. I knew that from then on I would be a torturer.
The first person I was to torture was a man in his forties who was accused of joining the Dawa Party. I held the cable, but my hand was trembling. How could I beat this man who was older than me and whose eyes were beginning for mercy?
Abu Husam shouted at me, “Don’t let your hands shake! Don’t be a coward!”
I raised the cable to beat the man, but I couldn’t find the strength to hit him. Then Abu Husam slapped me hard in the face. An officer who was in the room said, “You’re a soldier here. Those who volunteer to work in the Security Directorate are the servants of the government. They follow orders. This time, I will have mercy on you. Your punishment will be minimal.”
He turned to Aub Husam and said, “Carry out the orders!” Abu Husam tied my hand down and hit it with a metal pipe until it broke. After my hand healed, I returned to work. This time, the officer decided to supervise me personally. I was forced to torture a woman with electricity. I undressed her and connected her private parts to wires in the way Abu Husam had done. I shocked her until she fainted. I don’t know how my heart could be filled with such cruelty.
“Well done!” said the officer. “That’s the way to do it! Those people are a plague! They’re trying to destroy our country. You must show them no mercy!” His words filled me with complicated feelings. After that day, I committed many violations as a torturer. I rented a house for my family. When they said, “good job!” it meant a lot to me.
The officer ordered me to torture a man who was a member of the insurgents. I connected his penis to high voltage. I was merciless. I disconnected the wires and he urinated. His urine was mixed with blood. Then, I broke one of his legs.
We had an arrangement with a lieutenant colonel that whenever a beautiful girl was sent, I was to beat her. Then, I would take her to his room to spend the night. I would stand next to the door and listen to the women screaming or begging him to leave her alone. I could hear how he would beat them. He raped so many women.
At this time, I drank heavily. I tried not to think about all the things I was doing. It was my job.
Hagan, John, Kaiser, Joshua, and Hanson, Anna, Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War, The Legal Cynicism of Criminal Militarism, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015