Review Faust, Aaron, The Ba’thification of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Totalitarianism, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015
The Ba’thification of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Totalitarianism starts off with a dramatic story of a bicycle repairman in Wasit province who shot his son for deserting the army during the Iran-Iraq War. The man wrote to the Baath office for deserters asking to be pardoned for his crime. The secretary of the office passed his request all the way to Saddam Hussein who not only amnestied him, but gave him a commendation and entered his account into the official records of the war. The point of Aaron Faust’s book is to explain why people like this lowly laborer would kill his own child for a dictatorship like the one in Iraq. Was it because people loved Saddam as thousands of letters and speeches proclaimed each year, were they loyal to the regime, or was it because they were terrified into submission as writers such as Kanan Makiya wrote about? What Faust argues is that the Baath Party and Saddam created an all encompassing system, which offered rewards and punishments and attempted to control every facet of Iraqi life from marriage to where people lived to their education to their jobs and future. Under such a system the vast majority had to comply to ensure their livelihood and that of their families.
The Ba’thification of Iraq is one of a series of books based upon the extensive Baathist records that were seized after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and taken to the United States for safe keeping. The documents cover the period from 1979-2003 and are housed at the Iraq Memory Foundation at Stanford University in California. There is another collection at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. These papers document the day to day activities of the Baath Party to control the Iraqi populace. Faust found that Baathist Iraq operated much like other totalitarian regimes such as Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany and Maoist China.
What sets a totalitarian government apart from an authoritarian one is that doesn’t just rely upon violence, but it also offers plenty of rewards and wants the public to love and support the authorities. It claims it serves the masses, while attempting to co-opt and destroy any element that might oppose it. It wants to politicize every element of society so there is nothing left but the state, and in Iraq’s case that was personified in Saddam Hussein. Those that did not conform could lose their jobs and their lives. This violence could be indiscriminate since there were no checks upon the government, but force alone could not explain the Iraqi regime or any of the other totalitarian ones. Instead, Iraq created a system meant to indoctrinate every Iraqi from the day they were born until they died. They were taught that the Baath Party stood for a strong Iraq, that it encompassed Islam because it stood for faith and belief, that the public should sacrifice themselves to the state, and if they did they could gain benefits like stipends, pensions, access to college, public jobs, etc. Rather than an all repressive system, Iraq used a carrot and stick approach to make sure the public conformed. This was not absolute as there was always dissent and opposition, but the vast majority went along with the system because that’s what they knew and had to live under. Other books that have gone through the Baath files such as Joseph Sassoon’s Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party, Inside an Authoritarian Regime have come to the same conclusion. The difference is that Faust argues that this led to a totalitarian system rather than an authoritarian one.
On some specific issues, Faust provides interesting insight, especially how adaptable the party was. For instance, Michel Aflaq was the founding father of Baathism. Saddam took Afaq’s ideas and theories and centered them around himself. Iraq said that it stood by Aflaq’s ideas but they needed to be built upon and changed to fit the Iraqi experience. During that process, Saddam was put at the center of Baath ideology, and he rather than Aflaq became the new authority for what the party meant. In another instance, after the 1991 uprising that followed the Gulf War, Saddam turned to sheikhs and tribes to provide security in parts of the country. This contradicted earlier Baath policy that saw tribes as part of the past which the party was trying to eliminate to create a new modern advanced country. However, Saddam always saw that tribalism was an important part of Iraqi society and should be controlled and mobilized to support the government. The party therefore attempted to recruit sheikhs to join the Baath, drafted tribesmen into the army and security forces, and gave them control of specific areas raising the status of certain tribes. The authorities also monitored them by making sheikhs register. A similar stance was taken with religion. In 1993 Saddam started the Faith Campaign, which some have argued was another dramatic change since the Baath was secular. Just like the tribes however, the government attempted to co-opt religion. Baghdad promoted a nonsectarian form of Islam that was meant to appeal to all Iraqis, and again rally them behind the state through mosques that were built by the government, and via imams and clerics that were picked by the authorities as well. At the same time, the government attempted to stamp out Islamist elements that were seen as being opponents of the regime. These and other examples show that the party had two main goals, which were to hold onto power and reshape the society in its image. When it ran into problems like the growth of religiosity in the 1990s it would attempt to control it and destroy the elements it couldn’t. That is the main benefit of the book as it documents the system of control that lasted for 35 years and how it was able to deal with changing situations over that long period.