By Wendell Steavenson

Book Review


Why are decent people willing to serve under a totalitarian regime?

Wendell Steavenson goes in search for answers to her questions in attempt to understand better the reasons. Set on the trail of an Iraqi general, Kamel Sachet, she discovers the heavy price one pays working under the shadow of a dictatorship.

This is Steavenson’s second book, which came into being in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. The first was published in 2002, an acclaimed nonfiction book, Stories I Stole, a two-year memoir in post-revolutionary Georgia. Known for her daring escapades as a freelance journalist, she has reported and resided in Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and post-Soviet Georgia, currently residing in Paris, France.

The captivating and smart title is from the Qur’ânic sign the book begins with,

{And We shall set up balances of justice on the Day of Resurrection, then none will be dealt with unjustly in anything. And if there be the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it. And sufficient are We as to take account.} (21:47)

A psychiatrist Dr Laith leads Steavenson on the path to Sachet’s life,

One day, musing on some of the ideas, Dr Hassan had told me, ‘You should go and see the Sachets. I don’t know how much they will tell you. But they are an interesting family. Kamel Sachet was a general. A very famous general.’

Stevenson’s four- to five-year journey begins.

Why had they served such a regime? How had they accommodated their own morality? How had they lived? How had they lived with themselves?

Disguising herself as an Iraqi woman for safety reasons whilst in Iraq, Steavenson goes on a quest to answer these questions by following in the footsteps of Sachet. 

The answers unravel through the stories relayed to her by people who know him or know of him,

In Iraq, there were always many stories, layers of episodes, each one a word.

Steavenson speaks to colleagues, enemies, family, friends, and others residing in Iraq and in exile – Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Dubai and London. The stories that unfurl vary from fear, love, hate and reverence. She also reveals the unspoken story of psychological scars from the impact of numerous wars on a shattered society.

Sachet was a Sunni born to a poor and illiterate family. A devoted family man fathering nine children, he ascended the military ranks – a police officer, a Special Forces officer and then promoted as a general – working for the Ba’ath Party earning privileges he used for good, such as, building mosques and looking out for the those in need. He was an Iran-Iraq hero, head of the army in Kuwait City during Desert Storm and later endorsed as governor of Maysan.

Sachet was cleaner and fairer than most and reluctant to follow some of Saddam’s brutal orders. As the years bled by, he turned to religion and piety as he was suffering from internal conflict to cleanse his guilt, which eventually was the cause for his execution.

Sachet remained a loyal adherent to Saddam until his dying day even after imprisonment (sharing a cell with Dr Laith) and when accused of treason and executed in 1999 in Abu Ghraib prison on Saddam’s orders.

Steavenson relays stories of others working for the same regime and seeks the psychological works of Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram, Hannah Arendt, Albert Speer, Gitta Sereny and Primo Levi to understand how good men turn bad,

Man’s inhumanity to man, WHY? How do ordinary little human cogs make up a torture machine?


The human cogs of the torture machine seemed as unhappy as their victims. Which meant, I thought as I scribbled in a notebook, ‘There’s no rational explanation for the machine’s existence at all.’

The book does not really address any one issue, which may leave readers perplexed. The prose and chronology of events are slightly confusing, disorganised and meandering.

Steavenson mentions certain events in details and neglects others and readers may be disappointed there are no images, only descriptions. She judges those she interviews in accordance with her ideals and morality, voicing her opinions.

There are no new facts and the book lacks biographical detail about Sachet, only a glimpse of the main character.

However, unlike the numerous published books since the invasion of Iraq, this historical account and biography is the only one that looks at Iraq from a different perspective. It is a portrayal of Iraq in turmoil before and after the US invasion.

Steavenson gives a voice to those behind the headlines and allows readers to read the brief history of Iraq under Saddam’s thirty-year reign of terror. She shares the reality that no matter how hard life was living under the looming shadow of despotism, the sad truth is, majority of the Iraqis will choose living under Saddam’s shadow over the US occupation. 

This is a poignant memoir about the rise, fall and death of Saddam’s favourite general, acquiescent servants of Saddam – ordinary men that become fighting and killing machines – and a society living under dire conditions and circumstances, day in and day out, for decades even after the US invasion.

The book highlights that truth and justice mean nothing under an autocracy; either, one adapts to the situation, accepts it, or rebels and suffer the consequences, and there are different personalities for different occasions under a harsh dictatorship.

It was true what they said: I could not understand what it was like to live under such a regime. I could not judge them.


…obedience to authority was a learned cognitive behaviour that ran through almost every society.

Genre:Biographical Memoir, History
Publisher:Atlantic Books
Publication Year:2009

August 2009


  1. Your book review made me think, ‘I’d like to read this book’, and that’s what a good book review should do, isn’t it? I think this must be an important book to read.

  2. I enjoyed this review. I love the premise of a mustard seed. I take mine from the Holy Scriptures where God speaks of faith as a mustard seed. It is a powerful reminder in whatever form it comes.


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