As a boy, writes Kenneth Pollack in his masterful new book on Iraq, "The Threatening Storm," Saddam Hussein would heat an iron poker until it was white-hot, then use it to impale cats and dogs. Years later, when he had boys of his own, he would take them into prisons so they could watch -- and get used to -- torture and executions. The Arab world is replete with dictators, many of them ruthless. But for for sheer unbridled cruelty, none of them can touch Saddam. And for hellish and sadistic brutality, no other Arab state -- perhaps no other state in the world -- can compare with what Saddam has created in Iraq.
Writing in The New Republic recently, foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan recalled the treatment meted out some years back to Robert Spurling, an American technician working at a Baghdad hotel. Spurling "had been taken away from his wife and daughters at Saddam International Airport and tortured for four months with electric shock, brass knuckles, and wooden bludgeons. His toes were crushed and his toenails ripped out. He was kept in solitary confinement on a starvation diet. Finally, American diplomats won his release. Multiply his story by thousands, and you will have an idea what Iraq is like to this day."
Spurling was one of Saddam's luckier victims: He survived. Many thousands of others have been executed outright or tortured to death -- or forced to witness the torture or murder of their loved ones.
In June, the BBC interviewed "Kamal," a former Iraqi torturer now confined in a Kurdish prison in the north. "If someone didn't break, they'd bring in the family," Kamal explained. "They'd bring the son in front of his parents, who were handcuffed or tied and they'd start with simple tortures such as cigarette burns and then if his father didn't confess they'd start using more serious methods," such as slicing off one of the child's ears or amputating a limb. "They'd tell the father that they'd slaughter his son. They'd bring a bayonet out. And if he didn't confess, they'd kill the child."
Horror in Saddam's Iraq takes endless forms. In 1987-88, Iraqi Air Force helicopters sprayed scores of Kurdish villages with a combination of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, Sarin, and VX, a deadly nerve agent. Scores of thousands of Kurds, most of them women and children, died horrible deaths. Of those who survived, many were left blind or sterile or crippled with agonizing lung damage.
But most of the Kurds slaughtered in that season of mass murder were not gassed but rounded up and gunned down into mass graves. Those victims were mostly men and boys, and their bodies have never been recovered.
In one village near Kirkuk, after the males were taken to be killed, the women and small children were crammed into trucks and taken to a prison. One survivor, Salma Aziz Baban, described the ordeal to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who reported on Saddam's war against the Kurds in The New Yorker in March.
More than 2,000 women and children were crammed into a room and given nothing to eat. When someone starved to death, the Iraqi guards demanded that the body be passed to them through an window in the door. Baban's six-year-old son grew very sick. "He knew he was dying. There was no medicine or doctor. He started to cry so much." He died in his mother's lap.
"I was screaming and crying," she told Goldberg. "We gave them the body. It was passed outside, and the soldiers took it."
Soon after, she pushed her way to the window to see if her child had been taken for burial. She saw 20 dogs roaming in a field where the dead bodies had been dumped. "I looked outside and saw the legs and hands of my son in the mouths of the dogs. The dogs were eating my son." She was silent for a moment. "Then I lost my mind."
Horror without end. Amnesty International once listed some 30 different methods of torture used in Iraq. They ranted from burning to electric shock to rape. Some governments go to great lengths to keep evidence of torture secret. Saddam's government tends to flaunt its tortures, leaving the broken bodies of its victims in the street or returning them, mangled and mutilated, to their families.
For the second time in a dozen years, America is preparing to go to war against Iraq, this time with "regime change" as an explicit goal. The case for military action is being made primarily in the name of international law and stability: Iraq under Saddam egregiously violates UN resolutions, attacks other countries without cause, aids terrorists, uses and stockpiles biological and chemical weapons, actively pursues nuclear weapons, and purposely creates environmental catastrophes.
Saddam has successfully resisted every form of outside pressure short of war. Neither economic sanctions nor UN inspections nor limited missile strikes have subdued his aggressiveness. There is no question that his regime is profoundly dangerous and will grow even more so if it is not destroyed once and for all.
It is all true. But let us not forget something equally true: Above all else, Saddam has been an unspeakable evil for the people of Iraq. In crushing him and his dictatorship, we will be liberating the most cruelly enslaved nation on earth and performing an act of nearly incalculable mercy.