Tuesday, April 9, 2019
April 9, 2019: StatueStudying: Saddam
[On April 9th, 2003 a group of both Iraqi civilians and U.S. military forces together toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a hugely symbolic moment that highlights the role statues can play in our communal spaces and identities. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and four other statues, leading up to a weekend post on my own continuing thoughts on Confederate statues like those in my hometown.]
On the value of recognizing US hypocrisies, and the need to get beyond them as well.
While the situation and histories aren’t identical, many of the same things I said in this post about US support for the 1980s Afghan rebels who went on to become Al Qaeda could be said about US support for Saddam Hussein during the same era as well. Hussein was the enemy of our enemy (the Iranian regime) throughout the decade, and so it stands to reason in a realpolitik kind of way that the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations would support, fund, and arm Hussein’s regime. But as that last hyperlinked article notes, the US government was well aware Hussein’s worst excesses in the period and continued to support him despite them. And indeed, the same could be said of his final excess immediately preceding our abrupt shift toward his regime: April Glaspie, an envoy of George H.W. Bush’s administration, apparently tacitly supported Hussein’s potential invasion of Kuwait, which then became the 1991 invasion that prompted the hostile US response that culminated in the first Gulf War and made Hussein into an enemy of the US from then on.
All of which made the second Iraq War hugely complex and fraught, even if we leave aside those little things like lies about weapons of mass destruction and false connections of Iraq to the September 11th attacks and etc. And those complexities provide a very different context for the April 9th toppling of the Saddam statue that provided the impetus for this week’s series. In a symbolic but also very real sense, the United States had helped raise that statue, or at least helped build both a strong foundation and a perimeter fence that together allowed it to stand more securely and powerfully for far longer than might otherwise have been the case. From Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and his many Latin American counterparts to Bin Laden, Hussein, and many many others around the world, helping create and prop up such dictators and extremists was indeed one of the true hallmarks of US foreign policy throughout the 20th century (particularly in the Cold War era, but not at all limited to that period as the pre-World War II histories of Trujillo’s DR make clear). To celebrate the statue (and Saddam) falling without recognizing those histories is to reinforce hypocritical divisions between US ideals (especially as a “beacon of freedom” abroad and the like) and such troubling realities.
At the same time, Saddam was (like most of those US-supported figures) a violent and brutal dictator, a tyrant who created unfathomably terrifying and horrible conditions for the vast majority of Iraqis throughout his reign. Those details make the US support of him for so long even more awful, but also (or really because of all those factors) shouldn’t be minimized or elided in the slightest. Similarly, the fact that it was apparently Iraqis who instigated the toppling of the statue means that if we analyze that moment primarily through the lens of US foreign policies and hypocrisies, we’re just reinforcing a silencing of those rebellious Iraqi voices and perspectives, not at all unlike what Saddam himself managed to do so thoroughly for so long and with US aid. Obviously on an AmericanStudies blog I tend to focus on the US side of my topics, and the US side of Saddam’s histories and story is one we all need to better remember and engage to be sure. But so for that matter is the Iraqi perspective/narrative of any and all histories, one of many reasons I’m so proud of this work being done by my former FSU graduate student Ross Caputi and colleagues of his. Any story of the Saddam statue has to start and end with those Iraqi perspectives and histories.
Next statue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other statues you’d highlight and analyze?