Politics & Policy

Hitler Vs. Hussein

Evil competition.

The Iraqi people have spoken. Defying America’s insistence that we would be liberating them from an evil dictator, a full 100 percent of eligible voters cast their support for Saddam Hussein in yesterday’s “election” (though a few Iraqi officials have their fingers crossed that absentee ballots will put them into the 101 percent range they promised their boss).

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has been filing from Baghdad lately. Recently he wrote:

From their perch in Washington, President Bush and his advisers seem to have convinced themselves that an invasion will proceed easily because many Iraqis will dance in the streets to welcome American troops. That looks like a potentially catastrophic misreading of Iraq.

Consider Dahlia Abdulrahim and Intidhar Abdulrahim, two young women I met at an English-language used-book shop in Baghdad. Dahlia reads romance novels, while Intidhar favors Thomas Hardy. So will they be cheering the American troops rolling through Baghdad?

’I will throw stones at them,’ Dahlia said.

’Maybe I will throw knives,’ Intidhar said brightly.

Kristof writes that Dahlia and Intidhar “are broadly representative of Iraqis I spoke to.”

One has to take Kristof at his word, and I do. But before wringing our hands too much we might note that, just a few paragraphs later, Kristof acknowledges that “Public opinion is very difficult to gauge in a dictatorship as brutal as Iraq’s… where anyone who criticizes Saddam risks having his tongue amputated.”

So maybe — just maybe — Intidhar and Dahlia are shining Kristof on just a wee bit.

But, hey, who knows?

What I find interesting about the growing talk of Iraqis’ “support” for Saddam is the hint or suggestion that if the Iraqi people are behind Saddam, then we shouldn’t topple him. Oh, I understand the military or tactical point — if the people are on Saddam’s side, they’ll fight harder and the job will be more difficult. Fair enough; this is a slice of the moral of Vietnam and it’s reasonable as far as it goes. (Though, personally, I don’t think anybody has made a particularly convincing case that the Iraqi people will show much solidarity with Saddam.)

But even if it’s true, how exactly would this defeat the argument for war? If the Iraqi people are serious when they proclaim their love for Saddam and scream like schoolgirls at his picture — then isn’t Iraq more of a threat to our security, rather than less of one? I mean, if Saddam isn’t a secluded tyrant trapped by his own paranoia and delusions, but is actually the beloved hero of the Iraqi people, doesn’t that make him all the more dangerous?

A few years ago, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen made my life more difficult by introducing another name that looks like mine into the Internet realm (to this day, I get about one e-mail a week from someone — usually a moron anti-Semite — who thinks I’m him). While he was at it, he also wrote a book called Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen’s thesis was that average Germans weren’t really the captive population some like to believe. Rather, run-of-the-mill Germans wholeheartedly agreed with Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and the whole Nazi shebang.

I don’t have much of an opinion, one way or the other, on Goldhagen’s book, but I think the notion illustrates a point nicely. What made Hitler dangerous wasn’t that he was a meanie. Nor was it that he wanted to invade other countries or rule an Aryan empire — as we speak, there are people restocking the shelves of video stores and driving school buses who have similar ambitions. What made Hitler so destructive was the fact that he had the power of a whole nation at his beck and call. If the Wermacht and the German people generally had been unwilling to follow his orders, Hitler wouldn’t have been much of a threat to anybody.

What’s different about Saddam Hussein is the fact he’s a threat even though the people aren’t on his side. This is a key difference between Hussein and Hitler — two mustachioed murderers everyone feels compelled to discuss together. Hitler lived in the age when conventional weapons — tanks, bombs, planes, the unabridged works of Heidegger, and the manpower necessary to use them effectively — were the only reliable weapons of mass destruction. Saddam is ruling in an age when mass destruction — whether in the form of a disease or a nuclear bomb — can be delivered by a small handful of men. So while Hitler needed lots of men to be loyal to him and the Fatherland in order to be dangerous, Saddam really doesn’t.


This is all merely a way of introducing my real point. Once again, Saddam Hussein is being compared to Hitler on the talk shows and op-ed pages, and once again opponents of war are objecting, saying that Saddam isn’t as bad as Hitler. The answer to these critics is: “So what?”

Comparisons between Hitler and Hussein, or Hitler and bin Laden for that matter, are hardly useless, but they tend to distort more than they reveal. As a historical analogy about the need to confront dangers early, I think it’s fine (and not just because such arguments tend to cast Bill Clinton as the Chamberlainesque figure who spent his Oval Office days eagerly tearing pages from his calendar in anticipation of that glorious moment when the Olsen twins would be of legal age to intern for him while the Storm gathered). But the reason this analogy makes sense is that is invokes a very real and universal principle of catching problems early: “We should have stopped Hitler at Munich…” If we didn’t have that example, we might be talking instead about the lessons learned from ignoring the rise of the Bolsheviks or the mob or whatever — because it is a lesson that needs invoking.

Where the analogy fails is when we’re talking about degrees of evil and degrees of threat. To begin with, the question of “Who is more evil?” may make for a fun debate, but it’s an irrelevant distraction. If morality is your game, then the only pertinent question is, “Is Saddam evil enough?” — and the answer there is obvious. From using rape as a casual punishment for opponents — male and female alike — to gouging out the eyes of prisoners, to gassing Kurds, to (literally) paving over Shias with asphalt while they were still alive, Saddam Hussein crossed the threshold of “evil enough” a long time ago. Consider a point made by Jeffrey Goldberg — another person e-mailers confuse me for. In a recent dialogue in Slate, he pointed out that the Iraqis have weaponized aflatoxin, a compound made from fungus and which is pretty good at eventually causing liver cancer.

“The joke among weapons inspectors,” Goldberg writes, “is that aflatoxin would stop a lieutenant from making colonel, but it would not stop soldiers from advancing across a battlefield.” In fact, the only thing aflatoxin is particularly good at is causing liver cancer in children. In other words, as a weapon the stuff is pretty much pointless, but if you want to watch children die a slow and painful death, aflatoxin is the good for what ails ya.

So who cares if he’s “as evil” as Hitler? If Saddam were merely 90 percent as evil as Hitler — to make an almost childish point — would that mean a moral case couldn’t be made against him?

And that’s the second problem with comparisons between Hitler and Saddam: It defines deviancy down. Something that was once considered a “maximum” — Hitler’s evil — now becomes a minimum. The assumption seems to be, “Well, if he’s not as evil as Hitler, than there’s no point in doing to Saddam what we did to Hitler.” Well, that’s crazy. Do we really want to live in a world that operates on the rule that so long as you are just a fraction less horrible than Hitler, you aren’t horrible enough to be stopped? And, for that matter, do we really want to say that if Hitler had been a fraction less horrible than he was, our efforts would be unjustified? Never mind that the proof of Saddam’s iniquity is far more convincing in 2002 than the proof of Hitler’s was in, say, 1939.

Hitler’s evil was sui generis, it was unique, it was a hapax legomenon in the story of mankind. But Stalin’s evil was unique too. As were Castro’s and Idi Amin’s and those of a thousand other monsters over the course of history. History is about context. If Hitler were alive today we could stop him in his tracks, because we have the technology to stop Hitlers in their tracks without dropping millions of men on the shores of Europe. If Hitler had been alive a thousand years ago, he could never have exterminated millions because he wouldn’t have had the technology — the Zyklon B, the trucks, the bullets, etc. — to make such things possible and he could never have invaded his neighbors with tanks.

Oh, sure, the comparisons between the men do reveal some interesting things. Saddam’s ambitions are very similar to Hitler’s, after all. The Baathists see the destiny of Arabs in very similar terms as the Nazis understood the destiny of Aryans. Saddam uses the Palestinians the way Hitler used the Sudeten Germans. Saddam sees hostile domestic populations as little more than vermin. But this isn’t a contest to see who can do the best impersonation of Hitler (and, besides, Saddam is a much bigger admirer of Stalin).

Hitler’s crimes were unique not so much because he was a uniquely monstrous man — he was, after all, a man — but rather because his circumstances allowed him to do uniquely monstrous things. Those circumstances will never repeat themselves in the same way again, and if we sit around waiting for the world to look like it did in 1939, we will wait forever. The circumstances of today are unique too, and they will never be repeated again either. And if we wait forever, Saddam will certainly do his best to replace Hitler in our imaginations as the gold standard in questions of evil.


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