What does the execution of Saddam Hussein mean to the public?
What has the execution of captured national leaders meant in the past?
Vercingetorix was the leader of the Celtic revolt against Roman rule in Gaul. He was taken captive by Julius Caesar after the Gallic defeat in the Battle of Alesia (in eastern France) in 52 BC, and spent the next six years in chains and publicly displayed as a war trophy. In 46 BC, he was taken from his cell and marched through the streets of Rome during a procession honoring Caesar, and then publicly executed by strangulation. Gaius Julius Caesar himself would only live another two years, for he was executed by a group of assassins with hand knives in 44 BC.
The overt US military involvement in World War II lasted three years and eight months, from early December 1941 to early August 1945. The war crimes tribunals of German (at Nuremberg) and Japanese (at Tokyo and Manila) political and military leaders occurred during 1945 to 1949. The major German war criminals were executed on October 16, 1946 -- 10 hangings within 3.5 hours. Seven major Japanese war criminals were executed by hanging on December 23, 1948.
What can we say to characterize the executions cited? Consider these four possibilities:
1. In some cases, a degree of justice and some recognition of historical "lessons" came about as a result of the trials and punishment of war criminals.
2. Such executions are triumphal rituals by a victorious power elite lording it over the defeated.
3. These executions are political theater for the masses, to distract them from their many sacrifices -- especially through wars -- to the power elite.
4. They are used by the power elite to remove discarded members of their own class who are now political liabilities.
The current Iraq War broke out in March 2003 and has lasted three years and eight months (like WWII). Victory in the form of a compliant Iraqi population and easy extraction of Iraqi natural resources -- oil -- has been elusive, so we have been presented with gestures of power: a string of "hits" on named "terrorists" leading up to the biggest show of this type, the execution of Saddam Hussein.
Saddam's execution was a triumphal ritual by US power against an occupied -- though still unconquered -- Iraqi people, it was the political decapitation of the former Iraqi elite, a demonstration intended to show Iraqi subjugation to Western power. But, the abysmal failure by the US managers of the Iraq War has undercut any propaganda value Saddam's execution might have had with the Iraqi public.
Beyond its use as political theater for the masses, Saddam's execution was a spasm of pleasurable barbarism within the international club of the leadership class, a triumphal ritual by a victorious elite against a defeated adversary of its own class. It was an orgasm of power that aspired to be both primal and stylized like the delivery of the coup de grace -- whether by a cat biting through the neck of its prey, or a lieutenant firing his pistol into the temple of one dispatched by a firing squad -- but came off graceless and chaotic like the frenzy of a lynching.
Here, in the homeland of the would-be victors, Saddam's execution is used as another distraction for the public and the troops from their many sacrifices in paying for and manning this war by their elite.
And finally, Saddam's execution is a bit of necessary housekeeping by the managers of the war. It is the elimination of the possibility of damaging exposures by a former confederate. Donald Rumsfeld is not the only political operator who is relieved of any hazard of disclosures by Saddam.
Saddam's case makes it obvious what would be required to bring our un-indicted war criminals to justice. If Martians with vastly superior technology and military power invaded the Earth, as in H. G. Well's novel The War of the Worlds, and they set about reorganizing the United States because they knew themselves to be better able to allocate our natural resources and arrange our system of governance, what would be our proper response? Imagine they arrived in Flying Saucers indestructible even by our nuclear weapons, and they were armed with directed heat ray weapons of unearthly power. Imagine they saturated our radios and TVs with the message "We have come to liberate Earth from all warfare, to end all hunger, poverty and want, and to ensure humans live in harmony with Earth's natural conditions in a sustainable manner indefinitely." Then, imagine they put on war crimes trials of our political elite. What would our moral and patriotic duty be? To set off hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs) when Flying Saucer patrols passed through our neighborhoods? To fling rotting carcasses and produce at Alien Troopers, hoping to infect them with deadly-to-Martians Earth germs? To withstand the reprisals inflicted by searing heat rays vaporizing all in their path and yet continue resistance? Or would our duty be to make peace, to realize that warfare, mass killings and resistance were useless, that we should surrender to a greater power and accept our designated roles (and perhaps live in our designated reservations); and that we should implement the will of our new rulers including the prosecution and execution of our former Earthmen overlords? Who defines "duty," "honor" and "country?"
Saddam's execution was no victory for people outside the Washington D.C. imperial elite. There is no doubt that Saddam was guilty of great crimes, and any truly independent tribunal would have found him undeserving of retaining his liberty. A victory for the world public would have been a judgment requiring Saddam to reveal all the details of his career, during the course of a lifetime imprisonment. Historians and prosecutors in many countries would work from this record to winnow the truth from the lies, and to then enable the many agencies making up our international system of justice to pursue other perpetrators implicated in the tale.
The quick execution of Saddam Hussein is not simply "victor's justice," it is a demotion in a Mafia-style reorganization, the elimination of capo fallen from grace, to protect the power elite from any exposures that would threaten its control.
Manuel Garcia, Jr. is an engineering physicist and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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