The Washington Post Column

Fighting For a Tyrant

Although nearly 10 years have passed since the death of the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung — father of the current North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il — the photographs of his people in mourning are still hard to forget. In particular, the television footage of a woman crying in the streets of Pyongyang remains lodged in my memory. For she was not merely crying: She was wailing, moaning, convulsing — and there was nothing contrived about her agony. On the contrary, the death of the man who built concentration camps for hundreds of thousands of her countrymen caused her to feel an emotion so powerful that she seemed oblivious to the cameras.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had occasion to think of the crying woman a great deal. Once again we are watching a nation (or at least a part of it) rise up to fight on behalf of a cruel dictator. The Russians fought for Stalin, the Germans fought for Hitler, the North Koreans fought for Kim Il Sung. The only surprise about the Iraqis fighting for Saddam Hussein is that anyone is surprised. Throughout the 20th century, people felt deep emotional attachment to totalitarian leaders and fought hard for totalitarian regimes. There isn’t any particular reason to think they won’t go on doing so in the 21st.

The motivations of the Red Army or the Wehrmacht were not simple, however, and the motivations of the Fedayeen, the Republican Guard and the Iraqi irregulars with sniper rifles are probably not simple either. It is true, of course, that some, maybe most, are fighting because they are forced to fight. At the battle of Stalingrad, Soviet soldiers fought bitterly, desperately, street by street and house by house, knowing that they would probably die in battle, but that they would also die if they failed to fight. The political commissars just behind the front lines shot doubters and deserters and arrested any “traitors” who managed to escape German captivity. I thought of Stalingrad last week while listening to an American Marine describe a group of Fedayeen who had attacked his convoy. The Iraqis started shooting; the Americans returned fire, killing most of them. But rather than surrender in the face of superior weaponry, the surviving Iraqis stood up and began shooting again, before being killed themselves. Yes, their efforts were suicidal — but did they have a choice?

Not everyone will need to be forced either. Although we sometimes talk as if Hussein were ruling in evil isolation, Iraq, like its Warsaw Pact predecessors, is actually run by a network of men and women. In Ceausescu’s Romania, some 10 to 25 percent of the population worked for the secret police, and there is no reason to think the proportion in Iraq is any lower. More important, even those who are not actual agents are forced, in such societies, to collaborate. Anyone who wants to get ahead in his career has to join the Baath Party, or attend demonstrations, or wave the flag in public. Few have a clear conscience. As a result, people might not like the regime much, but they do have a powerful stake in it, and they may feel extremely uncomfortable, if not actually terrified, about what will happen to them when it falls.

Finally, centralized state propaganda always has an impact. Obviously, it restricts what people know about the regime that rules them. Less obviously, it also affects their receptiveness to new information. People who have heard only one set of demonstrably untrue slogans all their lives (“Life is getting better, merrier” was the Stalinist version) tend to be suspicious of any sort of promise from anyone else. After the collapse of communism, Western advertising agencies rushed gleefully into Russia, only to find that the Russians were instantly and overwhelmingly suspicious of commercial slogans, which they assumed were lies, like all the other lies they’d heard. By the same token, it’s unlikely many Iraqis will immediately believe that American troops intend to “liberate” them. They’ve simply heard too many false promises before.

None of this will necessarily prevent American troops from occupying Iraq. Yet no one should expect the subsequent transformation to proceed without glitches either, even after the war ends. It is difficult to get most people to admit that everything about their lives needs to be changed, even if change is theoretically for the better. Given the choice, most people prefer to stick with what they know, as the history of the transformation of other totalitarian societies shows. There will be some joy when Saddam Hussein is deposed, as well as much fear about the future. Expect tears as well.