In her editorial, Elizabeth Cole shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the aims of the Iraq Memory Foundation, headed by Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya. While she is right in asserting that “deciding on the ‘truth’ about the old regime will not be easy,” I can think of no better way to achieve this end than to create a comprehensive collection of the regime’s own documents, made accessible to all and thus open to interpretation and debate.
Cole points out that such an institution might downplay the truly dire consequences of years of Western sanctions on Iraq; in fact, however, the opposite could well be the case. The publicized documents will demonstrate the extent to which Saddam Hussein’s regime criminalized itself – even to the point of exploiting the embargo for private gain.
Cole also questions whether Makiya, “an exile backed by an occupying power,” is the right candidate for spearheading Iraq’s truth-seeking effort. True, those who stayed in Iraq through the long, grim years of the regime suffered the most; but this does not take away from the sufferings experienced by those forced into exile for their views.
In my opinion, no one anywhere has been more dedicated to casting light on the horrors of the Baathist regime than Kanan Makiya. Not only has he published extensively on this topic, beginning with his book Republic of Fear (1989), but he has also overseen the documentation of the Anfal, Saddam’s genocidal project against the Kurds.
Finally, I disagree with Cole’s assertion that Iraq might be better off focusing on the distant past in the early days of its reconstruction. Saddam made the distant past – in the form of his identification with ancient despots such as Nebuchadnezzar – a major feature of his regime’s propaganda. But even putting aside this legacy, I see no reason why Iraq should not do both – restore the looted Iraq National Museum while creating a new institution that documents the “chamber of horrors” that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While it remains unlikely that the countless victims of these horrors will ever receive a full measure of justice, some peace of mind could come simply from knowing that the records of their sufferings have been preserved and that the perpetrators have been exposed.
Jeffrey B. Spurr is the Cataloger for Islamic Art at the Fine Arts Library of the Harvard College Library. He is serving on two committees that were recently established to address the plight of Iraqi libraries and archives.