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August 1, 2011

'The war will never end': Saddam's regime in Hoover Institution archives

Millions of documents at Stanford give us an unprecedented view of the inside workings of an authoritarian regime – and how the Baath Party became a bloated bureaucracy, fed by an unending atmosphere of war.

By Cynthia Haven

The Hoover Institution's collection on Saddam Hussein's Baath Party arrived at Stanford in 2008. 

"I thought when the war started that it would end in a month, then two months, then three," said the Iraqi soldier conscripted in 1984. "Then I was convinced that it would end before I graduated from college. But when I became a soldier, I thought the war would never end."

For the Iraqis, the war still hasn't ended. "War is the new norm," said Dina Khoury of George Washington University, speaking to a small group of scholars last week at the ninth Hoover Archives Summer Workshop. Khoury's research delves into Hoover's enormous Iraq holdings, recovered upon the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. 

The soldier's lament, included in her talk, "underscores the success of the regime and the ruling Baath Party in normalizing the war, making it part of the everyday existence of its citizens."

The institution's collection on the Baath Party, which arrived at Stanford in 2008, includes nearly 11 million digitized pages and 108 video files. Hoover holdings on Iraq comprise 15 collections, of which the Baath Party collection is the largest. (Another big collection includes video recordings of 190 survivors of Baath Party repressions.)

Altogether, it may be the largest publicly accessible archive of documents collected from an authoritarian regime.

While it's not Hoover's most widely trafficked collection, "the people who are involved with it are heavily involved in it," said Richard Sousa, director of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives. "They work on it intensively, for weeks at a time, which is a little unusual. Intensity is very, very high."

Khoury is one of several researchers poring over the documents – Lisa Blaydes is another.

Blaydes, assistant professor of political science at Stanford and author of this year's Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak's Egypt (Cambridge University Press), studies the "dynamics of authoritarianism."

While Khoury, a Lebanese scholar reared in Kuwait, takes a historian's perspective, Blaydes has a different methodological approach to Iraq. "I'm working more from a data analytic perspective," she said. "I'm trying to create a quantitative mapping of the regime, almost a census, of how repression, co-optation and collaboration maps onto space."

Unlike most of the workshop participants, Blaydes has the good luck to be on-site at Stanford: "It's fortunate I'm here and can draw on resources of the Hoover Institution to create data sets that might allow us to better understand authoritarian regimes."

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist and former Hoover media fellow, was a prime mover in Stanford acquiring the collection, which had been gathered by the Iraq Memory Foundation. She recommended its acquisition in 2004, calling Hoover "ideally placed" for the move, given the institution's "longstanding interest in the history of totalitarianism."

"Part of the reason the collection made it here is I valued Anne's recommendation and assessment," said Sousa.

Applebaum, at the archives for her own research on Eastern Europe and to participate in the workshop, is enthusiastic: "The range and quantity of the material at Hoover is really astonishing, and compares almost to nothing else."

From ideology to bloated bureaucracy

It will take years to fully assess what the archives reveal, but Khoury's early reading shows a political party that expanded and eventually overextended its reach, in an effort to "transform war into a way of governing, a set of techniques to educate, reward, discipline, count and survey its population on what it dubbed the 'internal' front."

The party ballooned from an ideological political organization to a bloated bureaucracy that handed out pensions, fostered a climate of repression and intimidation and created a culture of martyrdom.

The endless war allowed that to happen. "When the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003, Iraqis had been living war and its consequences for 23 years," Khoury said.

The Iran-Iraq war was "the longest sustained military engagement between two nation states in the 20th century," said Khoury. Two years after the ceasefire, Saddam Hussein "made the disastrous decision" to invade Kuwait, resulting in a coalition of 28 countries launching a 45-day bombing campaign, which in turn led to tens of thousands of deaths.

The Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war resulted in the deaths of about 620,000 men in a population of about 20 million – "that is about 3.2 percent of the population, one of the highest death rates of combatants in any war in the 20th century," said Khoury.

Afterward, the United Nations imposed "the most comprehensive embargo ever imposed on a nation," with periodic bombing by the United States and Britain.

The Baath Party issued a steady stream of paperwork on everything from disbursement of funds to soldiers and the families of "martyrs" to compensation for disabled veterans and death certificates for the killed.  It determined students' eligibility for education. It monitored dissent, desertion and security "in the widest definition of the term," said Khory. It even inducted martyrs into the party posthumously.

The party was not only responding to social needs and security issues, it also was running counterinsurgency campaigns against Kurds in the north and Shiite populations in southeastern Iraq.

Although it had been a clandestine organization until 1968, its fortunes mushroomed much faster than the Communist Party's had in the early days of the Soviet Union – all thanks to the atmosphere of unending war.

Martyrs and deserters

As it continued to grow, Khoury said, the Baath Party's combined roles as a social and security apparatus caused it to "conflate political dissent with desertion" by the mid-1980s.

Deserters presented a counterweight to the Baathist ideology of martyrdom, representing "the gravest of political and social threats;" 67,500 deserters were listed in a regional report that covered a three-year period in the mid-1980s.

For the Baath Party, according to one report, "the apprehension and execution of deserters figures as one of the major achievements."

The party was eventually exempted from any legal accountability for harm or loss of property by citizens.

In a political sense, its hubris became its downfall. In 1991, a massive uprising targeted party offices and executed party cadres. The report from the party's general secretariat "was critical and telling," said Khoury. "Its ideological core had dissipated, it lacked committed cadres, and those that remained were more concerned with matters of private gain."

The Hoover Archives Summer Workshop attracts top scholars nationally and internationally every year. According to Paul Gregory, its director, "We still do not really know what is in the Hoover library and archives. The researchers find the nuggets that are there." 



Dina Khoury, Hoover Summer Workshop: (703) 864-9949,

Paul Gregory, Hoover Summer Workshop: (650) 498-9636,

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

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