2008 Non Fiction

The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed attempts to discover why ordinary people were driven to commit evil acts under the orders of Saddam Hussein. The author,  Wendell Steavenson, is a journalist who travelled to Iraq many times between 2002 and 2005 interviewing the friends and family of General Kamel Sachet; a decorated hero of the Iran-Iraq war and a man favoured by Saddam Hussein. She tried to discover what motivated Sachet and his colleagues and how his actions affected his family.  

The book is a fascinating insight into the lives of both ordinary Iraqis and members of the military. All the people were brought to life and I found myself having great sympathy for everyone in the book, despite the horrendous acts many of them committed. Wendell’s ability to make me see things from their perspective was impressive.

‘You chose to be a part of it,’ I told him. ‘You could have resigned, you could have gone to live in the country like your cousin.’
‘One of my American debriefers asked me the same question. He asked me why I continued to fight against the Americans. I told him it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. It’s hard for you to understand, but it was a matter of military honour, being part of a country and within that comes your loyalty to your high command.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed was very readable and although there were some descriptions of violence I never felt that it went over the top. The modern history of Iraq was well described, although as the book wasn’t written in chronological order I got a bit confused occasionally.

The book contained many examples of psychological experiments which explained why people behave as they do under the pressure of war. Unfortunately I was already aware of all of these and so these sections were irrelevant for me. If you are interested in finding out about them then some of the experiments are summarised in this post: The Ten Most Revealing Psych Experiments

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the psychology of war, but if you have read a lot of books on the subject you may find it too basic.

Everyone seemed to enjoy this one:

…one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Savidge Reads

…an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Novel Insights

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account… Reading Matters


19 replies on “The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson”

Thanks for an interesting review Jackie. This is not a book for me though. Hopefully this doesn’t come out the wrong way, but I am simply “only” interested in the Iraq-conflict from a “political” point of view, I have no wish reading books about it at all. Sounds like I am trying to ignore the way the world turns or turning a blind eye, but I am not. Just don’t need to read books about it.

Have a great weekend.

Louise, I’m not really interested in politics, but I think the politics of Iraq might be an exception – let me know if you find any interesting books on the subject 🙂

an interesating idea what makes people do things ,they don’t always seem like horrors by the people caught up in the acts , but in retrospective they can have a totally different view ,stu

The psychology of such situations is fascinating but I’m not sure how eager I am to read yet another book dealing with it – every war seems to spawn such tomes, none more so that WWII, and I feel like you rarely find any new information or insight. However, all the reviews I’ve seen thus far have been overwhelmingly positive so I probably will give it a try eventually.

Claire, Exactly. WWII has spawned lots of these books and I have read quite a few! It was interesting to read about a different war for once, but really there isn’t much difference between them. It sounds as though this one might not be for you.

Andreea, I try not to read too many war books in a row, but they do seem to bring out the best and worse in a population, making for fascinating stories.

I’ve read many books about war, but I’ve always found the effects and other details interesting. It is such a study of human nature at its very worst.

Sandy, I find the effects interesting too. I think you’ve probably read too many of these books to find this one special, but I’m sure you’d get something from it.

This sounds like an incredible book. Always important to understand why people do the things they do and that just by being on the other side doesn’t make them automatically evil. Everyone has reasons for doing what they do.

Amy, I did think it was strange to be sympahising with Saddam, but there are two sides to every story and I liked finding out a little bit about the people we demonise in this country.

It is important to understand why people do the things they do in certain situations, but like you I have read a bit on the subject so I’m not sure if this would be the book for me.

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