Zarqawi and the Company of Blood

There are two distinct types that end up on top after a revolutionary—insurgency victory: intellectuals who can double as men of action, and thugs. 

The first —— the thinkers who can handle themselves in a brawl —— are typified by Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini. The second, the street thugs who see their opportunities and take them, can be represented by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Abu Musab al—Zarqawi.

Lenin is the prototype of the intellectual revo. Nobody who saw him yakking with his fellow exiles in the Zurich cafés would have believed him to be the man who would turn Imperial Russia inside out. But somebody on the German general staff guessed as much (it would be nice to know who — it seems too imaginative a gesture for Ludendorf or Hindenberg), and arranged his passage back to Russia 'In a sealed train like a plague bacillus,' in Churchill's words.

Lenin did not disappoint the Germans. He threw himself into his task from the moment of  his arrival at the Finland Station, carrying on even while being hunted by the provisional government, even when it seemed all hope was lost, until the moment when, through incompetence, circumstances, and sheer luck, the reins of empire were thrust into his hands. 

Nor did he rest then. He flayed Russia in a way no nation in history had been flayed up to that time. The first million victims of the Revolution died under Lenin. The prototype concentration camps were set up. The Cheka, which was to become infamous under the initials GPU, NKVD, and KGB, was organized at his command. No sign of the café talker was visible in the figure that bestrode the new Russia.

Mussolini adapted both Lenin and his revolution as models, adding a few touches — a large portion of nationalism, underlined by the military uniforms he came to love in the WW I trenches. While Il Duce seems the most brutish of the successful collectivist tyrants, his status as an intellectual is not in doubt. For years he edited Avanti, the most widely—read Socialist newspaper in Europe, along with being a novelist and playwright. 

He was, in truth, far more an intellectual than Hitler. Though he fancied himself a deep thinker, Hitler's interests were trash on the level of Houston Stewart Chamberlain's anti—Semitism and Dietrich Eckhart's occultism.  Hitler had all the traits of the autodidact — a weird mélange of knowledge and opinion, disdain for actual expertise, egotistical confidence in his own abilities. Intellect does not explain Hitler's rise as much as charm and charisma.

Not that he was unintelligent — he had a razor—sharp mind packed with information, and was often able to embarrass experts by bringing up trivia from within their own fields. (He also enjoyed out—thinking experts in minor but crucial ways — according to Werner von Braun, it was Hitler who pointed out that the V—2 missile would be traveling too fast for ordinary fuses to work, causing them to be placed behind the warhead.)

There were others — Mao, who spent the Long March reading while being carried in a covered hammock, and Pol Pot, who turned on his own class more savagely than any man before or since. 'If I wanted to punish a province,' Frederick the Great once said. 'I would turn it over to men of letters.' Pol Pot proved that statement for all time to come.

As for the hard boys, the first was the most impressive. Stalin started out as a heavy for the Bolsheviks, carrying out bank robberies for funding purposes, and perhaps the occasional hit as well. According to his biographer H. Montgomery Hyde, he acted as an informant for the Okhrana, the Czar's secret police, which also fits the criminal mold.

After the Revolution, he remained in the background while others posed and postured. He toiled within the bureaucracy, putting his own men in crucial positions, so that when Lenin died, he was able to slip into the big chair before anyone had time to so much as protest.

Trotsky may have been the most talented of the Bolsheviks — certainly no one else could have acted as he did in putting together the Red Army under conditions of unbelievable pressure and danger. But Trotsky couldn't outwit Stalin. He was never even certain what game was being played. As the late Sovietologist Adam Ulam put it,

'Understanding Soviet politics is not accomplished by studying political science, but the Chicago of Capone and O'Bannion.'

Stalin knew that in his bones. Trotsky didn't, and he was the one to take the train into exile.

It wasn't until 1934, ten years after Lenin's death, that Stalin at last threw away the mask. He began with Kirov, handsome, capable, and admired, and moved on to the others: Bukharin, Ordzhonekidze, Zinoviev, Kamenev, taking them down one after the other in a slaughter that would have left Capone or Lepke gaping. When he was finished, and surrounded only by terrified yes—men, he turned on the country at large. The consequences afflict Russia to this day. They will continue to do so until long after we are dead.

Saddam might have patterned himself directly after Stalin. (It's true that Saddam likes to play the role of poet... well, one of his 'poems' is appended at the close of this piece.) He was, if anything, even more ferocious, spending his early Ba'athist years as a kick—in—the—door—with—pistol—blazing assassin who would have felt right at home in 1920s Chicago of the movies.

Saddam made his bones early and often, did his time without saying a word, and when he took power — as first among equals, much the same way Stalin did — he was one of the hardest men in a region legendary for hard men. Perhaps he didn't cut as big a swath in Iraq as his model did in the USSR, but it wasn't for want of trying. His regime had a peculiar run of tragedies involving helicopters — they blew up without warning, always while carrying one of his right—hand men. Legend has it that Hosni Mubharak, himself no wilting violet, took Hussein aside at a meeting of the Arab League to tell him, 'Saddam, please — no more helicopters.'

No one ever spoke up for the people of the village of Dujail, where Hussein shot boys as young as twelve after an assassination attempt. Or Halabja, the Hiroshima of chemical warfare, where 5,000 people died in a few hours to ease Hussein's worried mind. Or those still lying in mass graves scattered alongside the twin rivers. A minimum of 600,000 dead, who somehow fail to come up when 'reasons' are debated.

There's little question which of these molds Zarqawi fits. With him, it's not a matter of how many books he's written, but whether he's ever read one. 

Zarqawi grew up the son of a poor Palestinian family in Jordan. We're told that he was obsessed with the squalid, ill—kept cemetery across the street from his home. In his teens he abandoned Islam for a life of drinking and petty theft. He was so heavily tattooed that he was nicknamed 'the Green Man'. His father was regularly called to the local police station to bring him home. Eventually his activities merited serious jail time. There he exhibited another trait common to street hoods: self—pity. His jailmates of the time recall him weeping in his bunk.

Zarqawi is probably the most vicious of any of his kind. Hitler enjoyed the thought of bloodshed. Stalin took great pleasure in maneuvering his perceived enemies into the abyss. But both kept an arm's—length distance between themselves and the actual killing. Even Saddam carried out his murders at the span of a pistol shot. But if the stories of Zarqawi personally presiding over beheadings are true, then he was a new phenomenon: the psychopath as revolutionary.

Despite the steady drumbeat of awe in the Western media over his prowess and abilities, Zarqawi has never exhibited any real mastery of the art of war. His tactics have embraced terror as the goal rather than means, the targets including children, women, worshipers in mosques, funeral processions, each atrocity topped with a greater until all impact was lost amid a wash of blood. His only real skill was the ability to manipulate the media, no great accomplishment — no third—world rebel has failed at it yet.

But his biggest mistake lay in moving too soon. His predecessors possessed the virtue of patience, assuring that power was firmly in their grasp before moving against enemies and associates. Stalin, as we have seen, waited an entire decade. But Zarqawi turned on his allies even as the Coalition was stalking him across Iraq. In the summer of 2005 he killed at least four Sunni sheiks along with dozens of others in Anbar province, in the process turning entire tribes against him. Then in November he blew up three Jordanian hotels, an attack that with the perspective of time looks more and more like a desperation move. We know no details; it's possible these moves were thrust on him by circumstances. But a rebel in large part creates his own circumstances, and it's impossible to look upon any of these actions as anything but fiascos.

The result might have been foreordained: in January Zarqawi was mustered out of the insurgency leadership by the Mujahideen Shura Council, his own Al—Queda in Iraq evidently removed from his hands, his role limited to carrying out attacks and nothing else. Quite a bringdown for the man out to found the next caliphate.

Zarqawi has become something we have little experience of: a failed political thug. The intellectual could fail and recover, as Hitler did after his aborted 1923 Munich putsch.

But a career criminal, a man making his play through brutality and violence, simply lacks the resources. The revolutionary thug operates by means of unremitting savagery. Let him once back down, and his image is ruined, with nothing to replace it. 

Both the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Coalition Headquarters have dismissed Zarqawi as a spent force. The Coalition went even farther, embarrassing him with humiliating video footage discovered during a raid. The footage was released at exactly the right moment to undercut whatever followers Zarqawi has left. Imagine if Hitler had been publicly embarrassed at the time of his putsch trial. (Sidney Reilly, the famed Ace of Spies, intended something similar following his abortive coup against the Bolsheviks. Afterward he planned to 'march Lenin and Trotsky through the streets' in their underwear.)

Why didn't the council kill Zarqawi outright? Such a move is usually advisable with revolutionary thugs, if only to avoid a backlash. Perhaps there was some sense of residual fear, or respect for Osama bin Laden and the international organization. Perhaps they're simply squeezing what they can out of him before turning him into a martyr.

Most likely, someone related or allied to one of the murdered sheiks will finish the job. Someone close, someone he trusts, as much as he can trust anyone. The Arabs are very capable at that kind of thing.

Whatever the case, Zarqawi's collapse can be viewed as nothing less than a victory. He was supposed to be Al—Queda's man on horseback, the man who would be caliph. Now he's little more than a fugitive, waiting for the blow to fall. Zarqawi's fate is a clear indication that the tide has turned. The endgame in Iraq may have already begun. 

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.

There are two distinct types that end up on top after a revolutionary—insurgency victory: intellectuals who can double as men of action, and thugs. 

The first —— the thinkers who can handle themselves in a brawl —— are typified by Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini. The second, the street thugs who see their opportunities and take them, can be represented by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Abu Musab al—Zarqawi.

Lenin is the prototype of the intellectual revo. Nobody who saw him yakking with his fellow exiles in the Zurich cafés would have believed him to be the man who would turn Imperial Russia inside out. But somebody on the German general staff guessed as much (it would be nice to know who — it seems too imaginative a gesture for Ludendorf or Hindenberg), and arranged his passage back to Russia 'In a sealed train like a plague bacillus,' in Churchill's words.

Lenin did not disappoint the Germans. He threw himself into his task from the moment of  his arrival at the Finland Station, carrying on even while being hunted by the provisional government, even when it seemed all hope was lost, until the moment when, through incompetence, circumstances, and sheer luck, the reins of empire were thrust into his hands. 

Nor did he rest then. He flayed Russia in a way no nation in history had been flayed up to that time. The first million victims of the Revolution died under Lenin. The prototype concentration camps were set up. The Cheka, which was to become infamous under the initials GPU, NKVD, and KGB, was organized at his command. No sign of the café talker was visible in the figure that bestrode the new Russia.

Mussolini adapted both Lenin and his revolution as models, adding a few touches — a large portion of nationalism, underlined by the military uniforms he came to love in the WW I trenches. While Il Duce seems the most brutish of the successful collectivist tyrants, his status as an intellectual is not in doubt. For years he edited Avanti, the most widely—read Socialist newspaper in Europe, along with being a novelist and playwright. 

He was, in truth, far more an intellectual than Hitler. Though he fancied himself a deep thinker, Hitler's interests were trash on the level of Houston Stewart Chamberlain's anti—Semitism and Dietrich Eckhart's occultism.  Hitler had all the traits of the autodidact — a weird mélange of knowledge and opinion, disdain for actual expertise, egotistical confidence in his own abilities. Intellect does not explain Hitler's rise as much as charm and charisma.

Not that he was unintelligent — he had a razor—sharp mind packed with information, and was often able to embarrass experts by bringing up trivia from within their own fields. (He also enjoyed out—thinking experts in minor but crucial ways — according to Werner von Braun, it was Hitler who pointed out that the V—2 missile would be traveling too fast for ordinary fuses to work, causing them to be placed behind the warhead.)

There were others — Mao, who spent the Long March reading while being carried in a covered hammock, and Pol Pot, who turned on his own class more savagely than any man before or since. 'If I wanted to punish a province,' Frederick the Great once said. 'I would turn it over to men of letters.' Pol Pot proved that statement for all time to come.

As for the hard boys, the first was the most impressive. Stalin started out as a heavy for the Bolsheviks, carrying out bank robberies for funding purposes, and perhaps the occasional hit as well. According to his biographer H. Montgomery Hyde, he acted as an informant for the Okhrana, the Czar's secret police, which also fits the criminal mold.

After the Revolution, he remained in the background while others posed and postured. He toiled within the bureaucracy, putting his own men in crucial positions, so that when Lenin died, he was able to slip into the big chair before anyone had time to so much as protest.

Trotsky may have been the most talented of the Bolsheviks — certainly no one else could have acted as he did in putting together the Red Army under conditions of unbelievable pressure and danger. But Trotsky couldn't outwit Stalin. He was never even certain what game was being played. As the late Sovietologist Adam Ulam put it,

'Understanding Soviet politics is not accomplished by studying political science, but the Chicago of Capone and O'Bannion.'

Stalin knew that in his bones. Trotsky didn't, and he was the one to take the train into exile.

It wasn't until 1934, ten years after Lenin's death, that Stalin at last threw away the mask. He began with Kirov, handsome, capable, and admired, and moved on to the others: Bukharin, Ordzhonekidze, Zinoviev, Kamenev, taking them down one after the other in a slaughter that would have left Capone or Lepke gaping. When he was finished, and surrounded only by terrified yes—men, he turned on the country at large. The consequences afflict Russia to this day. They will continue to do so until long after we are dead.

Saddam might have patterned himself directly after Stalin. (It's true that Saddam likes to play the role of poet... well, one of his 'poems' is appended at the close of this piece.) He was, if anything, even more ferocious, spending his early Ba'athist years as a kick—in—the—door—with—pistol—blazing assassin who would have felt right at home in 1920s Chicago of the movies.

Saddam made his bones early and often, did his time without saying a word, and when he took power — as first among equals, much the same way Stalin did — he was one of the hardest men in a region legendary for hard men. Perhaps he didn't cut as big a swath in Iraq as his model did in the USSR, but it wasn't for want of trying. His regime had a peculiar run of tragedies involving helicopters — they blew up without warning, always while carrying one of his right—hand men. Legend has it that Hosni Mubharak, himself no wilting violet, took Hussein aside at a meeting of the Arab League to tell him, 'Saddam, please — no more helicopters.'

No one ever spoke up for the people of the village of Dujail, where Hussein shot boys as young as twelve after an assassination attempt. Or Halabja, the Hiroshima of chemical warfare, where 5,000 people died in a few hours to ease Hussein's worried mind. Or those still lying in mass graves scattered alongside the twin rivers. A minimum of 600,000 dead, who somehow fail to come up when 'reasons' are debated.

There's little question which of these molds Zarqawi fits. With him, it's not a matter of how many books he's written, but whether he's ever read one. 

Zarqawi grew up the son of a poor Palestinian family in Jordan. We're told that he was obsessed with the squalid, ill—kept cemetery across the street from his home. In his teens he abandoned Islam for a life of drinking and petty theft. He was so heavily tattooed that he was nicknamed 'the Green Man'. His father was regularly called to the local police station to bring him home. Eventually his activities merited serious jail time. There he exhibited another trait common to street hoods: self—pity. His jailmates of the time recall him weeping in his bunk.

Zarqawi is probably the most vicious of any of his kind. Hitler enjoyed the thought of bloodshed. Stalin took great pleasure in maneuvering his perceived enemies into the abyss. But both kept an arm's—length distance between themselves and the actual killing. Even Saddam carried out his murders at the span of a pistol shot. But if the stories of Zarqawi personally presiding over beheadings are true, then he was a new phenomenon: the psychopath as revolutionary.

Despite the steady drumbeat of awe in the Western media over his prowess and abilities, Zarqawi has never exhibited any real mastery of the art of war. His tactics have embraced terror as the goal rather than means, the targets including children, women, worshipers in mosques, funeral processions, each atrocity topped with a greater until all impact was lost amid a wash of blood. His only real skill was the ability to manipulate the media, no great accomplishment — no third—world rebel has failed at it yet.

But his biggest mistake lay in moving too soon. His predecessors possessed the virtue of patience, assuring that power was firmly in their grasp before moving against enemies and associates. Stalin, as we have seen, waited an entire decade. But Zarqawi turned on his allies even as the Coalition was stalking him across Iraq. In the summer of 2005 he killed at least four Sunni sheiks along with dozens of others in Anbar province, in the process turning entire tribes against him. Then in November he blew up three Jordanian hotels, an attack that with the perspective of time looks more and more like a desperation move. We know no details; it's possible these moves were thrust on him by circumstances. But a rebel in large part creates his own circumstances, and it's impossible to look upon any of these actions as anything but fiascos.

The result might have been foreordained: in January Zarqawi was mustered out of the insurgency leadership by the Mujahideen Shura Council, his own Al—Queda in Iraq evidently removed from his hands, his role limited to carrying out attacks and nothing else. Quite a bringdown for the man out to found the next caliphate.

Zarqawi has become something we have little experience of: a failed political thug. The intellectual could fail and recover, as Hitler did after his aborted 1923 Munich putsch.

But a career criminal, a man making his play through brutality and violence, simply lacks the resources. The revolutionary thug operates by means of unremitting savagery. Let him once back down, and his image is ruined, with nothing to replace it. 

Both the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Coalition Headquarters have dismissed Zarqawi as a spent force. The Coalition went even farther, embarrassing him with humiliating video footage discovered during a raid. The footage was released at exactly the right moment to undercut whatever followers Zarqawi has left. Imagine if Hitler had been publicly embarrassed at the time of his putsch trial. (Sidney Reilly, the famed Ace of Spies, intended something similar following his abortive coup against the Bolsheviks. Afterward he planned to 'march Lenin and Trotsky through the streets' in their underwear.)

Why didn't the council kill Zarqawi outright? Such a move is usually advisable with revolutionary thugs, if only to avoid a backlash. Perhaps there was some sense of residual fear, or respect for Osama bin Laden and the international organization. Perhaps they're simply squeezing what they can out of him before turning him into a martyr.

Most likely, someone related or allied to one of the murdered sheiks will finish the job. Someone close, someone he trusts, as much as he can trust anyone. The Arabs are very capable at that kind of thing.

Whatever the case, Zarqawi's collapse can be viewed as nothing less than a victory. He was supposed to be Al—Queda's man on horseback, the man who would be caliph. Now he's little more than a fugitive, waiting for the blow to fall. Zarqawi's fate is a clear indication that the tide has turned. The endgame in Iraq may have already begun. 

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.