Investigative journalism can be an honourable trade. In this book the author, a journalist and travel writer, investigates the life of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, Kamel Sachet, in order to shed light on the other Iraq: that lived by a prosperous army family before the invasion of 2003. The title might suggest a Christian perspective; actually, it is a quote from the Koran, chapter 21, verse 47. In this context the “mustard seed” represents the critical balance between a man’s good and bad deeds on the Day of Judgement.

General Sachet was born in 1947 from a humble background. He joined the police in 1975 and then the army; swiftly promoted to the Special Forces he distinguished himself as a brave commander during the long Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Later, he was in charge of the army during the first Gulf War. Then, wishing to distance himself from the regime in charge of his country, he took early retirement to tend his farm. Later, he was briefly recalled by Saddam Hussein to become Governor of Maysan Province. Finally – and inevitably – he fell foul of the President’s magic circle, was arrested and executed at Abu Ghraib prison in December 1998.

The chief problem of the book, therefore, is that Steavenson never met her subject before his death, and so she must rely on interviews with others who did know him. Such people, now living in exile but still bearing the psychological wounds of their earlier lives and careers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, tend to equivocate, prevaricate, justify themselves and offer selective accounts. The author recognises the difficulty and states, “Ultimately, the veracity of the stories has been my own judgment.” She is both perceptive and persistent and thus certain fixed contours of Sachet’s character emerge: he was evidently a soldier’s soldier, modest, brave, disciplined, pious and just. I concluded on her evidence that he had been an Iraqi version of Hitler’s general, Rommel; this surmise was corroborated when I read the author’s interview with an exiled general now living in Jordan: “Kamel Sachet was a simple man, he was like Rommel – but Hitler was cleverer to make Rommel commit suicide!”

Steavenson’s underlying question is, how can a man be successful yet remain honourable and morally uncorrupted by Saddam’s regime? The simple answer is he couldn’t; he either swiftly becomes a victim himself or becomes complicit with what is going on, indirectly if not directly. Fear is a great silencer of conscience and the later years of Saddam’s regime were dominated by fear and its symptoms: paranoia, stress, tension, physical illness. One of the interviewees, Dr Hassan al-Qadani, a military psychiatrist, had briefly shared a cell with Sachet in the 1980s. He had joined the Baath Party in order to get army sponsorship to pay for his medical studies and pointed out to the author that when Saddam became President in 1979 there were initial signs of hope: a move to eradicate illiteracy, to build schools, to send graduates abroad to study, to advance the status of women.

According to Hassan, the war with Iran slowly changed all this. His views were supported by a friend and colleague, Dr Laith, who told the author that the 1980s signalled “the descent” of the country into outright tyranny. “I could not say anything or they would cut my neck,” he adds. Such self-justification echoes throughout this book; it is easy to judge such a plea while living in the more benign West. Tellingly, Laith comments, “There are two kinds of Iraqi officers: those who carry out orders, then go home and pray; those who obey orders, then go home and drink half a bottle of whisky.”

General Sachet falls into the former category. There is no evidence that he was directly involved in Saddam’s atrocities, but he would have known of them. He also became more devout, reading the Koran and committing it to memory, praying five times a day, insisting his wife and daughters wear the hijab and building mosques with his own money. Another interviewee, Sheikh Adnan al Janabi, the head of Sachet’s tribe, tells Steavenson that Sachet needed his Muslim faith to hang on to “as he tried to navigate his moral compass in a corrupt state in which he was an important person.”

The end – as it was with Rommel – was tragic. According to an eyewitness, the General was blindfolded, bundled into a car, taken to waste ground within the prison’s perimeter, then shot by firing squad. He stood straight and erect, his last words being “I have done nothing wrong. But we come from God and we return to God.” The book has been very well researched under the difficult circumstances of the current chaos. It does provide an insight into the pressures facing a fundamentally decent man when the evil surrounding him is often subtle, disguised and concealed; and it is a thoughtful reminder of Acton’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely, tarnishing everything it touches, good men as well as bad.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.