Worse than Hitler
but not as bad as broccoli

January 24, 1991

Saddam . . . Saddam . . . never has an American president been so desperate to be on a first-name basis with someone he's at war with. Sure, there's a Saddam Hussein and a King Hussein, but no one's getting them confused. The king keeps a low profile these days; he'd just as soon be King Bob these days. Or King George, for that matter. The founding fathers had no choice but be on a first-name basis with King George III, but I'm sure they referred to him as "the Third" at formal gatherings.

I'm sure Abraham Lincoln never referred to Jefferson Davis as Jefferson, or even Jeff. I can't imagine Lincoln talking to the Confederate president and saying, "Jeff . . . this secession thing . . . can't do it. Read my lips . . . no taxation without emancipation."

LBJ never would've called Ho Chi Minh by his given name, even if he knew what it was. Ho or Minh -- it was all too confusing. LBJ would have been more comfortable calling him HCM. So would've JFK. They should've gotten together at LBJ's ranch for a BBQ, instead of waiting till '68 to hold peace talks in Paris. They would've understood each other, once they got past the formalities.

Perhaps that's what George Bush means by saying this won't be like Vietnam. We won't be so formal this time.

I don't think FDR ever called Hitler by his first name. Come to think of it, I don't think Eva Braun even called Hitler by his first name. It was probably always der Fuhrer around the bunker. I can't imagine Hitler ever having a nickname when he was young, except maybe a derisive der Tramp behind his back, but those wags probably vanished soon after Hitler took power.

Hitler didn't have a middle name, and that was probably a bitter point for him. As initials go, FDR and AH just weren't on equal footing. AH looks lousy on a handkerchief; it looks like an abbreviation for achoo! Stalin was called Uncle Joe, Mussolini was Benito the Builder, but Uncle Adolf and Adolf the Architect just didn't cut it. No wonder he was such an overachiever.

Hussein has enough things going on to make him feel insecure. He doesn't need George calling him by his first name, and mispronouncing it to boot. Maybe that's George's idea of psychological warfare; perhaps Bush is sending commando teams into Baghdad to sneak around corners and whisper "Saddam" at opportune moments, just to make Hussein feel vaguely uncomfortable.

It all goes back to George's experiences as head of the CIA during the Vietnam War, when Green Berets would conduct covert missions into Cambodia to spread tired old jokes about Ho Chi Minh's name. You don't exactly win hearts and minds by telling "Ho, ho, ho" jokes to people who've never heard of Santa Claus.

And you don't win hearts and minds my comparing people to Hitler. But at this point, George isn't trying to win hearts and minds; he's trying to win a war. And we're a nation that won World War II, so we can win anything, so long as we pretend it's World War II. We called Hitler "Hitler" all the time, and it worked; we won the war. If George keeps comparing Hussein to Hitler, we'll win this one, too.

It's a tough comparison. Most dictators seem rather pale compared to Hitler. He's the standard. Everyone else is just Brand X. Hussein must be flattered, if confused. He didn't annex Austria, the Sudetenland or Poland, just Kuwait. And Kuwait underwrote the whole operation by giving Iraq huge sums of money beforehand. Not even France would have given Germany money. I mean, one of Germany's beefs was how much money it had to pay France. You didn't see Poland or Czechoslovakia sending aid to Germany to limit Soviet expansionism.

George might've, though, maybe even as a way to limit Spanish expansionism. Amidst all these news accounts of Scuds and MiGs and Mirages, you don't hear much about the American weaponry sent to Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Two years ago, the U.S. was arming Iraq as a buffer against Islamic fundamentalism. Hussein represented the alternative -- Islamic nationalism tempered with Stalinism. It was a kinder, gentler oppression.

Two years ago, Iraq used chemical weapons and it was OK with us. The people getting gassed were just Kurds, after all. What's a little genocide between friends? Then the Iraqis sank the Stark . But, after all, the Japanese sank plenty of our ships during World War II (which we won, by the way), and we're the best of friends now, so we let it pass. Nothing like a little ship-sinking to build ties of friendship between nations.

Hussein, we're told, wasn't as bad as Khomeini but now he's worse than Hitler. This raises the question of what George thought of Hitler during World War II (which was not like Vietnam, by the way). Worse than Mussolini, but not as bad as FDR.

© 1991 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on January 24, 1991