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Catching Saddam Hussein in His Own Social Web

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 22 2010

Slate's Chris Wilson lays out underreported story of the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, mapped against what Wilson calls "the same theories that underpin Facebook." The implicit lesson is that organization hierarchies aren't always the best representation of how power is constructed in a society, all the more so when the society in question is a tribal one like Iraq's. (Though the same can be true in a less tribal culture, like the U.S. Witness, to pick one example, Andrew Jackson's so-called Kitchen Cabinet, made up of old political friends, a few sympathetic reporters, and a man whom Jackson had picked up along the way and came to treat as his son, even favoring him, in both the White House's business and living quarters, over his own biological child.) In other words, even dictators -- or maybe it's especially dictators -- are part of a vast web of humanity.

Here's Wilson on the Facebook-ish map of connections that helped track down Hussein:

This chart would become a social network diagram of the bad guys in Tikrit. The lines connecting their faces delineated who belonged to which of several influential families, how those families were intertwined by marriage, and who among them connected directly to Saddam Hussein. As Desert Scorpion continued over the next several months, the diagrams ballooned into sprawling networks. They showed no explicit hierarchy since none existed. Unlike in a traditional organizational chart, The Butcher of Baghdad was not at the top of this diagram. He was at the center, a yellow dot labeled "Saddam Hussein."

Maybe it's just this old anthropology major talking, there's a great deal of plain ol' ethnography at work here. From colonial Africa to modern Iraq, military powers and conquering forces have mapped out the social entanglements of the leaders and influencers in the lands of their engagement. (That, though, has gotten the U.S. Army and participating anthropologists caught up in some controversy over whether social science is impermissibly corrupted when it's used to assert control over the targeted population. Somewhat paradoxically, those arguments seem less two-sided when social mapping can help soldiers hunt down somewhat like Saddam Hussein. But I digress.)

Wilson's series is a five-parter, with the four remaining installments to come.