I received this book for free from NetGalley, Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper
Published by Simon and Schuster on June 6th 2017
Genres: History, Middle East, General, United States, 21st Century, Biography & Autobiography, Criminals & Outlaws
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: NetGalley, Simon & Schuster
Buy on Amazon
Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? —Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
In the summer of 2006, twelve United States soldiers (also known as the “Super Twelve) were tasked with guarding former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as he sat on trial for crimes against humanity. Saddam ruled over Iraq for 35 years and is responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of Iraqis—but that’s not the version of the man the U.S. guards met. They watched over a larger-than-life figure brought down to earth, a man stripped of his power and possessions. To them, Saddam was a man who enjoyed smoking cigars, tending to the weeds in the prison yard, writing poetry, and chatting about cars and family. By the time Saddam was executed, some of the soldiers who guarded him had come to enjoy their time with the old man. He gave them a respect that they didn’t get from their own superiors and possessed many qualities they admired. The Prisoner in His Palace, published little over a decade after Saddam’s execution, is an engaging glimpse into the surreal assignment of guarding an infamous dictator and the emotional complexity of leading someone you’ve bonded with to their death.
“Any means are justified if they achieve the goals dictated by the interests of power and security.” – Zabiba and the King, a novel by Saddam Hussein
I’ve been stuck in a reading rut for the past couple of months and this is the first book that broke through the “nothing interests me” barrier! It’s about 210 pages of content and I read it within 24 hours, so it’s a great choice if you’re looking for a fascinating and concise non-fiction book to read. The style is journalistic. Within the pages is a profile of a complex figure who one CIA official called “the most traumatized leader I have ever studied.” This book is not an exhaustive account of Saddam’s life, but it covers some events from Saddam’s traumatic childhood, his violent rise to power, his reign over Iraq, and his downfall after the United States invasion in 2003. The anecdotes show a man of contradictions. He was proud of his progressive policies, but simultaneously capable of committing barbaric acts against his people. During his trial, maintaining his legacy as an iron-fisted ruler seemed to be more important to him than helping his defense save his life. His personality changed dramatically once he wasn’t in front of the camera, from aggressive theatrics in front of the judge to a polite demeanor when handed over to the guards.
“When I’d see the trial going on, and what he’d done to his people,” Rogerson later recalled, “I’d be like ‘Holy shit,’ there’s a shitload of dead people, he just killed an entire city. I’d think, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ but then I’d see him, and I never looked at him like ‘You’re a psychopath,’ because [that person] wasn’t with me. . . . He was more like a grandpa.”
We are also introduced to some of the men who were charged with guarding Saddam. We learn about the complex dynamics between these diverse personalities living in cramped quarters while working a high-stress job, but the parts about troop life weren’t as in-depth as the parts about their actual assignment. The experience of guarding Saddam was a turning point for many of them. Many of these soldiers rushed to join the military after the 9/11 attacks, but began to question their role in the conflict and what they gave up to be a part of it. For some of them, returning home after the war brought on different types of hardship. They had missed out on valuable time with family that could never be recovered. Those who wanted to talk to about their unique mission found no one wanting to listen; few people want to hear the emotional complexities of bonding with a murderous dictator and leading him to his execution. (I’ve experienced similar uncomfortable reactions when I mention this book to people.) Coming to like someone who has hurt so many people may seem odd at first thought, but it’s a very human response. For example: visceral public reaction when a beloved celebrity or community member is accused of a heinous crime, or even Oliver Stone’s opinions after spending time with Vladimir Putin. Perhaps there’s some element of it being easier to process what we’ve directly experienced, rather than events we know about secondhand.
Years later, the man Saddam had tapped to oversee the genocidal operation, Chemical Ali, would tell his FBI interrogators: “There are two faces of Saddam, one who went out of his way to share with those in need and was sometimes reduced to tears when stopping to assist a poor person, and the other a lonesome man with no friends, either inside or outside his family, who didn’t even trust his own sons.” This second “face of evil” was “so cruel you couldn’t imagine.”
There were many aspects of Saddam’s personality and incarceration that surprised me. He adjusted easily from a grandiose life to a jail cell. He had nuanced opinions about U.S. leadership, the U.S. Army, and the future of Iraq. He was allowed much more freedom of movement than I would’ve expected. Some of the guards were eager of his approval—they did their best to grant his requests and make his incarceration comfortable. Saddam returned the favors in kind, even offering to pay for one soldier’s college tuition if he ever got access to his money again. Was his kindness to the U.S. guards manipulation or was there an element of finally being able to relax and “be one of the guys”? We can never know for certain. Before you can get too comfortable with the “crotchety old man” version of Saddam, the author transports us to the past and a portrait of a brutal dictator emerges. One of the most disconcerting aspects of this book is how someone who is capable of being a thoughtful person can be capable of terrifying barbarism. I was shocked when a couple of the U.S. soldiers insisted that Saddam would never hurt them, which may speak to how easy it is for men like Saddam draw people into their circle despite all the risks involved. These insights are counterbalanced by tales of how earning Saddam’s affections was no inoculation from his cruel whims. The switch could flip terrifyingly quick, even for family members.
Hutch later reflected: “I feel like I have to explain why it bothered me so much; for an American to be upset. But for us to stand by and let them treat another human being that way—I thought that’s what we were over here to stop, the treatment like that. I truly felt that I was just as guilty as anybody else. I’ve never really had a conscience about anything I’ve ever done over here. As far as humanity goes, I’ve seen some pretty bad things, but it’s what I had to do, it’s what was required of me, it was my job. But my job had never before said that I had to stand there and watch people spit on and kick a person’s body. And you know what, I’m glad I feel that way, I really am. Because if I didn’t feel that way, I would think something was wrong with me.”
As Saddam was led to his death, he told the U.S. soldiers that they were “’more family to him’ than any Iraqis had been.” None of the soldiers ever doubted Saddam’s guilt, but even the men who didn’t develop a relationship with Saddam were shaken by the events surrounding his execution. One of the members of the “Super Twelve” noted that “it almost would have been easier if Saddam had acted more like the murderous tyrant they’d expected to find.” The Prisoner in His Palace is an uncomfortable book to read because it made me feel twinges of empathy that I didn’t want/expect to feel and it showed the human side of someone who caused an inordinate amount of pain and suffering. Despite my discomfort, I also found it reassuring that for many people there are elements of our humanity that are difficult to override. I wish it was longer and more in-depth, but it’s a fascinating tale and I’m still talking about it weeks later!
For other books about humanity or the nature of evil, you might be interested in Human Acts by Han Kang or Kindred by Octavia Butler. One of the men featured in the book wrote his own book about his experiences: Caring for Victor: A U.S. Army Nurse and Saddam Hussein by Robert Ellis.
A few interesting articles I read while reading this book:
‘I was shocked’: Iraqis remember day Saddam Hussein was hanged
The World; How Many People Has Hussein Killed?
Ten Years After the Fall of Saddam, How Do Iraqis Look Back on the War?
I Grew Up In Iraq During Saddam’s Worst Days — Here’s What Life Was Like
Judge Remembers Saddam as Intelligent, Charismatic and Remorseless