THE PRISONER IN HIS PALACE: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid, by Will Bardenwerper. Scribner, 246 pp., $26.
Will Bardenwerper’s “The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid” is the story of Saddam Hussein’s last months alive, from the time the Iraqi dictator was pulled out of his spider hole, nine months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, until he was hanged for his crimes on Dec. 30, 2006. During that period, Saddam was imprisoned under the guard of a dozen U.S. military policemen — the tongue-in-cheek “Super Twelve” — tasked with keeping him alive and well to stand trial. The interaction between the Super Twelve and Saddam is the hub of the story. Bardenwerper, a military veteran, has made a probe of the MPs’ feelings, as they morphed over time and association with Saddam, and carries it off with balanced aplomb.
Minus his torture chambers, execution squads and chemical gas, Saddam was just an elderly prisoner: He was unfailingly polite, never complained, enjoyed telling stories as well as quietude. The Twelve were not allowed to talk to anyone about their duty, or keep journals. The only written material concerning The Twelve’s experiences are transcriptions housed in the Army’s oral history program. After their service ended, Bardenwerper interviewed as many of The Twelve as would agree. He took this material and gave it context from interviews with government officials, scholars, lawyers and spies. Still, important as this local color is to the story, gaining traction on the slippery ground of memory’s turnings is what most fascinates Bardenwerper.
We enter the scene as The Twelve are introduced to their charge. They are, to put it mildly, taken aback. They had been told to expect a “high-value detainee,” but not the top of the deck. Immediately, there’s a perceptual transformation, a diminution. MP Steve “Hutch” Hutchinson, one of The Twelve, felt it: “The man he’s always imagined as a larger-than-life demon was now snoring in front of him,” Bardenwerper writes.
Their initial nervous vigilance gives way to first awkward interactions. Saddam tells a ribald joke, plays the old lecher, expresses devotion to his wife. He listens to his radio and smokes his cigars. He seems sane — he counters a question about the barbarity of IEDs with, “If we came into your country, and we were running things, what would you do if you didn’t want us there?” Saddam plays on the mysticism of the desert dweller, thriving on hardship and the sere simplicity of the land — — which cooks his goose with the readers, if not the MPs. How can he claim ignorance of the innumerable cruelties?
In chapters that are short and jumpy, what ultimately emerges is how to comport oneself in the world. Not like the atrocious Saddam, though he’s human, too — a product of violence, colonization, mental illness. His trial couldn’t help but be a farce: There were never more than a few degrees of separation between Saddam’s countless abominations and the Iraqi people — both the minorities and any other Iraqi who dared to disagree.
He was condemned to hang, a grave and deserved insult in Iraqi eyes. But “the ugliness of the old man’s death” — defiled in his winding sheet, kicked and stabbed after being strangled (the drop was bungled goes the story), disgusted The Twelve.
“I feel like I let him down,” said MP Adam Rogerson. “I thought that’s what we were over here to stop, the treatment like that,” said Hutch. “And you know what, I’m glad I feel that way. . . . if I didn’t feel that way, I would think something was wrong with me.”
This is no reverse Stockholm syndrome at play, Bardenwerper convincingly suggests, but a bracing affirmation — a great Whitmanesque hug — of human dignity in the face of all that is harrowingly wrong.