war on the rocks

The Unvarnished Tyrant: American Soldiers and the Final Months of Saddam

July 21, 2017

Will Bardenwerper, The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid (Scribner, 2017)

More than 14 years after former Army officer Fred Wellman deployed to Iraq for the first time, he received word from his interpreter that every person he had known in a small village outside Mosul had been killed.

“This is Dr. Mohammed, JUL ‘03,” Wellman wrote in a series of tweets.

“He was murdered right in that clinic we built him 2012. I found out today that ISIL killed all 65 villagers … They came in the morning after Mosul fell and killed all of them. Women and children. 65 Sunnis because they worked with us. At this point nearly every Iraqi I worked with over three tours has been murdered. All of them.”

“If someone knows a way I should process that, I’m open to it,” he continued, “but right now I’m just in shock at the brutality of war. I don’t have an answer.”

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan often refer to those conflicts and their offshoots as the Forever Wars, a reference to both the renewed American presence fighting on some of the same terrain as a decade ago as well as the emotional resonance of current events in Iraq. The phrase, delivered with a sardonic smile and resigned shrug, recalls not only the duration of what have become America’s longest conflicts but also the sustained reliance on an All-Volunteer Force to fight them – even as the rest of the country has moved on. Iraq does not even warrant a percentage point in this June 2017 Gallup poll on the most important problem facing the country; Afghanistan is not mentioned at all.

It is against this backdrop that Will Bardenwerper’s searing debut, The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid (Scribner), strikes the most resounding chord. Despite its historical focus, The Prisoner in His Palace has the fingerprints of hindsight everywhere, lending the story a topical relevance that few might have predicted after Saddam’s trial and execution in 2006 or after the withdrawal of American military forces in 2011.

The setting is deceptively simple: Twelve soldiers (known to themselves with a wink as “The Super Twelve”) from a military police unit deploy in the summer of 2006 to a deteriorating conflict already more than three years old, only to find themselves guarding the man whose reputation for cold-blooded brutality precedes him. When the soldiers first receive the mission to guard Saddam, they bring all their preconceptions with them. “Let him burn,” one of them thinks. He was “the man who seemed fated to be judged one of history’s all-time villains.”

But as with most villains, probing beneath the surface reveals a hidden depth of character. Bardenwerper rightly asks, “Who was the real Saddam?” and if you’re looking to maintain the simple fiction that people are either good or evil, you won’t find solace here. His answers coalesce into a portrait of a complicated man—powerful tyrant, doting father, vengeful politician, defiant trial defendant, and compassionate prisoner. We get a glimpse into the paradox of Saddam’s persona, a man who could yell “I urge the people to kill the aggressive invaders” in front of the cameras filming his trial and only minutes later banter casually about cars and cigars with his American guards before sitting down to sip hot tea and write longhand poetry on a yellow legal pad. Saddam’s personal physician of more than 20 years once said, “When you talk to him, he listens to you. I’ve never known a better listener. He doesn’t seem like the same man who does these cruel things.”

But he was the same man who did those cruel things, and despite the nuanced portrayal of Saddam as more than the one-dimensional monster familiar to most Americans, the book does not shy away from his crimes. Bardenwerper gives us a window into his ruthlessness through well-structured flashbacks—ordering the execution of “disloyal” party members and political opponents, threatening a senior general who dared to speak the truth about the capabilities of his military forces, and intimidating a local news reporter. He also references Saddam’s numerous human rights abuses against Iraq’s Kurdish population as well as the retaliatory massacre of Shia residents in the town of Dujail that served as the legal basis for charging him with crimes against humanity. “Iraqis under Saddam possessed an intuitive understanding of the physiology of terror,” Bardenwerper writes. “It bound them together in a shared understanding that the American guards could never fully appreciate, no matter how many hours they spent with the deposed ruler.”

Bardenwerper depicts the American guards with great care, combining transcripts of oral histories given shortly after Saddam’s execution with personal interviews conducted years later. This is yet another technique that gives the book a more current feel and allows the thoughts and feelings of the intervening years to creep into the historical narrative. If I had to offer a single criticism of the book, however, it is that the soldiers’ stories sometimes come across as a sideshow, a vessel of secondary characters through which Bardenwerper reveals the many faces of Saddam. But the soldiers are never mere stereotypes, and even with short chapters Bardenwerper breathes an impressive amount of life into a story that hurtles toward death from its opening page.

As a veteran of the Iraq war himself, Bardenwerper deploys his knowledge of wartime military service sparingly but with great effect — woven into the extraordinary tale of guarding Saddam is an intimate depiction of daily life for soldiers in a combat zone. He also deftly avoids the temptation to editorialize, drawing attention to the strangeness of the situation without trying to tell you what to think about it. In one of the book’s most poignant scenes, a few of the Super Twelve convert an old storage room to an office for Saddam, spending hours cleaning the walls and finding makeshift furniture, all so that Saddam could have some extra space to put his books and papers beyond his sleeping cell. The scene is presented without comment.

The story’s final act is Saddam’s inevitable conviction and swift transfer to Iraqi custody for execution by hanging (not, as he’d requested, by firing squad), an event preserved in a grainy, shaky cell-phone video on YouTube — the 21st-century equivalent of amber resin. As the soldiers watch Saddam purify himself in the sink of his cell before the mission, a curious empathy comes over them:

The knowledge that they’d soon play a role in the execution of this living, breathing human being — one who’d always been good to them — began to gnaw at their psyches. Saddam had spent a lifetime numbed — either by his brutal upbringing or by the violence that had punctuated his rule — to just this sort of empathy.

That sense of empathy toward Saddam as a man, the acknowledgement that there is humanity in even the worst of us, is what leaves the burnt taste in the whitespace of the final page. Life after war would be easier if we could shove the experience into the dustbin of our consciousness and allow our fellow Americans to thank us for our service without moral reservation. But like Fred Wellman, or any Iraq war veteran still troubled by the question of what happened after we left, it dawns on the soldiers of the Super Twelve that “playing a role in the death of a person one has grown to know is radically different from shooting an anonymous insurgent two hundred meters away” — it doesn’t matter if that role was indirect. Bardenwerper’s concluding chapter, which functions more as an epilogue, revisits some of the soldiers and finds them, too, haunted by their days in country.

***

One of the unintended consequences of the shift to an All-Volunteer Force after Vietnam has been an abdication of American citizens’ civic responsibility. While the country has been at war for nearly 16 years, no meaningful sacrifice has been asked of the general population, permitting the Forever Wars to continue with only whimpers of resistance. In 2017 alone, American service members have lost their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, yet their deaths raise few eyebrows around our nation’s collective water coolers. The burden of moral risk for these conflicts is shared by a small cohort of volunteers and their families, while most people are content to show their appreciation with firm handshakes, holiday shopping discounts, economy plus upgrades, affirming slogans, and vigorous applause during overproduced ceremonies at sporting events. And Americans do all of this while also supporting the deployment of service members to warzones — new and old — again and again.

The legacy of this arrangement is already revealing itself in the rise of a hereditary warrior caste, as analyst Amy Schafer wrote in a recent research report. As the wars’ headlines recede into the nation’s cultural memory (despite remaining a grim reality for those still in uniform), those who choose to join the military often come from families with a tradition of military service. Failure to bridge the resulting gap risks offloading the moral responsibility for war onto those who have volunteered to serve while keeping everyone else insulated from the consequences.

Those consequences include bearing the brunt of war’s moral injuries. Saddam’s hasty execution left an indelible imprint on the dozen soldiers tasked with guarding him during the few months before his death. Today, several of them struggle with post-traumatic stress. One became a prisoner himself at a county jail in Texas. All were conflicted about their role in Saddam’s death, made worse by the order not to discuss the mission’s details with anyone when they returned home. “I almost feel like a murderer,” one of the soldiers later said, “like I killed a guy I was close to.” That same soldier prefers to keep his distance from his former squad. “Maybe one day if we have some sort of reunion I’ll talk to the guys, but for now it still feels too fresh, even though it has been ten years.”

That the psychological toll of what has happened in Iraq, from the fall of Saddam to the rise of the Islamic State, is not felt more broadly throughout American society is an indictment of how far we have allowed the civil-military relationship to drift. “Many Americans were quick to mourn the victims of London and Manchester,” veteran and author Elliot Ackerman wrote last month in Esquire, “but why don’t we feel the same for the children massacred … as they ate ice cream on a summer night in Baghdad?”

***

“Saddam Hussein’s execution comes at the end of a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops,” President George W. Bush said in a statement immediately after Saddam’s death. He continued:

Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain, and defend itself, and be an ally in the War on Terror … Many difficult choices and further sacrifices lie ahead. Yet the safety and security of the American people require that we not relent in ensuring that Iraq’s young democracy continues to progress.

Two years earlier, during Saddam’s initial interrogations, Bardenwerper tells us about another American soldier, senior medic Robert “Doc” Ellis, who grew close to the former Iraqi president while providing him with medical care, even smuggling a special brand of Cuban cigars that Saddam liked that they sometimes smoked together. One night, while venting his frustrations about the American invasion and military presence in Iraq, Saddam wondered aloud, “What does America have to gain from this?” Ellis, wary of wading into controversial subjects, remained silent.

“They’ll wish they had me back,” Saddam said.

David Eisler is a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This October he will begin a PhD program in American Studies at the Universität Heidelberg with a focus on the relationship between American civil-military relations and contemporary war fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @David_Eisler.

Image: Staff Sgt. Angelita Lawrence/U.S. Air Force