Unbridled Power in All Its Majestic Terror: Will Bardenwerper’s The Prisoner in His Palace

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Readers of Will Bardenwerper’s The Prisoner in His Palace will note the empathy and solicitude the imprisoned Saddam Hussein showed toward the junior US soldiers who guarded him in his final months. It is fair to say that Hussein was a constant gentleman toward the young men who took turns sitting outside his small cell, playing chess, and offering heartfelt goodbyes on Hussein’s execution day.

Underneath that compassion is something else—the easy way that Hussein checkmated his captors, turning a prison cell into his last presidential office. Of course, Hussein didn’t plot an escape—he knew his time was up—and the soldiers behave professionally. But Bardenwerper gives the reader a close look at a real-life supervillain, and how easy it is for him to gather minions at his feet.

Bardenwerper’s tightly-constructed and engaging book is compiled from court transcripts, historical accounts, interrogation records, and his own interviews. He relates multiple perspectives of Saddam Hussein’s influence and the long shadow he casts over Iraq. Bardenwerper plays the narrative straight, and his own opinion never overshadows his sources.

As we begin our own Age of the Strongman, Hussein’s almost effortless manipulation—of soldiers expecting exactly that behavior—shows how susceptible we all might be to the sheer force of a big personality. For a soldier named Hutch, it recalls the advice his dead grandfather gave him:

One of his more cryptic observations sometimes crept into Hutch’s mind as he sat observing Saddam. Westerns always have good guys, who wear a white hat, and bad guys, who wear black hats, his grandpa said. It’s the sneaky guys in the gray hats, whose allegiances are always shifting, that you have to watch out for. If you’re going to make a choice, the old man continued, go all the way. The unspoken implication was those who inhabited the wishy-washy world of gray were the least honorable of all.

It is not a surprise that the American guards would be such easy prey. Military units are not far short from cults of personality, with the best leaders often not the smartest, but the most confident. Hussein is plenty of both, and junior soldiers have been trained to feel subordinate to such a man. Even in a cell surrounded by cameras, or in FBI interrogation sessions, or even just days after his 2004 capture, Hussein acts like a president:

Soon the Delta operators were ready to deliver him to a more secure holding area in Baghdad… He objected to the raggedy black dishdasha in which he’d been captured. Look at me, he said. I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq. Do you want the world to think this is how the United States treats heads of state? One of the operators ran inside for some other clothes. “We’ll make you look like a rock star,” he said reassuringly.

Of course they will. The operators start to take orders, even by just a tiny improvement to Hussein’s wardrobe. The scene is played for laughs. But in Bardenwerper’s words, “the wily dictator always has one more game to play.”

The Prisoner in His Palace examines Hussein’s personal history as a hardscrabble youngster who took his power almost out of thin air, rising to dictatorship and murdering his countrymen by the hundreds of thousands, and keeping the fractious citizens of Iraq bound together by one common thread: fear of him. Another narrative thread follows Dr. Robert Ellis, who took care of Hussein in his earliest days of imprisonment. There are courtroom scenes as Hussein goes on trial for his life, and Hussein’s FBI interrogations, which he deftly uses to defend and justify himself, stringing along his interrogators with a false promise of honesty.

But the core of the narrative remains Hussein’s relationship with his American guards. In those relationships, nothing is truly at stake—no justifications for history, no meaningful defenses of his actions, and the guards have no true power to do anything beyond outfitting Hussein’s “favorite plastic patio chair… with rubber padding to make it more comfortable for the sixty-nine-year-old.” But in these interactions, the reader can see the most honest relationships—how Hussein would have behaved toward those he generally trusted, and how quickly US soldiers revert to obedience toward those higher-ups who demand it.

Saddam stood back and allowed Hutch to lead the way… The former president always insisted on the guards walking first, the opposite of standard protocol. It was familiar to him, mirroring how he was escorted years before when he was in power. Hutch didn’t object to the deviation. Indeed, it could be useful, since on a few occasions he’d feel Saddam’s outstretched hand suddenly grasp the back of his arm for support.

Sure, it’s useful—but it’s not prisoner-guard protocol. It’s president-guard protocol. Scenes like this—harmless, irreverent—occur throughout the book. Often, the soldiers laugh this off an old man’s finicky behavior, and that’s surely part of it. But even as they watch the courtroom testimony—as they see the atrocities that Hussein ordered be committed to his own citizens—they cannot connect the deeds with the man who made the threats, in a different time:

Saddam took a sip [of tea] and smiled. It was an odd smile, lacking in warmth. His mouth muscles had moved, but the rest of his countenance remained blank. He began the conversation with her matter-of-factly: your father has a property in Mosul. We want it…. How is your dad, by the way? Saddam asked almost off-handedly.

But the guards didn’t see that past version of Hussein. They saw the creaking old man who would pace around and rehearse his testimony out loud, would invite himself into their chess games. They saw the Hussein who would stand, arms open, if they left his cell door open by mistake, and say “My friend, my friend,” until a soldier would shut the door—not privacy, but still a separation between the guards, and his “presidential” office.

Months later, explaining his relationship with Saddam, Dawson would say, “I don’t think he ever would have tried to hurt me. If I were to hand him a gun—a loaded gun—I bet you he wouldn’t shoot me. I’m pretty darned sure. If he called you friend, you were his friend.”

In 1979, Hussein consolidated power by purging the Baath party of potential threats to his rule and threatening death to his rivals’ family members.

Saddam reportedly led the way as the camera zoomed in to show a brutal succession of guns placed to the heads of the ‘conspirators,’ triggers pulled, rounds exploding into brains, bodies collapsing onto the ground, last heartbeats pumping spurts into the dirt… The condemned included a deputy who’d often joined Saddam and his wife Sajida for dinner over the years. The man’s wife was supposedly on a shopping trip to Paris with Sajida when he was executed.

Following Hussein’s conviction at his 2006 trial, Iraqi justice moved quickly. He was transferred from US custody to Iraqi officials just hours before his December execution. He would decline a mask—everyone else in the room wore one—and fell from the gallows with what everyone agreed was a terrible dignity. He was surrounded by the Shiite Iraqis who despised him for so long. But a CIA officer said it wasn’t the revenge they had expected. “They were scared shitless,” former CIA officer John Maguire said, “because Saddam wasn’t scared.”

Once their proximity to power ended, the “Super Twelve” quickly returned to normalcy. Some suffer from PTSD-related ailments, one went to jail, and one carefully safeguards the Raymond Weil watch that Saddam wrapped around his wrist before his trip to the executioner.

Hutch didn’t want to make a scene, and so he allowed the old man to put the watch on him. He rationalized that taking it would help ensure that this final night ran smoothly.

Yes, “rationalize” is what you do when you take a watch from a murderer and monster, whom your country had battled for sixteen years, who had led the region and the world into death and disarray. We might all take that watch, for that connection to unbridled power in all its majestic terror. When we take a Strongman’s gift, we all must learn to rationalize.

Nathan S. Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist, and his work was published in dozens of newspapers nationwide. He writes on a variety of topics. More from this author →