The Prisoner in His Palace
Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Monday morning, when the alarm radio went off, NPR’s Rachel Martin was talking to author Will Bardenwerper about his book The Prisoner in His Palace, in which twelve U.S. soldiers in Iraq are tasked with guarding Saddam Hussein in the months before his execution. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the “Super 12” – all young, American men – spent the summer of 2006 guarding the notorious Hussein.
I started waking up as the details emerged. This high-risk felon engaged the young Americans in conversation. He charmed them with anecdotes and gradually emerged as a human being, not as a fallen despot who’d taken so many lives with so little regard.
I was all prepared to boycott this book and started listing my objections:
So, Husssein was a human being. Who knew.
And Hitler had a dog.
And the Nazis loved forests and protected birds.
Thanks, Americans, for being so gullible. How noble to make a friend-for-life out of the world’s biggest bad guy (until the next one comes along).
But then this young author spoke.
MARTIN: I’d like to have you, if you would, read a little bit from early on in the book. This is when you’re describing the first few days of what it was like for these guys guarding Saddam Hussein.
(Reading) For these young men, it was like visiting a zoo and being forced to watch a creature who, though deadly, rarely does anything but sit, only occasionally deigning to walk across the cage to thrill the assembled spectators.
….They had to essentially always be within what one soldier called lunging distance of him in order to just safeguard him. It was sort of inevitable that there would be some thaw in this relationship. And then I think, also, part of it was a reflection of just Saddam’s own personality and his charm that he would try to engage them in conversation.
Dang. I did not want to like this book, but the “red flag waving” was addressed before I could even formulate the words in my own mind:
I think that’s one thing that’s important to highlight – is that a lot of these kids were from tough backgrounds. I think their antenna would be raised to someone trying to manipulate them. And, certainly, it occurred to Ellis. You know, this could just be an elaborate ruse to get better treatment from us. But at the same time, if that was Saddam’s only aim, he didn’t really emerge with a lot to show for it. He had a crappy, old exercise bike. He had a stack of loose-leaf paper and a pen.
So I think that’s one of the mysteries of the book – is what was going on here. Was it purely an attempt to manipulate? Was there genuine human affection? Was it a combination of the two? And I don’t think we’ll ever really know. I think human nature is complicated.
That’s where he really got me: “I don’t think we’ll ever really know. I think human nature is complicated.”
In the blackest heart, goodness can be found. Bad men can win sympathy, admiration, even love. Even a bad-ass like Saddam Hussein, in this true-to-life tale of a sordid, mean killer showing grace under pressure and kindness to his captors. The man had dignity. There is something to be said for that.
Over the radio I couldn’t discern the name of this former journalist. I got up, repeating “Prisoner in His Palace” over and over lest I forget it before I got to the kitchen to write it down. After coffee, I looked up the title online. Bardenwerper? How would I ever remember this author’s name?
Oooh, he followed me back on Twitter! And he messaged me privately that I should clarify that he was NOT one of the Super Twelve. He interviewed the twelve and pieced the story together. #GottaLove@WBardenwerper
Say what you will about the duality of good and evil in human nature, I wasn’t ready to “empathize” with a killer. My sister was murdered in 1975, and I am not one of those people who’d cue the film crews as I met the killer face to face and offered him forgiveness. I’d get no satisfaction from seeing him tried, found guilty, and executed, either. I’d like to know who he is and inflict psychological torments on him, but I’d never get away with it, so I read fairy tales and watch cat videos and try not to think overly much about all the evil in this world, and how many thunderbolts I might hurl, if I were God.
But, ohhh, the reviews of “Prisoner” are stunning. And I always fall for reviews like this:
“As twelve young American guards spend their days in the same room with this brutal gangster killer, a chilling, Shakespearean portrait emerges. Intriguingly, we meet a man who, while sometimes manipulative and petty, is also avuncular, joking, charming, wistful, and physically affectionate…. This is an unforgettable, essential read.”
-William Doyle, author of A Soldier’s Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq and PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy
“Through meticulous research and a keen eye for detail, Bardenwerper does the near impossible: convinces the reader to empathize with Saddam Hussein during his sad final days. “The Prisoner in His Palace” is a deeply human book, and though we all know the ending, I couldn’t put it down.”
-Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk and All the Ways We Kill and Die
All right. Publication date is June 7. I’m buying it. And when I’m done reading, I’ll post a review. Watch for a sequel to this post.
Living alongside their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him. Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.
In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.
Amazon Author Bio: Will quit his job in finance following the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan and volunteered to serve in the United States Army. He has spent most of the last decade engaged in United States foreign policy, beginning in 2004 as an infantry platoon leader. After completing his Army service, Will worked in the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, and later as a Director of Good Harbor Consulting, where served as a strategic advisor embedded with an Emirati paramilitary organization in Abu Dhabi.
In 2010, Will received a Master’s Degree from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Upon graduation, he was selected to join the Pentagon in 2010 as a Presidential Management Fellow, where he spent the next four years working on the development and implementation of defense strategy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Will was an Airborne Ranger qualified infantry officer in the United States Army. He was stationed in Germany and his service included a 13-month deployment to Nineveh and Anbar Provinces, Iraq in 2006-7. While in Iraq, he helped lead his infantry battalion’s reconstruction, civil affairs and tribal engagement efforts in the city of Hit. His unit helped contribute to the beginning of what would later become known as the “Anbar Awakening.” Will was awarded a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Will is a graduate of Princeton University, where he majored in English. He has had Op Eds and other articles published in the New York Times and Washington Post.
In his free time, Will enjoys tough Crossfit workouts, playing ice hockey, and rooting for the New York Mets and Washington Capitals.
Will lives in Colorado with his wife, Marcy, and editorial assistant, Parker the Cat.