In the early 1990s, a boy named Steve Hutchinson wrote a handful of letters to American soldiers stationed in the Middle East. These were fraught days — the Gulf War was underway — but a few service members found the time to reply. “Sometimes,” Will Bardenwerper writes in his intriguing new book, the young Georgian “received notes back that included Iraqi dinar — Saddam’s face staring from them — as a souvenir.”
Fifteen years later, Saddam Hussein was on death row in Baghdad — and Hutchinson, a military policeman, helped escort him to the gallows.
“The Prisoner in His Palace” is a group portrait of a dozen men, the so-called Super Twelve who guarded the ex-dictator in the months before he was executed for crimes against humanity. An Iraq war veteran himself (but not in the Super Twelve), Bardenwerper has written an exceptional debut. Coupled with his knowledge of military rules and customs, his storytelling skills — confident but never showy prose, a terrific sense of pacing — make for an enlightening piece of journalism.
During his 2006 trial, Saddam was shuttled between a “glass cage” beneath the Iraqi High Tribunal courtroom and a cell “in a bombed-out former palace,” Bardenwerper says. Members of the Super Twelve were with him at all hours. At first, they just watched him ride an exercise bike and fiddle with an old radio. In time, however, it became clear that he spoke “surprisingly good” English. The MPs, bored and curious, soon fell into extended conversations with “Vic,” their “Very Important Criminal.”
Saddam’s favorite tales were about his toughness and his important friends. He told of torching his deranged son Uday’s luxury car collection, a punishment for Uday’s murder of a family member. Another time, he said he acquired his love of cigars from Fidel Castro, whom he once visited in Cuba.
The despot also fancied himself a poet. One day, a medic, Robert “Doc” Ellis, showed Saddam some family photos. “When Saddam got to a picture of Ellis’s wife, Rita, he … volunteered, ‘I will write a nice story for her.’ ” A day later, he handed Ellis a bit of verse, written in Arabic. “The stars are getting lost,” he wrote, “and the dawn is of joy with you.”
Though there are glimpses of Saddam’s soul, this isn’t a book that soft-pedals his horrible misdeeds. Bardenwerper recounts several instances in which Saddam ordered indiscriminate killings, “the most notable,” he writes, “being the notorious Anfal campaign in 1987 and 1988,” during which as many as 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were murdered.
In the closing pages, Bardenwerper brings his story into the present, giving us a look at the post-Iraq lives of the Super Twelve. It’s here that the book’s primary point — that the consequences of war are ultimately immeasurable — is most effectively made. He notes that several of the MPs struggled with PTSD after returning to the States; one ended up homeless, “living under bridges.”
As for Hutchinson, he’s unlikely to forget that he saw enraged Iraqis “spit on and kick” Saddam’s body after his hanging. “After enlisting immediately after 9/11,” Bardenwerper writes, “and serving honorably for six years and four deployments, on the day Saddam was executed Hutch resolved to get out of the Army.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.
The Prisoner in His Palace
By: Will Bardenwerper.
Publisher: Scribner, 246 pages, $26.