Posted on July 30, 2017
Book review. The Prisoner in His Palace, by Will Bardenwerper
This book tells the story of the final days of Saddam Hussein, and the American soldiers who were tasked to guard him before his inevitable execution by hanging in 2006.
The Prisoner in His Palace spends a good portion of its length explaining the circumstances surrounding Saddams imprisonment to the reader. How Iraq came to be invaded by President Bush and the troops under his command, where Saddam was born and how he grew up, and how the American soldiers tasked with guarding him ended up working such a bizarre detail. This serves the book well: without this structure, we would be left with a book about a bunch of young guys guarding an old guy. Not very exciting. However, because we learn of the complex, violent historical currents that have led to the situation, even more mundane observations about Husseins daily routines become morbidly fascinating.
History is made by living beings, and though some of its sociodynamics are beyond human comprehension, it nevertheless is of us, a legacy of our actions and inactions. Bardenwerper lays this out beautifully through this strange story he tells the reader. The old guy in the cell, listening to his radio and smoking his precious cigars while reminiscing about bringing up his childten, murdered thousands and thousands of people, causing hundreds of thousands of souls heartbreak. And yet, there he is, a weary old man taking a s*it in the morning and snoring while he sleeps. One of the most interesting observations the guards made about Saddam was that he actually appeared to enjoy his imprisonment to some extent, as being locked away and guarded by armed soldiers 24/7 meant that for the first time in his life he did not have to worry about being assassinated…
None of this, however, means that the book somehow paints a sympathtic portrait of Saddam. The man was clearly a manipulative psychopath who loved power and cherished the fear of those around him. And besides, the numbers speak for themselves, as do the people behind them: I personally know people who were persecuted by Saddam and had to migrate to Europe to escape his wrath.
You dont need prior knowledge of Middle Eastern politics or Iraqi history to appreciate this book. The Prisoner in His Palace is first rate history writing: at one educational, darkly fascinating and very entertaining to read, a kind of “portrait of evil” that reminds us of the human face behind even the most incomprehensible acts of terror. All human beings create butterfly effects all day with their choices, and this is doubly true for presidents and other world leaders. Rule with terror, and tears will run for decades after you have passed, even if you dont care to hear the sounds of crying through the walls of your palace.