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'Prisoner In His Palace': Saddam Hussein And His American Guards


In 2006, a group of men, soldiers in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, shipped out to Iraq. They had trained for combat, and that's what they expected to do when they got there. Instead, they spent months sipping tea, playing cards, smoking cigars with a graying old man in a bombed-out palace. That man was Saddam Hussein, who was on trial at the time in Baghdad. The soldiers were his guards. Will Bardenwerper has written a book about the 12 men's experience titled "The Prisoner In His Palace." He joins us now to talk about it. Hey, Will. Thanks for being with us.

WILL BARDENWERPER: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this group of guys, these soldiers who came to be known as the Super 12 - tell us about them. They were - many of them were enlisted after 9/11, right?

BARDENWERPER: Yeah. I mean, I think what struck me about this story was the fact that these young men - they weren't special operators. They weren't CIA operatives. They were essentially young, American soldiers in their late teens, early 20s, some of whom were not far removed from basic training. And the next thing they knew, they were sitting across from the most wanted dictator on the planet.

MARTIN: What was their initial reaction to this particular assignment?

BARDENWERPER: Well, I think, initially, their reaction was, you know, we got this guy. I think one of them just blurted out, we should kill him. You know, at the same time, I think some of them were a little bit demoralized because they had also hoped that they'd be spending a little more time outside the wire, going on patrol, doing the things that they had kind of trained to do. So it was kind of a mix of emotions, I think you could say.

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.

MARTIN: Things started to change. How did their relationship with this prisoner start to evolve?

BARDENWERPER: That was something else that struck me - was just the degree of intimacy that surrounded their time with Saddam. 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.

MARTIN: Can you paint a picture of what space he inhabited and how he occupied that space - imprisoned, on trial, facing what will inevitably be a death sentence?

BARDENWERPER: Exactly. And the final location where these soldiers were responsible for guarding him was an abandoned palace. And I think it's fairly ironic that his last house, essentially, was a palace that he had built for himself. But now he was a prisoner in his own palace. And I think what struck a number of these soldiers was kind of the dignity with which he carried himself. And that came across in the way that he would rise to greet them as they entered his cell, as if he was greeted a foreign dignitary, when, in fact, it was just a 20-year-old American kid from Ohio - just lots of small examples of that.

MARTIN: They started to feel close to him, and they genuinely had a rapport with him. Can you tell us a little bit about the soldier who went by the name of Doc Ellis? He was the medic, and he had a particular relationship with Saddam.

BARDENWERPER: Doc Ellis, in particular, I found to be a fascinating character because he grew up in St. Louis in a very rough area. And Saddam grew up on the mean streets of Tikrit. I think it is fair to say that they developed something of a relationship when Doc Ellis got word that his brother was about to die from some drug problems that he had had.

He actually went out of his way to let Saddam know that he would be gone for a week because he didn't want Saddam to be upset at his absence. Saddam got up and embraced him and said, you know, don't worry. You're losing one brother, but I will always be your brother.

MARTIN: So how did he make sense of that?

BARDENWERPER: Well, he wasn't naive. I mean, 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.

MARTIN: Many of us will remember hearing news clips or watching news reports of Saddam's trial. And he did all kinds of crazy stuff. He would yell. And even if you couldn't understand the Arabic, you understood that there was a performative aspect of this trial, to say the least. Can you tell us a little bit about how the soldiers saw Saddam after a day at trial?

BARDENWERPER: I think he saw this from the beginning as an opportunity for public relations - than for winning a case. And the soldiers saw that. When he was in court complaining of mistreatment, immediately when he got into the elevator with those same guards, you know, don't listen to a word I said. That was just theater. You guys treat me wonderfully (laughter). So, no, they absolutely saw those kind of two different ways that he presented himself.

MARTIN: Can you describe the hours leading up to Saddam's execution?

BARDENWERPER: Sure. Well, by that point, they had been there for four months or so. And as they kind of gathered to bring him to the execution site, he kind of pulled them together and thanked them for the way that they had treated him. At one point, he said to them that you're family to me.

He actually took his watch off his wrist and handed it to one of the soldiers, who was reluctant to take it. And I think one of the themes that that really reinforces is the fact that it's a lot more difficult to kill someone that you've grown to know than to shoot at an anonymous target from 200 meters away.

MARTIN: How are these men doing today?

BARDENWERPER: I think their role in this continues to bother them, partly for the reasons that I just discussed about the difficulty of growing to know someone. And then, one morning, you bring them somewhere. And they walk and alive, and they come out dead. A few of them have dealt with PTSD. And they're still trying to, I think, reconcile exactly what they did and what it ultimately accomplished or did not accomplish.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Prisoner In His Palace." it's written by Will Bardenwerper. Thanks so much for talking with us about it.

BARDENWERPER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.