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The Prisoner in His Palace
Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid
Table of Contents
About The Book
The “captivating” (Military Times) The Prisoner in His Palace invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Shortly after being deployed to Iraq, they learn their assignment: guarding Saddam Hussein in the months before his execution.
Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee 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 firsthand 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 thought-provoking narrative, Saddam, known as the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. “A singular study exhibiting both military duty and human compassion” (Kirkus Reviews), The Prisoner in His Palace grants us “a behind-the-scenes look at history that’s nearly impossible to put down…a mesmerizing glimpse into the final moments of a brutal tyrant’s life” (BookPage).
The phone rang, waking Steve Hutchinson from an uncomfortable sleep. His head was pounding, his mouth sandpaper. He was staying at his cousin’s house, and his large frame was draped across the couch. It felt like it had only been a few hours since he’d passed out there after getting home from a long night working security at the Midnight Rodeo, a rough honky-tonk bar in the central Florida town of Ocala. He blamed the nasty headache on the beers he’d torn through after his shift ended around 4:00 a.m. Though he tried to ignore it, his phone kept ringing, each series of tones sending searing pain through his hungover skull. Too sapped of energy to hold the phone to his ear, he put it on speaker and clumsily dropped it to the floor.
“Turn on the TV,” a voice urged. It was his cousin’s wife, calling from work, and she sounded panicked.
“Which channel?” he asked.
“Any of them,” she replied.
It was just after 9:00 a.m. on September 11, 2001. Hutchinson turned on the television just in time to see United Airlines Flight 175 strike the South Tower of the World Trade Center, not quite twenty minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 had slammed into the North Tower.
Until that morning he’d been on an uncertain career path. A muscular former Georgia high school football and baseball standout, he’d been working for the county road department during the day and doing some bouncing at the Rodeo at night, but the images of a smoldering lower Manhattan decided something in him. “I wasn’t getting over there fast enough,” he’d later say, referring to his decision to join the Army and go overseas.
Baghdad, Iraq—August 2006
Five years later, Steve Hutchinson, known as Hutch to his buddies, was doing the “duffel bag drag” across the steamy tarmac of Baghdad International Airport, often referred to as BIAP. He’d arrived as part of the 551st Military Police Company based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and he knew the drill. Like many who joined the military in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he’d found himself thrust into an exhausting operational tempo. By 2006, he’d already spent a year deployed to Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003, and another in Afghanistan. He was one of the more tenured members of his squad of eleven other American military policemen, mostly in their twenties, who’d just arrived “downrange.” The youngest, Private Tucker Dawson, wasn’t yet twenty-one; the oldest, Specialist Art Perkins, was in his mid-thirties. With the “War on Terror” already nearly five years old, about half had deployed previously while the other half had spilled from the Air Force C-130 into a combat zone for the first time. The lieutenant to whom they reported, Andre Jackson, was a recent ROTC graduate. The junior enlisted soldiers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) under his command came from all over the United States, though a disproportionate number hailed from working-class communities scattered across the Rust Belt.
They didn’t know it yet, but in a few months they’d be playing a pivotal role in a historical drama they couldn’t have imagined.
The men—there were no women in the squad—had grown reasonably tight in the months preceding deployment. They’d performed countless training missions back at Fort Campbell to prepare for deployment, which they expected would be spent carrying out assignments common for military policemen—for example, guarding detainees and providing convoy security. And during the training lulls those who were single grabbed some downtime at Kickers bar or the Lodge in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, while the married among them stuck with more domesticated routines, such as taking turns babysitting each other’s kids so that they could enjoy dinner with their wives at the popular Yamato’s Japanese steakhouse off post.
Those who’d deployed before, like Hutchinson, Art Perkins, Tom Flanagan, and Chris Tasker, were familiar with the routine. Less so Tucker Dawson, Adam Rogerson, and Paul Sphar, for whom this was an altogether new adventure. Sphar had barely been allowed to deploy at all, due to his persistent weight problems. In the months leading up to their leaving for Iraq, Sergeant Chris Battaglia had “run the dogshit” out of Sphar to trim his ample midsection. The young private stood out from the others for reasons other than his weight, though. The fact was, he seemed a better match for a skate park or mosh pit than a military parade ground. He was covered in tattoos, proud to have almost a “full shirt” of them.
The soldiers had arrived in Iraq after a marathon journey that took them from Fort Campbell to Maine to Germany to Kuwait to—at last—BIAP’s floodlit tarmac. The temperatures had continued to linger in the nineties even after the sun had set, and before the men had even finished unloading their bags, their clothes were drenched in sweat. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that they were far from home, and that this was for real.
- Publisher: Scribner (October 2, 2018)
- Length: 272 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501117848
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Raves and Reviews
"Bardenwerper deftly toggles from a nonstop supply of terror to occasional scenes of normal life throughout The Prisoner in His Palace . . . a brief, but powerful, meditation on the meaning of evil and power."
“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.”
—The Minneapolis Star Tribune
"What ultimately emerges is how to comport oneself in the world . . . [Saddam] was condemned to hang, a grave and deserved insult in Iraqi eyes. But 'the ugliness of the old man's death'—defiled in his winding sheet, kicked and stabbed after being strangled (the drop was bungled goes the story)—disgusted The Twelve . . . This is no reverse Stockholm syndrome at play, Bardenwerper convincingly suggests, but a bracing affirmation—a great Whitmanesque hug—of human dignity in the face of all that is harrowingly wrong."
—New York Post
"A moving account."
"Expertly examines Saddam Hussein."
"Takes you inside the minds of the prisoner and his protectors, whose sole task it to guard the 'Vic,' or Very Important Criminal . . . The book is captivating . . . a study of how proximity has a propensity to be persuasive, even when the common area is a cell in the basement of a courthouse."
"A behind-the-scenes look at history that's nearly impossible to put down . . . [Intersperses] tales from Saddam's past with scenes of his final days . . . As he was being led away to his execution, Hussein thanked the twelve Americans guarding him, adding that 'they'd become "more like family to him" than any Iraqis had been.' The Prisoner in His Palace offers a mesmerizing glimpse into the final moments of a brutal tyrant's life."
"In skin-crawling detail, Will Bardenwerper effectively captures a unique time and place in an engrossing history. A singular study exhibiting both military duty and human compassion."
“What a surprising, remarkable and deeply affecting book. By taking us inside the final days of Saddam Hussein and the Americans who were his reluctant guards, Will Bardenwerper has written a timeless story about duty, honor, cruelty, and most of all compassion.”
—David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Thank You for Your Service and The Good Soldiers
“Reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Will Bardenwerper’s The Prisoner in His Palace offers a riveting and harrowing exploration into the nature of evil and the mind of a murdering psychopath—but, also, into how even the execution of a guilty man can later haunt those involved in his death . . . [This book is] one of the greatest little-known war stories in American history.”
—Andrew Carroll, New York Times bestselling author of War Letters, Behind the Lines, and Operation Homecoming
“Will Bardenwerper has succeeded in writing a book about the Iraq War from a wholly new perspective. This superb account of the twelve men assigned to guard Saddam Hussein forces us to acknowledge that there can be honor and courage on all sides in war. Absolutism is for people who’ve never been there.”
—Nathaniel Fick, author of the New York Times bestseller One Bullet Away
“Offers shocking insights into the banality of evil….an Alice-In-Wonderland tumble through Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s dark psyche. Will Bardenwerper vividly exhumes some of the tyrant’s twisted brutalities—all true—and yet reveals the gritty humanity of Saddam through the eyes of the young American soldiers assigned to guard him in the last months before he is hanged. A disturbing and entirely captivating piece of literary journalism.
—Kai Bird, coauthor of the Pulitzer-winning American Prometheus and author of the New York Times bestseller The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
“In war, the enemy is always the ‘the other.’ What makes The Prisoner in His Palace so captivating is how Bardenwerper brilliantly juxtaposes the brutal acts that Saddam Hussein perpetrated against his own people, with the dignified, and even tender, manner in which the Iraqi dictator interacted with his American guards. What the book reveals is that our common humanity turns ‘the enemy’ into someone quite unexpected.”
—Peter Bergen, New York Times bestselling author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
“In the American imagination, Saddam Hussein functions as nothing more than a two-dimensional despot, a monster who terrorized and gassed and desecrated his own people. He was. He did. Will Bardenwerper's The Prisoner in his Palace reveals something else about Saddam, though, something less simple than that known caricature and certainly more troubling: he was a human being, a human like all of us, a human being with hopes and dreams and regrets that woke him in the dead of night. Saddam wrote poetry and longed for his family and treated the American soldiers tasked with guarding him during his trial with kindness and generosity of spirit. This is a brave and piercing book."
—Matt Gallagher, author of the novel Youngblood and Kaboom
"The Prisoner in His Palace finds humanity in a singularly inhuman figure, Saddam Hussein. Through meticulous reporting and beautiful storytelling, Will Bardenwerper has crafted a portrait that is both deeply moving and deeply disturbing. This book challenges the tired constructs of ‘good versus evil’ that have led us into so many ill-conceived wars."
—Elliot Ackerman, author of Green on Blue
“An astonishing, riveting story that brings the reader face to face with the specter of Saddam Hussein in captivity. 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. There is even a scene of the Beast of Baghdad hugging an American soldier in a moment of tenderness. 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
“A moving and perception-altering book that exposes how wrong we are in so much of what we assume about war. In the fifteen years that America has been at war we’ve imprisoned, injured and killed thousands of foreign citizens. It’s time we got to know some of them. Will Bardenwerper introduces us to a name we know well, but a story about which we know little. Saddam Hussein’s execution was not just about the death of a tyrant. It’s about the Americans who were tasked with guarding him, interrogating him, and preparing him for his death. No matter the justification, there are long lingering consequences for all involved—often, terrible ones. But rather than shouldering and sharing those consequences as a nation, we’ve looked away and allowed too few to carry those burdens. Mr. Bardenwerper forces us to turn our gaze not only on those we have killed, but on those who were there to see the task done.”
—Eric Fair, Pushcart Prize-winning essayist and author of the memoir Consequence
"What an astonishing story. 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
“Will Bardenwerper has written a bracing account of Saddam Hussein’s final months through the eyes of those who guarded and interrogated him—eyes that are uncomfortably opened to the complexity of evil. Reminiscent of 20th century Nazi character portraits such as Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, Bardenwerper's The Prisoner in His Palace will be many things to many people. To this writer and combat veteran, it is an exhilarating, extraordinary, and damning look in the mirror.”
—Adrian Bonenberger, author of Afghan Post
“The Prisoner in His Palace is an important contribution to the literature from America’s 9/11 wars. Will Bardenwerper has written a concise and engrossing account of the final days of Saddam Hussein. The stories of the American soldiers who guarded the Iraqi leader serve as a sharp reminder of war’s complexities, contradictions, and costs.”
—J. Kael Weston, author of The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
“The Prisoner in His Palace is a searing, beautifully crafted exploration of humankind’s capacity for both boundless savagery and awe-inspiring perseverance. By tracking down and listening to the soldiers who stood watch over Saddam Hussein during the dictator’s final days, Will Bardenwerper has done far more than just commit a heroic act of journalism; he has also created an extraordinary work of history that should be read by all who seek to understand how evil can flourish, and how it can be defeated.”
—Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start
"Bardenwerper’s examination of how soldiers, trained to focus on the inhumanity of the enemy, struggle to frame and reframe that inhumanity, is the focus of The Prisoner in His Palace. The book’s action will pull you along like any great military adventure, but bubbling underneath is an absorbing and sometimes heartbreaking survey of young men grappling with a moral certitude that begins to shift below the desert sands they’re standing on."
—Tim Townsend, author of Mission at Nuremberg
“Thoroughly engrossing … We want to believe that Saddam Hussein was a monster, but reading this, you’ll learn that he was quite human—which is even more chilling. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in our recent war in Iraq, or in the heights and depths of human nature.”
—Karl Marlantes, New York Times bestselling author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War
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