In 2006, a group of men, soldiers in the US 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 greying old man in a bombed-out palace. That man was Saddam Hussein.
The Prisoner in His Palace is an account of the 12 US soldiers in Iraq, who guarded Hussein in the months before his execution.
The 12 young American soldiers came to view the imprisoned dictator as a “grandfather-like figure” while they held him in a former Iraqi palace dubbed The Rock, and even mourned his death when he was hanged in 2006, it is claimed.
The Prisoner in His Palace is an evocative and thought-provoking account of how the lives of the young American soldiers are upended when they’re asked to guard the most "high-value detainee" of all.
What the self-dubbed "Super 12" experience in the autumn of 2006 is cognitive dissonance at its most extreme. Expecting to engage with the enemy "outside the wire", they’re suddenly tasked with guarding and protecting a notorious dictator until he can be hanged.
Watching over Saddam in the former palace and regularly transporting their prisoner to his raucous trial, they gradually begin to question some of their firmest beliefs. Rather than the snarling beast they expect, Saddam proves confoundingly complex - voluble, charming and given to surprising displays of affection. Perhaps most shockingly, in his Spartan stoicism and the courage he shows in facing death he eventually becomes a role model.
Employing a timeline that switches between present and past, The Prisoner in His Palace contrasts the man entrusted to the Super 12’s care - a grandfatherly figure who proves "good company" - with a younger version of Saddam who is unspeakably ruthless, views murder and torture as legitimate tools and constantly keeps those around him in a blind panic.
Between bouts of weeding and sessions on an exercise bike called Pony, according to The Times, he gave the men a unique insight into his parenting style as he recounted tales about his life in Iraq.
Hussein reportedly revealed that when his notoriously violent son Uday made a “terrible mistake” by shooting several people dead at a party, he burnt his collection of Rolls-Royces, Porsches, and Ferraris as a punishment. We immediately sense that the Super 12 will be forever changed by their experience.
In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the "man without a conscience", manages to get everyone around him to examine theirs.
The magic of this book is that Bardenwerper keeps us on edge even though we know how it will end.