A book that in the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song lifts away the top layer of evil and finds complexity beneath, this is the bizarre tale of twelve young soldiers who are deployed in the Iraq War expecting to face the enemy in combat, but find themselves protecting the enemy’s most infamous and fearsome leader—Saddam Hussein—in the months before his death.
The Prisoner in His Palace is a surprisingly evocative and thought-provoking account of how the lives of twelve young American soldiers are upended when they’re asked to guard the most “high-value detainee” of all, the notorious dictator Saddam Hussein.
What the self-dubbed “Super Twelve” experience in the Fall of 2006 is cognitive dissonance at its most extreme. Expecting to engage with the enemy “outside the wire,” they’re suddenly tasked with guarding a notorious dictator until he can be hanged. Watching over Saddam in a former palace and regularly transporting their prisoner to his raucous trial, the men gradually begin to question some of their most basic assumptions. Rather than the snarling beast they expect, Saddam proves complex—voluble, charming, and given to displays of affection. Perhaps most shockingly, in his Spartan stoicism and the courage he shows facing death, he eventually coaxes from many of his jailors a certain respect.
Switching between present and past, The Prisoner in His Palace contrasts the man entrusted to the Super Twelve’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 in him a blind panic. Provocative and thoroughly researched, Will Bardenwerper’s tense narrative upends what we thought we knew about the war in Iraq and the American invasion’s last act. We know the Super Twelve will be forever changed by their experience, and we wonder if we ourselves will be, too.