Saddam Hussein Goes Home and Hides Under a Rug
Author: Matt Norton
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 12/16/2003
While everyone agrees that the violence that is part of the new Iraqi reality will not go away with the capture of Saddam Hussein, something momentous has still happened. The dictator has fallen. The “new Iraq” has inherited conflicts from the Hussein period, but for the past seven months they have existed in a radically different context. In that sense, the dictatorship is long gone as a reality on the ground, even though the dictator as man and as illusion may have just fallen this past 13th of December. Nevertheless, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and even more crucially, the disintegration of the myth of Saddam Hussein, is significant in the “new Iraq” with all of its dilemmas. The death of the myth of Hussein, more than anything else, brings an irrevocable and unequivocal end to the old order, its history, and its nightmares. The official Saudi response is indicative in this regard, noting that “[t]he capture of Saddam Hussein will end an infamous chapter of history for Iraq and the region.”[i] Such an ending is always also a beginning, though. Operation Red Dawn, the name of the U.S. military mission that was responsible for the successful capture of Saddam Hussein, is wickedly accurate, albeit unintentionally, as a metaphor for capturing the ambiguity of this increasingly bloody moment of beginning that it was responsible for finally and fully ushering in to Iraq. George Bush is correct in calling this the end to “a dark and painful era” in Iraqi history[ii], though what new darkness and pain exist in the era that Iraq is now embarking upon cannot be known.
Myths live and die by their own logic. One of the reasons that myths, especially living myths, become mythic in the first place is that they seem to live outside the rules that govern the rest of us. They are bigger than life, mightier than circumstance, and awesome (in the case of Saddam, terribly so) in their capacity to shape circumstance and the world to their liking, and often to do their bidding. Young Saddam’s rise to power seemed ordained. Born in a mud-brick hut, the son of farmers, he enters politics in his teens, joining the Baath party. After attempting to assassinate president, he is arrested, escapes from prison, and then plays a role in the Baathist coup d’ etat. Hussein becomes part of the Revolutionary Command Council of the Baath party, eventually taking on the role of head of the secret police, and is the power behind his cousin President Ahmad Hassan Bakr’s rule for nearly a decade[iii]. Through a combination of repressive tactics and public good works (literacy programmes[iv], building hospitals, road construction, etc.) in key power bases, he ensures that when the opportunity to become ruler of the country knocks, he is ready. He calls a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council of the Baath party, and secures his position as head of the Iraqi state for the next few decades by revealing a supposed plot orchestrated by 60 of his closest Baath party rivals live, on stage. These powerful figures are taken away, tried, and put to the firing squad. The cheers at the Baath party conference where this took place and thereafter are ever more fervent in their unanimous support for Saddam. Iraq is now utterly in his hands. He starts a war with Iran, borrows billions of dollars to prosecute it, uses chemical weapons extensively, achieves a draw after 500,000 – 1million war-related deaths, successfully portrays the adventure in Iraq as a victory, and then demands more money from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since he has broken the Iraqi economy in support of his war machine[v]. No funds forthcoming, he successfully invades Kuwait, maintaining sufficient regime coherency for such aggressive action by rigidly adhering to a totalitarian policy of domestic policing which included the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds of Halabja and possibly elsewhere, but was in large part based on a domestic regime of fear and the concentration of ultimate power, which he used to keep his enemies, among others, divided and weak. The first coalition, under U.N. sanction, drives Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait, but does not topple him. The U.S. supports an uprising that may have been far closer to succeeding than anyone knew at the time, but at the last minute turns its back, allowing Saddam Hussein to rescue his regime and to crush the rebellion. An attempted coup supported by the CIA in the mid 90’s likewise ends in disaster, the Iraqi people suffer, though whether it is the U.N. sanctions that are primarily responsible or the manipulation of the sanctions by Saddam Hussein is a debatable point, while Hussein and his loyalists stay strong on black market oil revenues. U.N. weapons inspectors are unceremoniously ejected from the country without any immediate repercussions, and all the while Saddam’s mythology grows. It is no wonder that by many on the Arab street Saddam Hussein was seen as a metaphor for resistance against the Americans. It is no wonder that despite the presence of the most well-armed fighting force in the world, many Iraqis harbored the irrational but real fear (or hope for the few that legitimately wanted him back) that somehow Saddam would return. He had done the impossible for decades, turned aside every threat, turned every blow to strength, and so the logic of the myth was drastically different than the logic of a world where U.S. geopolitical and military might was now fully committed to ensuring that Saddam Hussein would never return to power. In the myth-world, Saddam was invincible, and remained so until the night of Saturday the 13th of December.
There are two stories here, one is the story of the capture of Saddam Hussein, the other is the story of the story of the capture of Saddam Hussein. The first is what happened, the second is the telling of what happened, and it is the second that has turned his myth to dust. The basic events are clear: 600 U.S. troops from the 4th Infantry Division and a special forces unit performed a raid on a farmhouse in the town of Ad Dawr, close to Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit. In their first search the troops found nothing. They scoured the area a second time, apparently as a routine measure, and found a small hiding hole. As they prepared to throw a grenade down to clear the hole, two hands and then a man came out. He identified himself as Saddam Hussein, and said that he would like to negotiate. One of the soldiers reportedly responded, “President Bush sends his regards”. The symbol of resistance against the American invader, the invincible icon of Arab defiance then gave himself up.
The story of the story of the capture of Saddam Hussein is likewise clear, but it exists not in the practical world of who did what to who, but in the symbolic realm, which is the only place that a myth can be made or truly deconstructed and, at the end of the day, destroyed. The story of the story of the capture is a tale of humiliation upon humiliation. It is a tool as much as a story, a hammer that has smashed the myth of the dictator beyond repair, in Iraq and beyond. In the telling of this story, the video clip released by the U.S. military of Saddam receiving a medical check-up is indeed worth 1,000 words or so. The image of the infernal dictator being poked and prodded, his hair checked for lice, a tongue depressor at play in his mouth while a flashlight illuminates in intimate detail the dental state of the man who had dominated Iraq through fear for more than two-decades, could not be more potent in terms of shattering the super-human reputation that Saddam had cultivated over 20 years of brutality and wily-ness. Even his physical appearance in the video helps destroy the myth. The super-human do not look like Saddam now looks in the minds of the Iraqi people, the world-wide audience of news consumers, the Arab-street, and everywhere that video was received – his hair matted and unkempt, his skin covered in some sort of lesions, a filthy appearance as the privacy of his medical exam is being broadcast for all to see.
Further details have also emerged over the last day since Hussein’s capture (and before this issue of the Monitor goes to print) and these humanizing pieces of information that make the once mighty seem more like us are potent in their capacity to reveal the man and kill his myth. Saddam was found in what has been called a spider-hole, a rat-hole, a coffin-like space, a den. Suffice to say that it was a tiny, coffin-shaped hole in the ground, barely big enough for a person to lay down, and Saddam is a tall man. He was disoriented when he emerged, confused by the smallness of the space in which he had been hiding. He is reported to have had a pistol, but the man who had ruled in part through the inculcation of a militarist ideology and who had enjoined his followers to die fighting, and who provided cash rewards to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers was taken without a shot or a struggle. This meek story of capture will likely take on particular importance on the Arab street. Hussein was widely considered there to be a mighty warrior in the fight against U.S. hegemony. While he was not universally loved, he was considered by many to be among the strongest of Arab leaders, a ferocious man, possessing the mettle needed to stand up to the U.S. in support of the Palestinians and in defiance of the superpower’s military might. Somehow he seemed to get away with his defiance every time. That myth of Hussein as warrior has died more thoroughly than most of his myth, and will likely change not only estimations of what he has become, but raises the question whether he was ever anything else. This, incidentally, not only challenges notions of Saddam Hussein, but has the potential to reverberate through the entire modern political mythology of the Arab world and its stories of strong leaders. It could make people wonder how strong their leaders actually are. It may make them doubt. There could be longer term repercussions from this change in the mythological order, but that remains to be seen.
Saddam had been living in a shack that was more disheveled than the man himself. Video shows the filth and squalor that the once mighty dictator, lord of more than twenty palaces scattered around the nation, each rivaling the others in ostentation, had been living in: a bin of rotting oranges; a few Mars Bars; the only decoration on the wall a picture of Noah’s ark. There were cans of Spam. He only had US$750,000 dollars. Somehow the most pitiful of all these small facts are the boxer shorts and t-shirts found on the bed of the shack by the Tigris river, just across from one of his old palaces, where Saddam finally proved that even the mythological has its limit. The shorts were still wrapped up, and were Saddam Hussein’s size. They appear from the videos of news reporters allowed access to the tyrant’s final “palace” to be white.
Sarcasm too plays a role. The soldiers telling Saddam that “President Bush sends his regards” is the most blatant, showing that Saddam no longer had the power to cut out their sassy tongues and was truly neutralized. But Saddam too has been sarcastic, and this is perhaps even more indicative of the degree to which he is a fallen man. One of the members of the Iraqi Governing Council who was allowed to see him reported that “[h]e was not apologetic. He was sarcastic and making a mockery of the Iraqi people.”[vi] One of U.S. military officials who has participated in the interrogation of Saddam has concurred, albeit more succinctly, calling Hussein “a wiseass”[vii]. But sarcasm is not the rhetorical tool of the dictator. It is the tool of those who cannot risk saying what they actually mean, and thus are left to hide behind a thin covering of words that say one thing but mean another. The wiseass is the one who has no power, and is relegated to making impotent japes by way of commentary on a situation that, in this case, he can no longer influence. The image of Saddam Hussein, former dictator, mocking the people over whom he once held near-absolute rule resonates because it shows how diminished his power to inflict harm has become. He has gone from alleged torture rooms and the institutionalization of fear as means of exerting his power and influence, to sarcastic jibes hurled to an audience of his captors. He has gone from being the Butcher from Baghdad to being a wiseass, and we have witnessed this transformation in living colour.
This sort of spectacle will continue in the things we see and hear about Saddam Hussein in the coming years, with all the early commentary indicating that a major development in this unfolding demythologization will be his trial. While the outlines of this debate were at first unclear – Sen. Arlan Spector of the United States Senate was perhaps over-eager, stating on CNN the night of the 14th of December that “a lot of people want to try Saddam. He can be tried in a lot of places”[viii] – it seems beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein will stand some kind of trial, and it will almost surely be in Iraq. This will be another inexorable step in the destruction of the myth of Saddam, and an extension of the story of the story of his capture. We will see him, the man who did not merely flout the rule of law in the country he held under his dominion, but created it and recreated it to suit his purposes, held in the firm grip of a tribunal of his fellow Iraqis. We can be sure that the U.S. will not release their prisoner unless the tribunal to which they do so will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, find him guilty on multiple counts, and drive home the message that Saddam is no more. The trial will likely operate fairly and transparently, and nothing will make the Americans happier. It will all be for the better, in the task of myth-destroying, to have this coming process of law open, so all can see the dictator squirm, powerless in the apparatus of the law. Saddam will almost surely be treated humanely throughout the trial. He will without a doubt be allowed to shave and tend to his appearance. He will be found guilty. He may be sentenced to death for his crimes. We will watch through it all and wonder at what we once thought of the man. There will be no horror left in him, much as there is no horror left in Milosevic. The monster is gone, leaving a litigious old man who is doing his best to escape a verdict that will come.
Elements such as these, the medical exam, the boxer shorts, the coming trial, are each a blow to the mythological structures that surrounded and supported Saddam Hussein through his rule. Through them all, the symbolic order that his reign rested upon has been brought to a definitive end. Though Saddam Hussein is still alive, Saddam, the mythological man, is well and truly dead.
The death of the myth allows us, finally, to look at the man[ix]. Hussein has probably not been so very mythological for a while, judging by the state in which he was eventually found. It seems that he at first relied on loyalists to his regime, but as the prospects of his return to power became less and less likely and the pressure of the U.S. military’s search for him intensified, he was forced to rely on tribal ties in the area of Tikrit. As the time of his despotism continued to recede, the myth continued to wither, and the search grew ever more intense. He turned then ever more heavily to extended family to protect him, though presumably he trusted fewer and fewer of them, even at the height of power he was nearly paranoid when it came to his security arrangements, until finally, no one was left to save him and the game was up. This image of Saddam Hussein caught in an ever dwindling circle of influence, with a shrinking number of choices, brings us full circle.
One wonders if he had some sense of déjà vu, disorder, or even of poetic justice as he retreated through a shrinking circle of those who could help him and whose loyalty he could still command after 20 years of dictatorial rule, back to the place he had come from. The soldiers finally found Saddam’s hiding place underneath a rug. In a very real sense he was back where he started, a man whose myth was destroyed and who was therefore utterly free of a mythology to live up to. It was in such a myth-less state that he began his rise to power, with no expectations to fulfill and only his vaulting ambition to live up to. Now it was only Saddam Hussein, alone[x] again as he had not been alone since becoming Saddam the Baathist at the beginning of the rise that would become his fall. He was cut off from his family, his loyalists, the structures of the state that had once done his bidding, from everything that had made him fearsome and powerful. He was merely Saddam Hussein, hiding out in a village near Tikrit, waiting to be caught and for the world to find out that the dictator was no more, and perhaps was never quite what we thought.
Under the rug was a man, and it is he who we will hold responsible for all the things he did on his way back to where he started.
[i] Sultan, Prince Bandar bin. 14 December 2003. “Saudi Ambassador Comments on Capture of Saddam Hussein”. Available at: http://www.saudiembassy.net/2003News/Press/PressDetail.asp?cIndex=174 , Last accessed: 15 December 2003.
[ii] Bush, supra note i.
[iii] Butt, Gerald. 24 January 1999. “Saddam Hussein: His rise to power”. BBC News, World Edition. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/events/crisis_in_the_gulf/decision_makers_and_diplomacy/236486.stm , Last accessed: 15 December 2003.
[iv] Saddam won an award from UNESCO for the dramatic strides that his programmes made in combating illiteracy in Iraq. Classes were compulsory, and failure to attend was punishable by jail time.
[v] Which, it must be noted, was kept supplied with arms by the U.S., which, for part of the Iran-Iraq war, was fueling the struggle by supporting both sides. Kissinger summed up U.S. policy well when he famously complained “too bad they can’t both lose.”
[vi] CNN. 14 December 2003. “Saddam to face war crimes tribunal”. CNN.com. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/12/14/sprj.nirq.saddam.future/ , Last accessed: 15 December 2003.
[vii] Unnamed U.S. military official. 15 December 2003. reported comments. CNN International Biznews.
[viii] Spector, Arlan. 14 December 2003. verbal comments. CNN Live, U.S. edition.
[ix] For more information on the life of Saddam Hussein, and the way he lived as dictator, see Bowden, Mark. May 2002. “Tales of the Tyrant”. The Atlantic Monthly. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/05/bowden.htm , Last accessed: 15 December 2003. from which some of the details in the following paragraph have been drawn.
[x] Figuratively, but also literally; his two remaining bodyguards apparently fled on the approach of U.S. troops and were apprehended.