Though many Americans are at a loss to name even the most powerful of world leaders, nearly all are familiar with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Saddam is so frequently the instigator of trouble both in his own region and—thanks to his influence over the international oil market—worldwide, that his pompadoured, moustachioed, military-clad image has become a commonplace sight in American newpapers and television broadcasts. (Just this week we saw him urging Arab countries to curtail oil production in protest against Israel's military offensive.)
But as Mark Bowden makes clear in his May cover story, "Tales of the Tyrant," there is far more to Saddam than the belligerent caricature with which most of us are familiar. By conducting extensive interviews with a number of expatriate Iraqis who have had personal dealings with him, and by digging through the extensive literature on Saddam, Bowden has pieced together a comprehensive portrait of this enigmatic despot—shedding light on how he developed into the monstrous figure he is today.
Not so long ago, Saddam was admired as a thoughtful, articulate, intelligent politician who was an asset to Iraq's reform-minded socialist-revolutionary party. Some of those who knew him in the sixties and seventies recall enjoying idealistic bull-sessions with him about Iraq's future. And as he gained power within the party, he began to implement a number of reforms to Iraq's health-care and educational systems that both seemed to fulfill his early promise and earned him praise in the West.
But in 1979, just when he may have been poised for election to the party's top position, he seized the party leadership in an abrupt and violent manner—accusing a number of influential party leaders of treason, and then having them publicly executed. "Everyone now understood exactly how things would work from that day forward" Bowden writes. Saddam now wielded absolute power, and those who crossed or challenged him would be eliminated.
This dramatic change in Saddam perplexed many outside observers, but several Iraqis with whom Bowden spoke suggested that Saddam's sudden ruthlessness may have represented not so much a transformation of his character as the emergence of an impulse that had been hidden within him all along. Saddam, they pointed out, had grown up in a primitive village where subsistence was difficult and competition and violence among family clans was the rule. Saad al-Bazzaz, a former newspaper editor and television producer in Baghdad, described Iraqi village life thus:
There is no real law enforcement or civil society. Each family is frightened of each other, and all of them are frightened of outsiders. This is the tribal mind. The only loyalty they know is to their own family, or to their own village. Each of the families is ruled by a patriarch, and the village is ruled by the strongest of them. This loyalty to tribe comes before everything. There are no values beyond power. You can lie, cheat, steal, even kill, and it is okay so long as you are a loyal son of the village or the tribe. Politics for these people is a bloody game, and it is all about getting or holding power.
Perhaps, al-Bazzaz suggested, Saddam had long been planning to become "the ultimate Iraqi patriarch, the village leader who has seized a nation." If so, Saddam may have been interested in reform only insofar as it could further his own power.
A pathological sense of vanity, Bowden explains, has also played an important role in Saddam's quest for absolute power. He seems to want more than anything to go down in history as a great man—a glorious champion of the Arab people. With a view to this, he has had giant statues erected in his honor, poems lauding him presented on television, and a nineteen-part biography written about his accomplishments. He has even had his lineage traced to the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and—in honor of that alleged divine connection—had a 600-page copy of the Koran hand-written in his own donated blood. "Can ego alone explain such displays?" Bowden asks. "Might it be the opposite? What colossal insecurity and self-loathing would demand such compensation?"
His utter conviction that Allah has appointed him the avenger of his people has rendered him impervious to reason when it comes to making foreign-policy decisions. Thus, believing that he cannot but prevail, he frequently takes foolish, hubristic military and political action that ends up getting many of his citizens needlessly killed or injured. His people despise him both for this and for the atrocities he regularly commits, seemingly at whim, against those he perceives as his enemies.
"Ultimately," Bowden writes, "Saddam will fail," because nearly every move he makes creates new enemies who may one day turn on him. In the meantime, Saddam works hard to elude that fate by hiding behind the high walls of his palaces, sleeping as little as possible (and never in the same place for more than one night at a time), and scrupulously concealing from the public such signs of aging and vulnerability as his graying hair, his bad back, and his worsening eyesight. "Survival [has become] his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one." Despite Saddam's extensive wealth and power, then, the life of the tyrant is hardly enviable. "One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices," Bowden writes, "but in reality he has the fewest."
Mark Bowden, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of Black Hawk Down (1999) and Killing Pablo (2001). He spoke with me by phone on April 15.
You emphasize that Saddam Hussein scrupulously hides the intimate details of his life from the general public, but you've managed to paint a fairly full picture of his background, his personal habits, and his daily routines. Was it difficult to figure out how to access that kind of information?
Obviously I wasn't going to get to hang around with Saddam Hussein himself—although I did try! I sent a letter and phoned the Iraqi consulate in New York, asking if I could interview him. But they never responded. So I didn't get anywhere with that.
The hardest thing was to try to sort out the truth from fantasy. There have been a number of books written about Saddam, several of them by Iraqi expatriates, and one by the British journalists Alexander and Leslie Cockburn. But the problem with those books is that they repeat a lot of rumors about him. Given that he is such a despised figure in his own country and around the world, anything bad that's said about Saddam is repeated and written down as though it were definitely true. My hunch going in was that if I were trying to write about the intimate details of his personal life, it was going to be difficult to sort out the tall tales from the truth. The only way to try to get at the truth was by finding people who had personal relationships with him and getting them to talk about their experiences. In my reporting, I try to get first-hand stories because I have the best shot at getting reliable information that way.