The Magazine Reader

The Fantasy World Of Saddam Hussein

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It's a shame that Joseph Heller, author of "Catch-22," is no longer alive and laughing at human folly because he'd love "Saddam's Delusions," an amazing article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. Heller's masterpiece is a darkly comic story of absurdity, brutality and insane military bureaucracy. So is "Saddam's Delusions."

"Catch-22" is fiction, of course, but "Saddam's Delusions" is all too true. It's a 25-page distillation of a 230-page Pentagon study of the last days of Saddam Hussein's regime, based on thousands of secret Iraqi government documents and interviews with dozens of captured Iraqi officials. Written by military analysts Kevin Woods and James Lacey and historian Williamson Murray -- all of whom worked on the Pentagon study -- it's a deadpan account of madness, paranoia and idiocy in high places.

"A close associate once described Saddam as a deep thinker who lay awake at night pondering problems at length before inspiration came to him in dreams," the authors write. "These dreams became dictates the next morning, and invariably all those around Saddam would praise his great intuition."

Many of Saddam's dream-inspired ideas were ludicrous, but none of his lackeys had the guts to say so. They all remembered what happened in 1982, when Saddam asked his aides for candid advice about his war with Iran, which wasn't going well. Riyadh Ibrahim, the minister of health, suggested that Saddam temporarily step down and resume his presidency when the war ended. The next day, pieces of Ibrahim's chopped-up body were delivered to his wife.

"This powerfully concentrated the attention of the other ministers," recalled a former Saddam aide, showing an impressive flair for understatement.

One way Saddam stayed in power was by filling his government with people who were too inept to overthrow him. A captured general summed up the qualifications of the head of the Special Republican Guard in a sentence that Heller could have written: "First, he was not intelligent enough to represent a threat to the regime, and second, he was not brave enough to participate in anybody else's plots."

With nobody daring to contradict him, Saddam came to believe he was brilliant. Before the Persian Gulf War, he told his intelligence service that he didn't need their advice about the United States.

"America is a complicated country," he told them. "Understanding it requires a politician's alertness that is beyond the intelligence community."

Shortly before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Saddam was "very confident" that the Americans would never dare attack Iraq, and if they did, that they would be defeated by his "superior" forces.

Needless to say, his generals were afraid to tell him otherwise. They did raise their concerns with the minister of defense, but he ignored them, hoping to "keep Saddam's favor."

Of course, Saddam was wrong: The United States did invade and easily defeated the pathetic Iraqi army. But Saddam didn't let such unpleasant facts alter his worldview. On March 30, a week before the Americans took Baghdad, Saddam instructed his underlings to tell the French and Russian governments to stop trying to broker a cease-fire because "Iraq is now winning."

On April 6, the day before Baghdad fell, Saddam's Ministry of Defense issued a memo assuring army officers that "we are doing great."

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