Rathole Under the Palace

Jerrold M. Post directs the political psychology program at George Washington University. He was founding director of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. His most recent book is "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders."

How ironic that it should have come to this: Saddam Hussein, who began life in a mud hut near Tikrit, has now ended his political career in a hole in the ground beneath a mud hut near Tikrit. But considering Hussein’s psychological makeup, his end was, if not inevitable, certainly fitting.

The dictator was born in 1937 to a poor peasant family near Tikrit, some 100 miles north of Baghdad. But the central lines of the development of Hussein’s political personality were etched before he was born. His father died of an “internal disease” (probably cancer) while his mother, Sabha, was pregnant with Hussein. A few months later, during his mother’s eighth month of pregnancy, Hussein’s 12-year-old brother died of childhood cancer. Devastated and destitute, Hussein’s mother attempted suicide. A Jewish family saved her. Then she tried to self-abort but was again prevented from doing this by her Jewish benefactors.

After Hussein was born, on April 28, his mother did not wish to see him, which strongly suggests that she was suffering from a major depression. His care was relegated to Sabha’s brother in Tikrit, Khayrallah Talfah Msallat, in whose home Hussein spent much of his early childhood. At age 3, Hussein was reunited with his mother, who had married a distant relative, Hajj Ibrahim Hasan. His stepfather reportedly was abusive psychologically and physically to the young Hussein.

The first several years of life are crucial to the development of healthy self-esteem, and so the failure of Hussein’s mother to nurture and bond with her infant son and the subsequent abuse at the hands of his stepfather would have profoundly wounded his emerging self-esteem, impairing his capacity for empathy with others. One course in the face of such traumatizing experiences is to sink into despair, passivity and hopelessness. But another is to etch a psychological template of compensatory grandiosity, as if to vow, “Never again, never again shall I submit to superior force.” This was the developmental psychological path Hussein followed.

From his early years, Hussein, whose first name, Saddam, means “the one who confronts,” charted his own course and would not accept limits. According to his semiofficial biography, when he was 10, Hussein was impressed by a visit from his cousin who knew how to read and write. He confronted his family with his wish to become educated, and when they turned him down because there was no school in his parents’ village, he left home in the middle of the night, making his way to his maternal uncle Khayrallah in Tikrit to study there.


Khayrallah tutored his young charge in his view of Arab history and the ideology of nationalism and the Ba’ath Party, eventually facilitating Hussein’s secondary schooling in Baghdad at a school known for teaching an inflammatory brand of Arab nationalism. He inspired his young charge with “dreams of glory,” telling Hussein that he was destined to play an important role in Iraqi history, following the path of heroic relatives and of heroes of the radical Arab world.

When Hussein went to Baghdad to attend high school, the streets were aflame with revolutionary fervor, for Gamal Abdel Nasser had just taken over the reins of Egypt in a military coup. Hussein idolized Nasser and aspired to one day succeed him as pan-Arab nationalist leader. After joining the Ba’ath Party at 20, Hussein had ambitions to rise, and he did, moving from street thug to strategist to leader. But no matter how grandiose a life a person like Hussein constructs -- and he built for himself as lavish a life as is possible, creating a cult of personality in Iraq, dotting the landscape with opulent palaces -- the well of pain and insecurity caused by early wounds can never be filled.

In Hussein’s case, his strong desire to never again be humiliated and abused fueled an intense rage. The stories of his cruelty are legion. An example: In 1982, when the war with Iran was going very badly for Iraq and Hussein wished to terminate hostilities, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was personally fixated on Hussein, insisted there could be no peace until Hussein was removed from power. At a cabinet meeting, Hussein asked his ministers to candidly give their advice, and the minister of health suggested Hussein temporarily step down, to resume the presidency after peace had been established. Hussein reportedly thanked him for his candor and then ordered his arrest. When the minister’s wife pleaded for her husband’s return, indicating that her husband had always been loyal to Hussein, the dictator promised her that her husband would be returned. The next day, he returned her husband’s body to her in a black canvas bag, chopped into pieces.

Actions like this powerfully concentrated the attention of other ministers who were unanimous in their insistence that Hussein remain in power, for they emphasized that to be seen as disloyal to Hussein, indeed even to constructively criticize him, was not only to risk losing one’s job but also one’s life.

But his actions also deprived Hussein of the check of wise counsel. This combination of limited international perspective and a sycophantic leadership circle led him repeatedly to miscalculate and ultimately led to his downfall.

In January 1991, German architectural plans revealed details of a massive bunker beneath a presidential palace. Built with prestressed concrete and steel, it was designed to withstand all but a direct nuclear blast. Bristling with weapons, fitted with sophisticated communications equipment, with a helicopter and disguised exit, the bunker had enough food and water to last for 18 months. And all of this was beneath the lavish palace, with its inlaid woods, fine marble and gold accouterments in the bathrooms. This was an approximation to Hussein’s psychology, a grandiose facade beneath which was a siege state, ready to be attacked, ready to defend. The Hussein who emerged from the “spider hole” during his capture was shorn of his defensive defiance, revealing the emptiness beneath his facade. This temporarily broken man was the core Saddam Hussein, not the defiant, besieged Hussein and not the grandiose occupant of the palace.

The importance of the images of a meek, humiliated Hussein giving up without a fight to his American captors cannot be overstated.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein ruthlessly hunted down those who had too early revealed their desire to see him ousted. He jailed them and their families, had them tortured and executed. It was a lesson Iraqis still heeded. Few have wanted to be seen as actively celebrating Hussein’s fall until it was demonstrated conclusively that he was either dead or captured and no longer posed a threat. The pictures of his capture did more than that, showing a broken man emerging from the hole beneath the mud hut, submitting without a fight.

This is not to say that the capture of Hussein will end the threat to the alliance forces, for there are still die-hard loyalists as well as the many jihadists who have flooded into Iraq in the wake of the war. Nor is it to say that the temporary break in Hussein’s facade will persist. Indeed, there is already material that has emerged from the first interrogations and the meeting with the members of the Iraqi National Congress indicating that the characteristically defiant Hussein is once again in play. He probably will not cooperate with the interrogations and will not reveal secrets about the weapons of mass destruction the U.S. and Britain so desperately seek. Trying to break him will only lead to defensive defiance. Playing to his swollen ego would assuredly be a better path to elicit information. Just as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is playing to his Serbian supporters in his war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Hussein probably will use the occasion of his own forthcoming trial to defiantly play to his radical Arab world audience.

But the image of Hussein the Arab strongman defying the West has been seriously damaged, if not mortally wounded, for the vivid photographic images of the degraded former ruler obediently following the instructions of his captors will never permit the image of Hussein the defiant Arab strongman to be restored unblemished. Behind the grand facade of his palace is a hole in the ground under a mud hut. This is the core psychology of Hussein. This is what his followers saw and will not easily forget.