Saddam must know the end is near. His armies are destroyed, and his enemies are in his city, in his palaces, destroying his monuments, and fanning out through his underground tunnel system. He is still fighting, he will fight to the end, but some day soon that end will come. What goes through the mind of a dictator when he faces that reality? Not those who don’t have time to think about it, those assassinated or who have died by accident, nor those who languish in prison for some time while their fates are decided. Rather, those despots, those ruiners of lives who are forced to watch as powers greater than theirs sap the might of their regimes, chip away the layers of protective cover, the armies, the special guards, the secret police, the propaganda, the reinforced walls and armor plated chambers, until all that is left is the closing moment, where they stand naked before the immutable laws of power that they had exploited for so long, to the benefit of some, to the detriment of many more, to the horror of millions and to the infamy of their names.
When does it hit, that instant when the despot knows that the jig is up? Saddam is a fighter, the dawning won’t come for awhile. He is not the kind of guy who can conceptualize his own demise, though his entire life has been oriented towards staving it off (with so many wanting to bring it about). The decapitation strike may have brought it home to him, put the fact that it failed probably reinforced his view that he has been spared for a reason, that he has been chosen by some agency — maybe God, he’s been on an Allah kick the last few years, or Providence, whatever — for some greater endeavors. He always knew he was a man of destiny, Saladin incarnate, and the near miss only confirmed it. If it had been his time, he would be gone. The fact that he lives at all is destiny manifest.
But what of others in Saddam’s unenviable position? Towards the end of Benito Mussolini’s life he told one of his confidants, “Fascism must die heroically,” equating himself with the movement he made famous. By 1945 he had already lost power once, betrayed by his own fascist council, imprisoned, later rescued by his admirer Hitler and installed in a German-backed puppet sate in Northern Italy. In April he tried to escape to Switzerland with his mistress Claretta Petacci. He was moving with German troops, disguised as one of them when the column encountered a force of partisans. They were only interested in Italians, and the Germans cut a deal, but still tried to hide Mussolini, albeit unsuccessfully. He and Claretta were taken to the town of Mezzegra near Lake Como to await disposition. Lake Como is a lovely resort, and was a retreat for Tennyson and Longfellow, for Bellini and Liszt. Did Mussolini appreciate the beauty of the scene? What was the weather like, how did the air smell? A car came to take them away, and he had been told they were being rescued, but the car stopped and they were placed against a wall. What was he thinking before the partisans shot them both? How did he experience those last seconds, after the machine gun misfired, and, it is said, he shook with “that animal fear which you exhibit before the ineluctable?” It was painless for both when their corpses were taken the Milan the next day to be spat upon, shot, kicked, abused and hoisted by their heels near an Esso gas station in the Piazza Loreto.
Hitler saw the scene and vowed it would not happen to him. That same day he wrote in his will, “I myself and my wife — in order to escape the disgrace of deposition or capitulation — choose death.” It must have come as a shock to Hitler that the 1000-year Reich he had envisioned would last a little over a decade, but he blamed it on the German people, unworthy of him as they were. He was holed up in the mother of all bunkers, a day away from his own rendezvous with mortality. The Russians had surrounded Berlin a week before, and he was still cursing his traitorous minions, executing those who were available, and reorganizing his failing government to reward loyalists (some reward — apolitical Admiral Karl Doenitz, head of the German Navy and unwittingly Hitler’s named successor, ruled the Reich for 23 days and received a ten year sentence at Nuremburg). He gave last minute orders to units that didn’t exist to undertake impossible missions. He had already ordered the scorched earth policy to deny his enemies, or his survivors, an intact Germany. He vowed defiance at the Russians, who “must and shall bleed to death before the capital of the German Reich.” But at some point on April 30 he gave in to the inevitable. What could possibly have been going through his mind in that moment? What was the last thing he saw, the last sound, the last sensation, the final recognizable thought? Not remorse, not guilt — I would guess indignation at a world unfit for his genius.
Romanian Stalinist strongman Nikolai Ceaucescu was more surprised than anyone when his regime collapsed on December 21, 1989. The moment is captured on video, during a speech before a mass rally in Bucharest, days after his troops shot down over 70 demonstrators in the city of Timisoara. During his address the crowd turned ugly, shouting “Timisoara!” and “Down with Ceaucescu!” The dictator’s expression showed anger, but also puzzlement and disbelief. The screen went blank, and the crowd was dispersed, but the next day the people had taken to the streets in force, and the army had joined them. Nikolai and his much-despised wife Elena took off in a helicopter that soon ran out of gas — they were later picked up hitchhiking and taken to the military base at Tirgoviste. Ion Iliescu, a former Ceaucescu supporter, established the National Salvation Front Council along with other newly former Communists, and they knew they had to get rid of the pair if they had any chance at all of setting up a successor regime. They held the last of the Soviet-style show trials in Tirgoviste on Christmas Day, charging the Ceaucescus with genocide, and announcing that they had been convicted. Nikolae was combative, and did not recognize the authority of the court to try him. Elena also showed no grasp of reality. A totalitarian queen with life and death powers over millions of Romanians, her behavior revealed that she never really understood what power was, or on what it was based. She stared unvarnished power in the face, and snapped to the guard leading her away to be executed, “You are in serious trouble!” She spat her fury to the end; but her husband, perhaps reconciled to his fate, tried to calm her saying, “Relax. Leave it be.” The nervous executioners did not wait for formal orders — they blasted the couple as soon as they emerged into the courtyard. The trial and scenes of the bodies ran that evening on Romanian television; the former dictator wore a wistful expression to the hereafter.
Imagine Saddam now looking back on his career, the self-glorification, the lies, the paranoia, the hatred, and the death. What has it all amounted to? As he sits in his bunker, code named “Project 305: Guesthouse,” busily working out defensive schemes, sending his dwindling and ineffective forces into battle, coercing his remaining followers to greater exertions on his behalf, and watching carefully for the slightest signs of betrayal, does the thought cross his mind that it truly is over? Does he wonder at all whether it was worth it? I expect not. In his megalomania, his twisted egocentrism, he knows it was, and is. The fight is still on. Saddam Hussein has never been defeated, and never will be. He will take that thought with him to the grave.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst.