Saddam Hussein

Careful, this one’s long and academic.  It’s my Master’s dissertation in International History for the London School of Economics and Political Science.  Called “An Irrational Crisis,” it looks at Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, how his emotional makeup affected his decisions, and how those feelings were rooted in his own staggeringly sad childhood.

An Irrational Crisis:  Connecting childhood trauma to Saddam Hussein’s irrational choices during the Kuwait and Gulf Wars of 1990-91

Summary:  This paper unearths a largely neglected source for Saddam Hussein’s strange decisions during the Gulf Crisis:  his childhood pain.  Finding new conclusions regarding (a) what most fundamentally drove him in 1990-91, and (b) whether or not he was rational, it emphasizes a level of desperation even deeper and more essential than oil or debt, which most analysts fingered as the Crisis’ driving factors:  extreme emotional insecurity.  Severely neglected and abused during his most formative time, Saddam became addicted to behaviours – fighting, hoarding power, acting heroically, feeling loved and even punished – which sprung from his struggle to numb his own pain.  Propelled by self-destructive compulsions, Hussein antagonized America and its allies, attempted to seize the entirety of Kuwait, then refused to meaningfully negotiate with a 32-nation Coalition that increasingly leaned toward war.  The essay finds Hussein to have been as irrational leading his country as he was rational pursuing his addictions.  The roots of his irrationality stemmed from the fact that, unbeknownst to himself, the demons with whom he grappled in 1990-91 were not at their core the imperialist West and its corrupt Arab allies of that time, but were instead the maligned caretakers of his youth.


Key Words:  Saddam Hussein, Gulf Crisis, psychohistory, childhood trauma, irrational decision-making



[I]n the childhood of the murderers who later became dictators, I have always found a nightmarish horror, a record of continual lies and humiliation, which upon the attainment of adulthood, impelled them to acts of merciless revenge on society. These vengeful acts were always garbed in hypocritical ideologies, purporting that the dictator’s exclusive and overriding wish was the happiness of his people.

Alice Miller (1997)


The Gulf Crisis left 150,000 people killed and two wrecked nations in its wake, Iraq and Kuwait (Kelidar, 1992).  It entailed two wars:  Iraq’s 2 August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and, five months later, the January 1991 counterattack of a 32-nation Coalition, which was led by the United States, and which lasted six weeks before forcing Iraq’s withdrawal.

This essay studies irrational decisions made by President Saddam Hussein that ignited and largely shaped the Crisis.  It defines the decisions as irrational because they were tremendously self-destructive, predictably so even as they were made.  Traversing history, psychology, and international relations, it tackles two major questions:  what drove Hussein, exactly? and was he even rational?

The essay finds answers in a place heretofore largely neglected by the historical literature:  Saddam’s childhood.  It traces the roots of his irrational adult actions to his traumatic childhood experiences, and the indelible damage they did to his sense of self.  Political, economic, cultural, and historical motivations played enormous roles as well, yet Hussein’s emotional underpinnings may have proven even more fundamental in moulding the Crisis.  The paper proves that to understand certain past events, we cannot afford ignorance to childhood, the time in life when the very selves that shaped history were first having their foundations set.


Iraq’s 2 August 1990 invasion of Kuwait marked the first time that one member of the United Nations had forcibly tried to annex another (Dannreuther, 1992, p.3).  The world took particular notice because it depended heavily on both states’ oil exports.  Hussein described invading Kuwait, then fighting the American-led Coalition of 32 nations intent on protecting it, as a battle for Arab nationalism against Western imperialism and the corrupt Gulf regimes, such as Kuwait, that facilitated its plan to dominate Arab oil.

A more cynical take on the invasion, however, would highlight Iraq’s grim position at the beginning of 1990; invading Kuwait was an act of desperation.  After fighting Iran from 1980-88, Iraq shouldered $80 billion in debt and $230 billion in destroyed infrastructure (Long, 2004, p. 10).  Oil accounted for 95% of Iraq’s revenue, yet prices fell across 1990 as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates produced beyond OPEC limits, increasing global supply.  Iraq’s oil profits fell in response to roughly $15 billion per year by 1990, while interest payments on Iran War debts consumed half that amount (Long, p. 10).  Prudent policy might have been to reschedule debts, police instability fiercely, and patiently rebuild Iraq’s enormous oil potential.  But Hussein embarked on an opposite course, antagonizing America, taking Kuwait, then refusing to meaningfully negotiate a settlement over the five months between the Kuwait invasion and the Coalition’s crushing counterattack.

Basic Timeline

Within hours after the invasion, the UN demanded Iraq’s immediate withdrawal.  On 7 August 1990, Saudi Arabia welcomed U.S. troops to protect its eastern oilfields from further Iraqi land grabs.  On 12 August, Hussein issued a “Peace Initiative”; it stated that Iraq would not negotiate over Kuwait until Israel evacuated Palestine and Syria left Lebanon; Hussein would not budge from this stance until the Crisis’ very end.  The document’s final words, meanwhile – “Woe unto the vanquished” – were hardly peaceful.

On 16 August, two weeks after invading Kuwait, Hussein stationed Western civilians around Iraq as “human shields” against Western air strikes.  Placing civilians at risk in this way, like so many of his actions throughout the Crisis, inflamed international opinion against him tremendously.  Three months later, as Hussein’s intransigence pushed UN members toward war as their only option, UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 678 of 29 November offered “one final opportunity” for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait peacefully, setting a 15 January 1991 deadline.  Iraq refused, sparking a relentless six-week bombing campaign that began on 17 January 1991 and wrought havoc on Iraqi infrastructure.  The following week, Iraq launched 15 scud missiles at Israel and paraded visibly beaten-up Coalition POWs on TV (Dilip, 2003, p.323; Al-Marashi, 2004, p. 277).  A 15 February 1991 Newsweek poll found 90% of Americans favouring continued military assaults until Hussein withdrew unconditionally (Dilip, p. 379); by 24 February, a three-day ground attack led by American forces overwhelmed Iraqi forces and freed Kuwait.

The Crisis boggled observers.  Hussein’s attempt to seize a neighbour by force seemed so criminal, his refusal to seriously negotiate so perplexing, that he seemed inept, if not insane.  Yet how could such a person have grabbed hold of a nation as unstable as Iraq – 13 coups took place between Iraq’s founding in 1920 and the one that launched Hussein to Iraq’s Presidency in 1979 (Long, p. 9) – and kept it in his grip for 24 years?  Colleagues of Hussein’s noted his exceptional intelligence, memory, work ethic and street smarts (Aburish, 2000, p. 99).  Since when was this a man who underestimated the power and danger of a potential enemy?

The context for the Crisis was provided by Iraq’s desperation, its bitter relationships with neighbours, and its pained history of victimization by imperialist powers.  The plot, however, revolved around the actions of Hussein, its protagonist.  To understand his decisions – his motives and rationality – this analysis shines light on a level of desperation that, in the grand scheme of the Crisis, proved even more pivotal than oil or debt:  Hussein’s extreme emotional insecurity.

The paper shows that as a boy, Saddam’s needs for love and protection were harshly denied him.  Falling victim to extreme neglect and abuse, young Saddam was naturally overcome by pain:  humiliation, vulnerability, loneliness, rage, and sadness.  To escape this hurt, he repressed it, burying it inside the part of the mind that Freud famously unearthed over a century ago:  the unconscious.  To numb this pain, or to keep it unconscious, Hussein became addicted to behaviours that evoked opposite feelings instead:  that made him seem strong instead of vulnerable, the humiliator instead of the humiliated, the loved instead of the neglected.  Hussein’s was the typical transformation from trauma victim to addict.  In 1990-91, his addictions to conflict, power, and feeling loved proved decisive in provoking a devastating, irrational crisis.



This essay’s biggest contention with Gulf Crisis literature to date is its widespread assumption that Hussein was a rational actor.  Many fields studying human behaviour over the last several decades have relied on the notion that people make choices consciously and rationally (Crawford, 2000, p. 116-7), and indeed, the analyst’s job of explaining actors’ decisions gets easier when the decisions themselves were made logically.  Analysts may fear that to label a decision “irrational” is to declare it unexplainable, at which point, the gig is up.  This paper contends, however, that irrationality can be explained, particularly if we are dealing with trauma.  The trauma of Hussein’s past was particularly dire, and Gulf Crisis analysts who miss how deeply this affected him have been prone to conclusions that have been by varying degrees inaccurate, superficial, or contradictory.

To explain Hussein’s motives, the following list of reapolitik incentives for invading Kuwait have generally been provided by experts.  The invasion would cancel $10 billion in debt that Kuwait lent Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War 1980-88 (Pelletiere, p. 216).   Iraq would seize Kuwait’s assets, as well as its Persian Gulf islands Warbah and Bubiyan which enabled deep-water anchorage for Iraqi oil tankers; until that point, Iraq’s sole Gulf outlets were the Shatt al Arab Waterway, which Iraq shared by treaty with Iran, and the small port of Umm Qasr, to which Warbah and Bubiyan blocked access anyway.  Meanwhile, taking Kuwait’s oil would double Iraq’s percentage of known world reserves to roughly a quarter.  Waging war, moreover, solidified Hussein’s grip on power:  amidst the debt and damage left by the Iran-Iraq War, the Kuwait venture maintained a warring environment that kept his million-man military mobilized, rather than agitating unrest as they struggled to find employment.  It also defined the nation’s problems as caused by exterior enemies, instead of by poor leadership at home.  Lastly, annexing Kuwait prepared Hussein for hegemony over the Arab world and OPEC, a perch from which he could raise oil prices.

Of course Hussein found these incentives attractive, but invading Kuwait could not take place in a vacuum; it had enormous costs and consequences.  In an industrialized world that runs on oil, holding a petrol state hostage was dangerously threatening, and it is hard to shake the feeling that it defied common sense.  Was the frenzied reaction by America, the dominant global power and de facto protector of the Middle East’s current oil framework, not predictable?  In 1980, Jimmy Carter had announced in his State of the Union: any attempt “to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America” and repelled by force if necessary.

Accounts of the Gulf War that on the one hand emphasize Hussein’s incentives for seizing Kuwait, yet on the other hand downplay the likelihood of a forceful international reaction, enable Hussein to be conceived of as rational, “pragmatic,” “calculating,” or “never one to take risks needlessly” (Dannreuther, p. 45; Long, p. 9; Karsh and Rautsi, 1991, p. 5; Klare, 2003, p. 15).  To be fair, some of these authors do attribute less rational motivations to Hussein, such as paranoia of an international conspiracy to topple his regime, or an eagerness to invade Kuwait simply to punish the arrogance of its Emir (Post and Baram, 2003, p. 11; Dannreuther, p. 8; Pelletiere, p. 215).  Yet even these accounts veer back toward framing Hussein’s choices as generally rational.

Surely, such analyses assume, if Hussein was aware that invading Kuwait and antagonizing America would be self-destructive, he would not have done so.  Mearsheimer and Walt assert, for example, that Hussein had calculated reasonably that he could beat the United States on the battlefield (2003, p. 54); Al-Marashi paints Hussein’s choice to parade beaten-up POWs on Iraqi TV on 20 January 1991 as a strategic manoeuvre to break that Coalition’s resolve to fight him (p. 277, 312).  By contrast, this paper suggests Hussein sensed not only that annexing Kuwait would bring war with America, but that he would lose that war as well.  Moreover, Al-Marashi’s example of beaten up POWs was one of many Hussein actions designed to pick a fight he would lose, not avoid one.

Two authors to delve deeper into Hussein’s irrationality have been political psychologist Jerrold Post, and Psychohistory pioneer Lloyd deMause.  Post highlights Hussein’s battered childhood as a source of his irrational choices, yet his analysis only scratches the surface, ultimately finding itself in a confusing place halfway between the “rational” arguments mentioned above and this paper’s irrational, childhood-based angle.  To offer one of a few examples in which Post’s straddling of both sides of the argument leaves him contradicting himself:  he disagrees with the criticism, so common in “rational” accounts, that America failed to signal clearly to Hussein before August 1990 that it would defend Kuwait militarily.  If Washington had signalled more clearly, these arguments say, then Hussein would have received the message and not invited war by invading Kuwait.

Post counters, however, that as a result of the “wounded self” that Hussein’s childhood left him with, stronger warnings from the world’s military powers might, irrationally, have made Hussein more likely to want to fight them (Post & Baram, p. 1, 22).  Yet pages earlier, he contradicts himself, arguing that Hussein was “by no means irrational,” and that he does not “persist in a particular course of action if it proves to be counterproductive” (Post & Baram, p. 2, 7).  The reader is at a loss as to how Post would explain, then, that while the Coalition prepared its devastating counterattack over the five months between August 1990 and January 1991, Hussein refused to genuinely negotiate toward an outcome other than war.   Was he not then persisting, irrationally, on a course of action that was increasingly proving counterproductive?

As founder of the Journal of Psychohistory, deMause steps further than Post in tying Hussein’s behaviour to his childhood.  One paragraph in deMause’s book chapter on the Gulf War emphasizes the importance of Hussein’s early abuse in shaping his later behaviour, but deMause’s aim in the rest of the chapter is to analyze America’s, rather than Iraq’s, motivations throughout the affair (deMause, 1995).

To deeply understand Iraqi rationale, one might expect answers in the abundance of primary source documents that have emerged from Hussein’s regime.  Dispersed in several archives, these consist of 300,000 pages left behind by retreating Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Kurdish Iraq in 1991, tens of millions more found by invading U.S. forces in 2003, and thousands of hours of tape-recorded meetings between Hussein and his ministers.  This author is indebted to access granted by the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) in Washington, D.C.  While the documents offer a rare look into the inner workings of a totalitarian regime, they are not an open book of Iraq’s thinking at the time.  Hussein alone decided policy, as he sometimes boasted (CRRC-SH-SPPC-D-000-660, p. 15), and meeting minutes tend to reveal little more than ministers voicing support for policies already arrived at in the confines of Hussein’s mind.

For help in accessing that mind, this paper calls on major thinkers from the past century on the childhood roots of irrational behaviour:  Wilhelm Reich, R.D. Laing, Erich Fromm, Norman Dixon, and Alice Miller.  Each is indebted to Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind and repressing emotions, but they departed from psychoanalysis by explaining neurotic behaviour not with perhaps convoluted and child-blaming theories such as the Oedipus Complex, but by rooting it instead in the abuse and neglect suffered by children, a phenomenon far more prevalent and insidious than generally acknowledged.

While historians have drawn from many areas of study to deepen our understanding of the past, childhood has generally been left to the psychologists.  As the host of a popular history podcast observed:  “I was shocked to discover how little there is on kids in history” (Carlin, 2010).

Why might this be?  For one, historians may fear psychologically-oriented history to be even messier, more subjective, and more unprovable than political history.  Indeed, what lies in the unconscious, let alone how it affects behaviour, is extremely complex and debatable, and particularly slippery to pin down in a laboratory, so the best this argument can do is to rely on logic and the open minds of its listeners.  On another level, the trauma writers above all point out that nearly everyone, in varying ways and degrees, was once a neglected and/or abused (if only emotionally) child herself.  We may all harbour more wounds than we care to see, and thus we all have a vested interest in downplaying kids’ mistreatment:  sparing our parents from blame, and keeping forgotten our own painful stories.

Looking at the Gulf Crisis through new glasses, this paper arrives at a different and nuanced understanding of Hussein’s decisions, one that resonates with the common sense inkling that the Iraqi leader was indeed terribly irrational.  It shows that particularly in regards to all-powerful dictators, their personal histories can sometimes be even more authoritative than the political contexts in which they operated.



Books on Hussein usually mention the major datapoints of his early hardship – an abusive stepfather, extreme poverty – yet just as quickly leave them behind, proceeding to later years while leaving a number of dots unconnected.  Just how it felt to be young Saddam, to be immersed in “the psychosocial interior” of his family, as R.D. Laing put it (1969, p. ix), to have the texture of these experiences rubbed off onto his sense of self each day, shaping decisions he would make even five decades later, remains overlooked.

An infant could hardly be born into more tragic circumstances than those that awaited him in 1937, in the notoriously violent Bedouin village of Al Awja, in central-northern Iraq.  His father died of an “internal disease,” probably cancer, while his mother Subha was four months pregnant (Post & Baram, p. 2).  A few months later, Subha’s twelve-year-old son died of cancer as well.  Subha tried to kill herself while eight months pregnant with Saddam, but she was saved by a local Jewish family who took her under its care.  Weeks later, she tried to abort Saddam but was prevented from doing so by the family taking care of her.  Many studies correlate pregnant mothers’ trauma with lifelong emotional effects on the child, indicating Saddam may have already carried a wound upon birth that subsequent experiences would exacerbate (Groopman, 2010).

Subha could not bring herself to see her newborn boy, signifying a heavy post-partum depression.  She gave Saddam to her brother Khairallah to raise instead.  Only a few weeks old, Saddam was likely consumed by a dire struggle for absent love.  During the mid-20th century, John Bowlby pioneered the study of severed attachments between infants and mothers.  He found that from the first day of life, the more responsive a mother was to her baby’s needs, the more securely he felt not only with her at the time, but also within himself later on in life (Bretherton, 1992).  Bowlby observed three stages of grieving in neglected infants:  protest, despair, and finally detachment (Robertson & Bowlby, 1952).  Even in their first weeks, infants showed signs of repressing loneliness too much for their budding nervous systems to bear.  More recent neurobiology has linked neglect to lesions in brain areas regulating emotion, which have appeared tied in later life to symptoms of emotional illness ranging from posttraumatic stress symptoms to a tendency toward bullying-oriented relationships (Schore, 2001, p. 216; Miller, 2001, p. 15).

Saddam’s cries were thus entrusted to uncle Khairallah, an army officer whom Saddam’s personal doctor Ala Bashir remembered later as “a huge man…[who] bawled at everyone who got in his way” (Bashir, 2005, p. 156).  Curious and needy like any child, Saddam probably tested his uncle’s patience.  Arabist Raphael Patai has observed that “the incidence and severity of corporal punishment administered to Arab children is much greater than…in the Western world,” that severe fathers are more esteemed, and that when compared to American parents, Arabs respond to children’s frustrated outbursts more ruthlessly (Patai, 2007, p. 27, 126, 129).  It thus seems likely that Saddam’s first years entailed concentrated pain not only from his mother’s absence, but from living under the hand, stare, and temper of Khairallah, or as some were actually said to refer to him behind his back, Sharallah, “the violence of Allah” (Aburish, 2000, p. 23).

At age four, fate once more tore Saddam from his only parent.  Khairallah was imprisoned for participating in a revolt against British rule, and Saddam returned to Subha and her new husband Hassan, who took a particular disliking to the boy (Post & Baram, p. 3).  Saddam remembered Hassan waking him at dawn, shouting, “Get up, you son of a whore.  Go tend the sheep” (Bashir, p. 8).  Neighbors said Hassan beat Saddam with an asphalt-covered stick, screaming:  “I don’t want him, the son of a dog” (Bashir, p. 8).  When they came to visit Subha, they noticed Hassan’s neglect:  he wouldn’t “talk to Saddam or welcome him” (Aburish, p.3).

Sadness and resentment call out from a rare photograph of Saddam during these years (Figure 1).  Aburish notes that Arab children can be cruel to peers who lack fathers, and many accounts claim Saddam protected himself by carrying an iron bar and becoming a shaqi, or tough (p. 16, 17).  Saddam recalled his boyhood as “melancholy, lonely, and never young” (Aburish, p. 17), and in a partly autobiographical novel, reflected:  “I could trust no one with regard to my own safety” (Bashir, p. 284).



Saddam’s early years witnessed the violation of his most basic needs – to feel loved and secure.  People tend instinctively to repress unbearable pain.  Yet Instead of emptying ourselves of pain, repressing it seems only to bury it in the psychic storehouse which Freud discovered over a century ago:  the unconscious, the greater part of our mind that lies beyond conscious awareness, and which stores our earlier experiences (Miller, 1981, p. 10).  The more extreme trauma is, the more pain we are inundated with, and the greater portion of that memory that tends to be repressed, forgotten, banished from later awareness.  Saddam did remember painful aspects of his childhood, and did not suffer complete amnesia, but he nonetheless never came close to connecting to, or consciously feeling, the entire extent of his early life pain.  Thus, lodged in his unconscious, this pain stayed.

Saddam buried his sense of vulnerability, his anger, sadness, and loneliness at Subha’s disconnect, and his humiliation and rage at the beatings unfurled on him.  Freud, Laing, Erich Fromm and Miller have all observed, however, that even from the depths of the unconscious, buried feelings appear to demand recognition, manifesting in an almost “Morse code” of emotionally irrational behaviour, one that cannot be read without an understanding of the unconscious (Miller, 1983, p. 130).

To prevent awareness of his pain, Saddam became addicted to behaviours that made him feel other emotions instead.  To overcome loneliness, he would make himself lovable.  To deny his sense of worthlessness, he would become important.  To unleash his rage, he would find socially-accepted “out-groups” to abuse.  To overcome vulnerability, he would obsessively accumulate weapons.

To distract from his own humiliation, he would humiliate others, hoarding power and exercising it with horrible cruelty.

Biographer Said Aburish downplays the impact of the harsh treatment Saddam received, noting it to be common fare for children in poor Bedouin towns like al-Awja (p. 17).  Indeed, a critic of this essay’s angle might find it too Western-centric.  Children are raised differently throughout the world, and they react differently to certain types of treatment.   Of course this is true, but only to an extent.  Universality in the human condition must be emphasized at the same time:  the first serious beating or neglect that a young child receives will wound him the same whether he lives in Al-Awja or Geneva.  The commonality of abuse in the hometown of 3-year-old Saddam would not have made him feel less vulnerable, frightened, humiliated or resentful when it targeted him.  While he probably grew used to beatings to some degree, his eventual hardness to such treatment would be the product of his simply having learned to repress the pain they sparked.  Moreover, it is the repression of pain that this paper identifies as a fundamental step toward later irrational, emotionally-disturbed behaviour.

The Indoctrination

In 1947, Khairallah was released from prison and became a teacher.  A former student remembered him “a very tough man….  All the pupils were in awe of him, both because of his record in fighting the British and because of his political views’” (Coughlin, 2002, p. 19).  Khairallah’s hate spared few targets, among them Persians, Jews, Shi’a, better-off Sunnis, but most of all, Iraq’s corrupt officials and their imperialist supporter, Britain.  When he returned from prison in 1947, Saddam moved in with him and began school, spending five days each week with his uncle and the other two with Subha and Hassan (CRRC-SH-BATH-D-000-775, p. 40).  Under Khairallah, Saddam listened to constant exhortations toward “resistance and struggle” (Post & Baram, p. 3).

Saddam attached desperately to Khairallah’s militant nationalism.  Ba’ath Party documents featuring schoolmates’ recollections mention Saddam reciting the poetry of Iraqi nationalist Ma’ruf al-Rusafi everywhere he went.  “Live like that in glory, O young man,” Rusafi wrote, exhorting young nationalists to fight for liberation from foreign powers, “for we, in you, find our strength” (CRRC-SH-BATH-D-000-775, p. 18, 40).

Yet a reason deeper than love of country might have explained the fanaticism of Saddam’s nationalism.  Fromm describes children’s fixation with parents’ ideologies as a way to establish “‘secondary bonds’ as a substitute for the primary bonds” which never formed (Fromm, 1942, p. 122).  In other words, if Saddam’s violent, angry uncle failed to make him feel loved and protected, then the boy tried to secure Khairallah’s love in a “secondary” way:  by mimicking his nationalist belief system.  Fromm points out the superficiality of such “secondary” love, however:  the son’s fanaticism acknowledges, and hopes to fill, the absence of love unconditional.  It is an “escape from an unbearable aloneness” (Fromm, p. 142).  A later Ba’athist maxim perhaps captured what Saddam as a boy may wished so dearly to be true:  “nationalism is love” (Al-Khalil, 1991, p. 37).

When Khairallah took a teaching post in an outskirt of Baghdad in the early 1950s, Saddam moved with him.  Uncle and nephew became involved in political agitation against both Shi’a gangs and the government, and Saddam started organizing actions like beating up shopkeepers who refused to shut their businesses in protest of government policy (Nunu, 1994, cited in Aburish, p.34).  In 1957, he joined the Ba’ath Party – its stated aim to defeat imperialism and achieve Arab independence (Post & Baram, p. 3).  By 1990, neither Saddam’s ambitions, nor his penchant for pursuing them violently, had changed, yet he now wielded the power of a nation.  From the perch of Iraq’s Presidency, he ignited the Gulf Crisis, setting the ultimate stage on which to heroically embody the nationalist dreams of his uncle, the closest thing to a father he had ever had.

Do All Trauma Victims Become Dictators?

Before proceeding to the Crisis, a common challenge to this argument is worth addressing:  do not countless children suffer abuse and neglect?  Why don’t they become brutal dictators as well?

At least two answers can be given in response.  First, people’s reactions to trauma can be as varied as individuals themselves.  Some deal with their pain by inflicting pain on others (see: Hussein’s notorious brutality); others hurt themselves instead, such as self-cutters.  Even within these categories, endless variety exists.  While one bullies subordinates at work, another abuses his wife; one becomes a workaholic, yet another an ideological fanatic, a third an addict to drugs or food.  What these varied examples share is that each victim finds a particular way of distracting himself from his pain, and his coping style is probably rooted in the peculiarities of his own history and personality, if not in random chance as well.  Saddam coped with his pain by becoming a powerful, violent, anti-imperialist dictator.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all once tragically beaten boys as well (Miller, 1998), but their paths in life, like Saddam’s, were rare, unique combinations of personality, historical timing, and extraordinary ability.

A second factor distinguishing Saddam’s childhood was its loneliness.  He appears to have lacked what Miller terms “an Enlightened witness” – a parent, sibling, teacher, or anyone else who could have shown the boy that someone sympathized with his pain (Miller, 1997).  Saddam was unlikely to find this in his three half-brothers, Hassan’s sons who took precedence over him by Arab custom.  Likely reflecting life in Hassan’s home, as adults, Saddam’s brothers “never hesitated to trip each other up” (Bashir, p. 167).  Nor is Subha mentioned standing up for Saddam.  A sensitive witness may have been equally hard to find outside home.  A colleague of Saddam’s who grew up nearby remembered:  “the people of Al Awja were so violent, their visits [prompted] merchants to shut their shops” (Aburish, p. 23).  Meanwhile, a British traveller was told in 1937 that the Bedouins of Al Awja and neighboring villages “give us more trouble than an army of enemies ,” and “their women are worse, if that is possible, than their men” (Stark, 1946, p. 146).

The more alone young Saddam felt with his pain, the more unbearably it would have weighed on him, the more likely he would have tried to repress it, and the more powerfully he would have needed addictive behaviours to distract him thereafter.  Miller claims that whenever she was confronted by readers who were abused as children and who asked why they themselves had not become murderous criminals, she would find without fail someone in their past who had commiserated with their pain.  Put simply:  when our pain is witnessed, our burden lightens, preventing trauma from weighing so heavily on later judgment and behaviour.  Such a caring figure appears absent from Saddam’s upbringing.



This section highlights four irrational motivations that drove Hussein to start and then intensify the Crisis:  addictions to fighting and power, and yearnings to be both loved and punished, all of which stemmed from the trauma of his boyhood.  Instead of being organized chronologically, the section is arranged thematically in order to focus on each motivation in depth.  To avoid confusion for non-experts who have less grounding in the events, the section tries to situate each decision of Hussein’s in its context as much as possible as it steps back and forth along the timeline.

An Addiction to Fighting

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) helped plant the seeds of the Crisis by burying Iraq in debt and ruins.  The War also showcased Hussein’s addiction to conflict, which would propel him throughout 1990-91.

In 1980, only nine months into his tenure as President, Hussein began to use the Iraqi media to prepare the country for an attack on Iran (Baram, 1994, p. 17).  Admittedly, Ayatollah Khomeini posed a very serious threat.  He followed his Islamic revolution of 1979 by calling for more uprisings, particularly in Iraq, where 55% of the population shared the Ayatollah’s Shi’a faith.  Iraq’s Shi’a Dawa Party, which had known ties to Tehran, murdered several Ba’ath Party officials in 1979, then attempted in 1980 to assassinate Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.  Hussein reacted crushingly, deporting 40,000 Shi’a, arresting 10,000 more, and executing a few hundred of their leaders (Aburish, p. 185).  Shi’a demonstrations died out then, and its opposition to Hussein’s Ba’ath regime dwindled to small-scale guerrilla attacks that failed to seriously threaten (Baram & Rubin, 1994, p. xii).

Nonetheless, Hussein invaded Iran anyway, involving himself with the fighting in a strikingly personal way.  He named himself Commander and Chief of the armed forces and began carrying himself with the persona of a great general, Iraqi General Ra’ad Hamdani remembered (Woods, Murray, Holaday & Elkhamri, 2009, p. 42).  When the tide of the war turned negatively in 1982, a minister suggested someone else lead the military.  Hussein had the minister executed, his body chopped into pieces and delivered to his wife the next day (Woods, Lacey, & Muray, 2006).  The message to Iraq’s elite was made bone-chillingly clear:  nobody would get between Hussein and his war.  Meanwhile, his weapons purchases blew through the country’s $35 billion in reserves and plunged the country into $80 billion of debt (Long, p. 10).  War damage to Iraq’s oil industry sent exports falling from $26 billion annually before the war to $10 billion during it (Klare, p. 12).  Inflation skyrocketed, beggars littered Baghdad’s streets (Bashir, p. 83), and Iraq mourned 200,000 soldiers killed, 400,000 wounded, and 70,000 taken prisoner (Aburish, p. 259; Baram, 1994, p. 6).

Amidst such dreadful costs, one wonders what Hussein hoped to gain.   General Hamdani recalled that Iraqi forces were given no clear objective for waging war on Iran (Woods et. al, 2009, p. 49).  Tehran lay 800 kilometers from Iraq’s border, yet Iraqi troops found themselves able to advance only 30-40 kilometers.  Nonetheless, Hussein acted as if “the invasion would quickly lead to Khomeini’s fall and [Iran’s] surrender [of] much of southwestern Iran to the Iraqis” (Woods et. al, 2009, p. 6).  Without a thoughtful strategy, Hussein’s rationale for invading seemed to carry about as much merit as an alcoholic’s justification that he’ll “only have one drink.”  The addict’s rationale may be weak, but it enables him to do what he wants, which in Saddam’s case was to fight.  That Saddam’s fighting resulted in debt and destruction, moreover, particularly fit the profile of addiction.

In 1990, Hussein found a way to fight again.  His reaction to Iraq’s rising debt pressures and resulting hostilities with neighbours mirrored his behaviour a decade before:  rather than calm tensions through meaningful diplomacy and focus on Iraq’s development, he manipulated anxieties to start another war.

An Addiction to Power

A skeptic so far might question:  were Hussein’s wars driven by a supposed addiction to fighting, or were they simply shrewd moves to strengthen his grip on power at home?  They were both, actually, which brings us to another compulsion carrying him into the Gulf Crisis:  his addiction to power.

Hussein’s invasions suggested an intuitive grasp of a fact reinforced in many experiments:  the more threatened a group feels, the more it prefers leadership that is concentrated and autocratic, as opposed to diffuse and democratic (Dixon, 1976, p. 216).  As Hussein once admitted privately about his own grip on power:  “The problem is…patriotism disappears when the danger has gone away” (Bashir, p. 214).  By driving Iraq into danger, Hussein made it dependent on his own authoritarian leadership.

Even the Iraqi and Pan-Arab nationalist goals that Hussein constantly championed proved less important than his need to accumulate power.  As he ascended to Ba’ath Party leadership during the 1960s and ‘70s, he repeatedly removed Iraqis whose talent could have benefitted Iraqi and Arab nationalism, but who threatened his own personal prospects.  To mention only one of many instances, army Colonel Hajj Sirri had become Mayor of Baghdad in the 1960s, proven himself a brave Arab nationalist, and was known as “a totally honest and popular man” (Aburish, p. 81).  Rather than try to team with Sirri, Hussein had him arrested, tortured, and hanged in 1968.  Sirri’s enormous potential to help Iraq was probably exactly what had him killed.

Hussein’s power hoarding harmed Ba’ath Party decision-making as well.  Discussions of policy devolved under his rule to an utter “absence of democracy,” his half-brother Barzan lamented in a 2000 diary entry (CRRC-SH-MISC-D-000-950, p. 4).  Barzan noted that the Party was now devoid of intelligent debate, because if members disagreed with Hussein, “their heads will be removed from their shoulders.”

So He Constructed a Crisis

Impelled to fight and hoard power, Hussein began building a case against Kuwait in early 1990 that was designed to result in war.  He did this by raising conditions for peaceful Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations to an impossibly high level, and by re-framing quasi Kuwaiti injustices as deliberate acts of aggression that required Iraq’s retaliation.

In 1990, Hussein demanded Kuwait forget the $10 billion it had given him during the Iran-Iraq War, and that Kuwait now lend another $10 billion in addition.  He claimed Iran War loans were “supposed to be free aid,” and thus didn’t need repaying (Battle, 2010, p. 2).  In a 1982 interview, however, when his losses probably still appeared manageable, he admitted neighbours’ aid were loans.  “We have taken loans from our Arab brothers,” he said.  If, to pay them, “we are required to stop any of our development projects…we shall do so” (Gart & Brelis, 1982).  Nonetheless, Hussein persisted in hectoring Kuwait and Saudi Arabia throughout the first half of 1990 to give Iraq more money.

Meanwhile, he began describing Kuwait’s oil production beyond OPEC limits, which lowered oil prices and reduced Iraq’s oil revenue, in increasingly combative language.  He complained several times in the first months of 1990, then on 28 May, called it “economic warfare”; by 17 July, it had become “a poisoned dagger planted in Iraq’s back” (Salinger, 1991, p. 41).  That same day, still two weeks before the Kuwait invasion, he accused Kuwait of stealing $2.4 billion worth of oil from the Iraqi section of the Rumaila oilfield, which stretched across the Iraq-Kuwait border, and demanded this money be paid Iraq as well.

Last-minute negotiations were attempted on 31 July 1990.  With its troops stationed on Kuwait’s border, Iraq demanded $10 billion.  Kuwait agreed to $9 billion.  The next day, Saudi King Fahd offered the last billion to make up the difference (Salinger, p. 73).  When Kuwait asked in return to resolve its long-disputed border with Iraq, Iraq refused.  Further talks were planned for 4 August, but Iraq invaded on 2 August regardless.  Hussein would claim that invading Kuwait was Iraq’s “only choice,” but this was true only insofar as it was the one that suited his personal needs (CRRC-SH-PDWN-D-000-533, p. 10).

To Fight America

An especially ignored motive in the “rational”-oriented literature is Hussein’s irrational urge to pick a fight with America.  As 1990 unfolded, Hussein increasingly antagonized Washington, beginning with a February speech that first warned of U.S. intent to dominate Gulf oil, then pondered a “direct offensive on the harmful plans…used by the US” (Benigio, 1992).  It was the first time in a decade that Hussein had spoken with such anti-American vitriol (Baram, 1994, p. 10).  Then he targeted U.S. ally Britain.  British-Iranian journalist Farzad Bazoft worked for The Observer and was hanged in Baghdad in March 1990.  He had been arrested in 1989 on charges of spying while researching a story in Iraq.  London pleaded for clemency, but to no avail; Hussein expedited Bazoft’s execution, meeting minutes show (CRRC-SH-SHTP-A-000-910, p.3).  Soon after, Bazoft’s body arrived in a coffin at Heathrow Airport without warning, a chilling message attached:  “Mrs Thatcher wanted him. We’ve sent him in a box” (Trelford, 2010).

Even perhaps the most astute historian of Hussein’s regime, Amatzia Baram explains the anti-U.S. diatribes and the Bazoft hanging in a way that nonetheless fits into the habit of framing Hussein’s choices as those of the “rational actor.”  Baram hypothesizes that Hussein wanted to show Iraqis that if he was fearlessness enough to confront superpowers such as America and Britain, then he would not hesitate to crush domestic threats either (Baram, 1994, p. 11).  While that might seem a rational idea, it is hard to imagine Iraqis needing reminding of Hussein’s willingness to brutally squash opposition.  Secondly, Baram adds that Hussein wanted to scare Washington and London out of defending Kuwait if Iraq invaded.  To the contrary, this paper perceives Hussein’s hostility as designed to bring America and Britain into war, not out of it, a particularly reckless approach given how much their militaries outclassed Iraq’s.  Washington and London have long histories of crushing defiant third world leaders –Allende in Chile, Lumumba in Congo, Mosaddeq in Iran, and others – and as the Crisis ultimately proved, they would hesitate less, not more, to punish Hussein after he challenged them so brazenly.

Hussein’s intent to battle America became clear in the Crisis’ single most pivotal decision:  to grab the entirety of Kuwait, not just a small piece.  Had he taken a Persian Gulf island or two, or twenty miles of disputed territory, America probably would not have intervened.   A senior U.S. administration official told the New York Times a month after the Kuwait invasion:  “I can’t see the American public…supporting the deployment of troops over a dispute over 20 miles of desert territory” (Sciolino, 1990).  Similarly, as America spent August of 1990 until January of 1991 building Coalition resolve to use force against Iraq, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens feared that even the slightest gesture by Hussein towards a partial withdrawal from Kuwait would have dissolved Coalition will to crush Iraq’s anti-Israel dictator (Inbar, 2003, p. 68).  Hussein made no such move.

Tariq Aziz once reported a curious explanation by Hussein about why Iraq grabbed all of Kuwait:  it would make no difference to America whether Iraq took all or part of Kuwait (Viorst, 1991, p. 67).  Hussein’s logic confounds:  why would it make no difference?  American policy regarding its willingness to defend Kuwait was clearer than the literature has given it credit.  While Washington would not involve itself in minor border disputes , it was very concerned with preserving the Gulf’s status quo oil arrangement.

Hussein was aware of America’s resolve to use force when it came to preserving the Gulf oil framework.  One of many documents suggesting as much was a 1989 memo to Hussein regarding U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf’s visit to Kuwait that year, in which he announced:  “America is unhesitatingly ready if asked to aid her friends in case they are attacked” (CRRC-SH-GMID-D-000-263, p. 13).   As Hussein acknowledged to U.S. officials in Baghdad a week before invading Kuwait:  “The United States wants to secure the flow of oil.  This is understandable and known” (Benigio, p. 103).

When it came to the possibility of facing America in a military showdown, it didn’t make “no difference” to Washington, as Hussein purportedly put it, whether Iraq took part or all of Kuwait.  It made all the difference, and Hussein, if only on an unconscious level, probably knew it.  Al-Marashi is one of several analysts to contend that Hussein was sure that annexing Kuwait state would be tolerated by America and the international community (Al-Marashi, p. 91).  These explanations fail to comprehend how Hussein could have wanted to fight America.  They fail to make sense of actions as confrontational as Hussein’s taunting of U.S. official Joseph Wilson four days after the Kuwait invasion:  “say hello to President Bush and tell him to consider [Kuwaiti’s Emir] finished and history” (Baram, 1994, p. 22).

To Be a Hero

If we let go of the assumption that Hussein acted rationally, and instead see his compulsions propelling him toward fights with Kuwait and its “imperialist” backers (America and its allies), his decisions begin to make sense.  And yet, by engaging the global hegemon and its 31 best friends in war, why did Hussein seek a fight so unbalanced?

In short:  to find yet another feeling so painfully absent from his early years:  love.  Having grown up under Khairallah, in a Bedouin village like Al-Awja, where manliness was a male’s ultimate currency, and it was earned by proving toughness, fearlessness, and aggression (Patai, p. 35), Saddam saw the Gulf War as the ultimate test and proof of his own heroism, of his worthiness of love.

Hussein’s behaviour indicated a gnawing sense in himself that he was not inherently loveable, that he had to prove himself in order to get love, and that he was addicted to feeling loved.  His extreme vanity,

the airs that he carried himself with, and his endless ambition all support this.  His choice to do battle with the world’s hegemon seemed to expose his feeling that no matter how much he had already achieved, something bigger was needed to fill his inner void.  For Saddam, fighting America was about proving his courage and manliness, the very qualities that would have earned him love in Al-Awja or Baghdad’s poor outskirts.  This was a man who revelled in the act of standing impassively on his Baghdad balcony while American missiles rained down around him, ignoring others’ insistence that he come inside to a safer place (CRRC-SH-MISC-D-000-388, p. 14).  Hussein invited a fight with the world’s greatest power because it was the world’s greatest power, because of who such a fight proved himself to be.  As Hussein told a Mauritanian Minister on 30 September 1990, “the more the enemies join…in great numbers, the more suitable it is for the true men” (CRRC-SH-PDWN-D-000-467, p. 2).

To Be Punished

Beyond proving himself a hero by fighting 32 nations, Hussein appears to have been driven by another, even more irrational drive as well:  to be punished.  The current literature makes no mention of such a masochistic urge.  Woods, Dannreuther, Mearsheimer and Walt all fit Hussein into the mould of the rational actor, for example, by arguing that Hussein and his staff could not have understood how superior Coalition forces would be to Iraq’s; if they did, then Iraq would not have fought the Coalition (Woods et. al, 2006; Dannreuther, p. 67; Mearsheimer & Walt, p. 54).  Similarly, Al-Marashi asserts that Hussein genuinely believed America could be beaten through a war of attrition like Vietnam – irrespective of Iraq’s desert terrain being uniquely, and obviously, exposed to Coalition bombings (Al-Marashi, p. 305).  And yet, was Hussein really so naïve as to believe that Iraq could win a war that in actuality, it lost in only three days?

Strong evidence exists that he actually recognized how outmatched Iraq was.  By 15 August 1990, only two weeks after invading Kuwait and five months before Coalition forces began attacking Iraq, Hussein cancelled soldiers’ shooting exercises in order to conserve ammunition, revealing his early awareness of Iraq’s sparse supplies (KDS Folder CD 9 File 105-6-022, p. 18, cited in Al-Marashif, p. 128).  Moreover, Iraq’s Head of Military Intelligence affirmed that Hussein was sent his reports, which indicated the Coalition’s willingness to use force and Iraqi poor position to resist (Gause, 2002, p. 60).

Did Hussein read these reports?  Perhaps.  Among associates, he was a famously voracious reader (CRRC-SH-MISC-D-000-388, p. 24-40), yet he had little patience for information he did not like.  Iraq’s Military Chief of Staff recalled an 18 September 1990 meeting in which he presented a candid report to Hussein, detailing the hugely unfavourable balance of power and technology between Iraq and Coalition forces.  Hussein ended the meeting early, storming out angrily.  Nonetheless, he had heard the news.   Moreover, it is difficult to imgaine that Hussein, who spent the prior two decades doggedly pursuing weapons technology, was naïve to Western military and technological supremacy.

Knowing what he appears to have known, why did he provoke the Coalition?  How could he be so masochistic?  A number of interesting angles merit mention, and they may all simultaneously hold validity.

For one, Hussein’s sadistic tendencies are widely known, yet Fromm points out that within the sadistic character structure lurks an equally powerful masochism (Fromm, p. 124).  Sadistic and masochistic compulsions are two sides of the same coin:  the extreme insecurity felt by abuse victims.  While sadism destroys others, masochism destroys oneself.  Both are desperate grasps at the absolute security promised by annihilation.  They seem to spring from the awareness that if either the Self or the Other is destroyed, the threat of abuse can finally fade away:  there is no one left to hurt.

On a less abstract level, Hussein may have invited a fight with the U.S.-led coalition because he clutched to his boyhood yearning to someday overcome his dominating abusers, which is exactly who he described America and its allies to be.  The victim often freezes in the time of trauma, never growing past it.  He “lives in the past without realizing it,” Miller explains, compulsively putting himself into the same type of situation as that which fate first tragically thrust him into (Miller, 1981, p. 30).  Like an athlete who refuses to quit playing until he wins, the victim continually recreates his past with the hope of overcoming it.  Though almost certainly unconscious of it, Saddam was perpetually engaged, in Miller’s words, in “the struggle for a better outlet at last.”

Yet a certain irrationality seems to plague the masochist.  Like a criminal who becomes so habituated to living in prison that eventually he never wants to leave, Saddam was conditioned to exist at the painful end of the stick Hassan beat him with, and there, his belligerent gestures toward a world more powerful than he seemed to say, he hoped to stay.  Hussein goaded the Coalition into behaving like his early caretakers:  by punishing him forcefully.  As Bashir wrote:  “The massive, highly technological offensive rolled over [Iraqi forces] in the desert with merciless power, speed and weight” (Bashir, p. 115).  Much like his prospects as a boy when he clashed with Khairallah or Hassan, Iraq never stood a chance in the Gulf War.  Throughout 1990-91, Hussein’s antics turned allies into enemies, then hardened their resolve to use force against him.  Fromm’s description of masochists fit him precisely:  it “seems as if they were following advice given them by an enemy to behave in such a way as to be most detrimental to themselves” (Fromm, p. 123).

*  *  *

A counterargument worth addressing, however, is that if Hussein was a masochist, why did Iraq not deploy chemical weapons?  America had made clear that if Iraq used chemical weapons, it would expand its objectives from removing Iraq from Kuwait to toppling Hussein’s regime in Baghdad (National Security Directive  54, 1991).  Actually, therein lies the answer:  if Hussein used chemical weapons, he would have been removed from power.  Fighting 32 nations, yet refusing to use chemical weapons, enabled Hussein all at once to act heroically, invite some measure of punishment, yet still preserve his power.  We thus can sometimes see his decisions – to not use chemical weapons, to pursue Arab world hegemony, yet to pick a self-destructive fight with the world’s superpower –as a balancing act between conflicting addictions that competed for his attention.



As irrational as Hussein was as Iraq’s President, he was rational as an addict.

Iraq needed its leader to protect and advance its interests.  Hussein claimed to do this by striking at enemies he said were intent on destroying Iraq:  mainly Kuwait and America.  Yet in reality, Hussein was a far greater threat to Iraq than Kuwait or America.  America actually pursued a partnership with Iraq after the Iran-Iraq War.  President Bush’s National Security Directive 26 of 1989, for example, pushed for “normal relations” between the U.S. and Iraq, and for pursuing “opportunities for U.S. firms to participate in the reconstruction of the Iraqi economy” (National Security Directive 26, 1989).  By the end of 1991, however, Hussein’s hostility had motivated America to spend the rest of the decade enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq to their harshest degree.

Coalition bombings, meanwhile, relegated Iraq’s economy “to the pre-industrial age,” as the World Health Organization observed (Aburish, p. 344).  More bomb tonnage was dropped on Iraq than on Germany in all of WWII, crippling more infrastructure than eight years of war with Iran had (Tripp, 2007, p. 251).  The UN shut down Iraq’s legal oil industry until 1996 (smuggling continued), when Hussein finally acquiesced to an “oil for food” program that deposited $2 billion of Iraqi oil revenues annually into a UN bank account, then spent the money on food and medicine for Iraqi civilians, reparations to Kuwait, and the budget of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), whose task it was to disarm Iraq (Tripp, p. 252).  Iraq was forced to recognize a border further north, including more of the Ruamila oilfield, than Kuwait had ever asked for (Aburish, p. 323).

Iraqis saw their homeland reduced to the old Iraqi phrase ‘amara al hijara –  “a principality of stones”.  Electricity came on only a few hours a day; drinking water mixed with sewage; life expectancy declined over a decade; patients died in surgery as hospitals ran out of anaesthetics, and per capita income fell from $4,083 in 1980 to only $485 by 1993 (Aburish, p. 323).  A month before invading Kuwait, Hussein told Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, “I will never agree to let Iraqis starve, and Iraqi women go naked because of need” (Baram, 1994, p. 16).  Yet that is exactly what he did:  Bashir’s recollections of 1990s Iraq abound with stories of starvation, suicide, and even husbands selling their wives’ bodies to make basic payments (Bashir, p. 143).  Tragic only begins to describe how Hussein’s irrationality failed his country.

Hussein was too insecure to be able to care for needs other than his own, let alone his country’s.  Where he was staggeringly rational and effective was in servicing the addictions that numbed his own feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, sadness, vulnerability, humiliation and rage.  For more than two decades, he deftly navigated Iraq’s ethnic, tribal, political and bureaucratic intricacies to become President for 24 years.  Perhaps no other role could have better suited Hussein’s addictions.  It made him a man with unparalleled power, wealth, and access to weapons, let alone one with the ability to humiliate the enemies of his impoverished, Sunni youth.  Shi’as, Kurds, Persians, Jews, Westerners, Arab elites, and better-off Iraqis all received brutal treatment under his reign.  When indulging his addictions to certain feelings, Hussein’s brilliance was as rational as it was twisted.

Hussein’s rationality as an addict, however, matched his irrationality to his own deeper, personal needs.  It is from the basic human yearning for love and security that addiction emerges.  Hussein put so much energy into his addictions because they carried the hope of finally putting him at ease; they promised the security he lacked as a boy.  By their nature, however, addictions bring only temporary relief, and with decreasing returns, as addicts’ tendency to escalate their behaviour indicates.  Hussein’s doctor and aides separately recalled that at the apexes of the international crises he did so much to create, he was startlingly calm and relaxed, even jovial (Bashir, p. 98, 112, 113, 115, 127, 194, 297; CRRC-SH-MISC-D-000-388, p. 41).  Battle-steeped crises were his natural element.  He chased them as if unable to feel at home without them; sure enough, his home life was fighting.

Yet even the Gulf Crisis, a fight so courageous it took on 32 nations at once, failed to fill the hole inside him, to finally bring him love and security.  Of course, it brought the opposite.  The 1990s witnessed assassination attempts, UN humiliations, and heartbreaking betrayal by two men who were perhaps closest to him.  Hussein had rewarded his son-in-laws, his “favourites,” Bashir writes, not only with his daughters, but with sensitive positions in charge of his weapons program and bodyguards (Bashir, p. 165).  In 1995, they fled to Jordan, divulging everything they knew to UNSCOM, the CIA, and MI6.  Profoundly betrayed, Hussein is said to have stopped eating (Aburish, p. 337-8).

By 2000, he had grown increasingly resigned from his duties, holing himself up in his office to write fiction instead (Bashir, p. 281).  Hussein’s first novel Zabiba and the King (the only one so far translated into English), although muffled by the tedium of its plot and propaganda, screams of loneliness, paranoia, resentment, and a longing to escape into fantasy, where love and security are as present as they were missing from his real life (Hussein, 2004).  He tended to the needs of his addictions with ingenious rationality, but toward his country, and toward himself, Hussein acted with tragic irrationality.




What is this tyranny and capacity of wickedness and destruction that possesses man?

–   Saddam Hussein



Saddam’s boyhood relationships with Subha, Khairallah, and Hassan seared into him overwhelmingly hurtful feelings of loneliness, sadness, vulnerability, humiliation and rage.  By repressing these feelings, Saddam buried them in his unconscious.  To numb them from consciousness, his addictions to certain behaviours evoked opposite feelings instead.  To overcome loneliness, he tried to be lovable.  To deny his sense of worthlessness, he made himself important.  To unleash his rage, he found socially-accepted “out-groups” to treat brutally.  To overcome vulnerability, he hoarded weapons and power.  To distract from his own humiliation, he humiliated others.

Without understanding the lifelong impact of child abuse, the child’s repression of painful emotions, their residence in his unconscious, and addictions’ role as perpetual distractions thereafter, Gulf Crisis literature to date has resorted to forcing Hussein into the box of the “rational actor.”  Many analysts have explained the self-destructive nature of his choices by arguing that he was misinformed.  Had he known better, they imply, he would have acted in his own and Iraq’s interest.  This essay, by contrast, shows that Hussein knew more than has been portrayed, and actually sought various forms of self-destruction, most notably by antagonizing America and its allies, at times in incredibly brazen fashion, and then attempting to annex the entirety of Kuwait, when taking only a part likely would have been tolerated by Washington, the Coalition’s ringleader.

The once-poor, neglected, and abused little boy from Al-Awja grew into a damaged man of remarkable ability, one who could not bring himself to do other than to subordinate the wellbeing of his country to his own insecure needs.  He needed violence and conflict, weapons and power, to be an Arab-nationalist hero, and even to feel punished.  His servicing of these needs was sadly but brilliantly rational:  he followed each of them to mindboggling lengths, achieving waging war against 32 “imperialist” nations at once, humiliating Western POWs, killing American soldiers, raining missiles on Israel, and preserving his grip on power all the while.  Unbeknownst to himself, the demons with whom he grappled in 1990-91 appear not to have been, at their very core, the imperialist West and its corrupt Arab allies of the time, but were instead the maligned caretakers of his youth.


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