My Night With Saddam Hussein

I treated the Iraqi dictator after American forces captured him.

An unidentified man looks at the front pages of international newspapers on Monday, Dec. 15, 2003 in Washington. Saddam Hussein's capture has led to speculation about how the former Iraqi dictator will be tried.
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Ten years ago today, at around 8:30 p.m. Baghdad time, U.S. Special Forces pulled a cowering Saddam Hussein from a hole in the earth. By sheer happenstance, I wound up spending that night with him and an interpreter, engaging in a conversation that even now seems surreal to me.

I was privileged to wear the uniform of an Army flight surgeon with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the legendary "Night Stalkers." Our ambulance was a Blackhawk helicopter that didn't have any crosses on it and was capable of firing 8,000 rounds each minute; my patients were brothers and sisters in arms who had, like me, traveled to the other side of the globe in the cause of freedom.

Saddam wasn't the first high-value target I had treated. As the first weeks of December ticked by, Special Operations had moved closer and closer to him: first his girlfriend was captured, then his secretary, even his personal physician.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

I treated each of them with respect, and my being a doctor seemed to relax them. Apparently relieved to meet the first of their captors whose mission wasn't to extract information, they opened up to me. It was an interesting dynamic, and it repeated itself with Saddam.

Early in our exchange, he asked the interpreter the direction of Mecca, but unlike every other Muslim I had observed, he didn't kneel to pray: he stood near his cot, spun an empty chair facing the direction the interpreter had indicated and merely bent slightly forward at the waist.

In Islam, it was an act of supreme arrogance, but by no means was it the only one I saw that night, as the former Iraqi dictator poured forth on everything from his earliest days to his twisted rationale for invading Iran and Kuwait.

At one point, he told me he had once dreamed of becoming a doctor. It was in 1956, when he was shot in the thigh attempting to kill Iraqi King Faisal II, the failed assassination that had catapulted him into senior leadership of the Ba'ath party.

Grimacing as he recalled the pain of it, he pointed to the wound area and described how he removed the bullet himself. The experience had attracted him to medicine but, he said, "politics had a stronger pull on my heart."

Saddam ascended to power the same way Vito Corleone negotiated contracts: by making offers his opponents couldn't refuse. History records that he put a gun to the head of Iraq President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and offered him the choice of asylum or death.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Was the Iraq War Worth It?]

His own recounting of the story to me, not surprisingly, was different. al-Bakr was, Saddam claimed "a father" to him, but had grown "tired" of leading the nation.

Over time, Saddam claimed, al-Bakr delegated more and more of his responsibilities to Saddam and, in 1978, approached him about assuming the senior position. Speaking in a tone of voice that suggested a humble public servant, Saddam said he was reluctant to do so, but "had to put the people of Iraq first."

Some public servant: He committed multiple murders himself, besides having ordered the deaths of thousands and instigating unprovoked wars on both Iran and Kuwait. Those wars were justified, he told me, by the fact that since the first humans were placed by God in what is today Iraq, all human beings are, in essence, Iraqi. His assault on Kuwait didn't represent an attack on another country, but a repatriation of the Kuwaiti people – and, more tellingly, the Kuwaiti oil fields.

A decade has passed since that night, and looking back, the image I see isn't the Butcher of Baghdad extending his arm for me to check his blood pressure. Rather, it is the faces of Iraqi women proudly holding out their ink-stained fingers as proof of having voted for the very first time. Most vividly, though, I remember the guys I served with -- guys who stuck by me like glue. Their faces pass through my mind like address cards in a Rolodex.

Those soldiers, along with the ones whose wounds I treated – and those who I could not help – are what I will never forget.