April 01, 2003
Clueless Footnote

After Saddam Hussein once again failed to appear for a press conference this afternoon, many have jumped to the plausible conclusion that he is dead. Steven Den Beste is more circumspect:

Either he's dead, or he's in a coma, or he is so badly wounded as to make it impossible to disguise the fact on TV.

This is almost exactly right, but I would modify it a bit. If Saddam is wounded, it must (as he says) be in some way that is impossible to disguise, but it must also be something repulsive or humiliating. I don't know about Iraqi attitudes, but in the U.S. losing an arm or an eye for one's country could actually be a plus. An eye-patch in particular looks quite dashing: many years ago (the 60s?) a company (Van Heusen?) used a handsome eye-patched model to sell men's shirts. A few scars could also add to Saddam's heroic stature.

Of course, as Den Beste says, anything that can be concealed would also be possible: scars or burns below the neckline or above the hairline, a missing leg or two, missing genitalia. As with the last, it's kind of fun in a sick sort of way to consider all the possibilities. Actually, I'm not sure it's sick at all when dealing with someone like Saddam Hussein. Here are all the possibilities I can think of:

  1. A missing nose or ear or chin is somehow not nearly so dashing as a missing eye.
  2. The same goes for lips and front teeth.
  3. Total deafness is one likely result of a near miss by a bunker-buster and would be hard to conceal. It's very difficult to speak naturally if you can't hear yourself, and a comically weird voice would definitely degrade Saddam's authority.
  4. Numbers count. One facial scar or two would be a plus, but a face disfigured by 100+ stitches would look gruesome and loserly rather than heroic.
  5. Similarly, while one blind eye would look dashing, two would be pathetic. (This may not apply to mullahs.)
  6. The same goes for arms: one hook or empty sleeve looks heroic, but two of them imply spoon-feeding and other unheroic limitations.
  7. Saddam's face may be hideously burned: if so, it would be very hard not to look like a guy who's losing a war.
  8. There have been rumors of a crushed abdomen. If this prevented Hussein from standing or from sitting up straight, it would explain why we haven't seen him. A speech made from a chaise longue or hospital bed lacks gravitas, at least for a military leader. Perhaps Cleopatra could get away with it.
  9. Brain damage has also been rumored, and that would be very difficult to conceal. Though not without precedent (the emperor Claudius) a drooling, twitching, stuttering chief executive would again lack the gravitas required to keep his followers in line, even if his reason were unimpaired.
  10. Even an unmarred body is not necessarily presentable on TV, and it doesn't take physical brain damage to affect one's demeanor. If I remember rightly, the bomb that nearly killed Hitler in July 1944 left him with an uncontrollable facial twitch and shaking hands. Modern drugs can relieve such symptoms, but it's hard to win a war while drugged.

Everyone will have his own favorite among these possibilities. Have I forgotten any?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 01, 2003 10:00 PM

It was Hathaway that had the eyepatch man, who lived well into the 70s. And they must have been pretty good ads too, if you and I both remember them 25 years later.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on April 1, 2003 10:46 PM

The eyepatch imagery might not work for an Arabic middle-eastern thugocrat, because it could evoke the Israeli warrior (and man-of-peace) Moshe Dayan.

Posted by: MG on April 2, 2003 10:35 AM

How about a piece of unremovable shrapnel sticking out from somewhere making it difficult to hide? Maybe a little rebar at a jaunty 45 degree angle from his skull?

Actually, my personal theory is something along the lines of #9-10. I think it WAS Hussein the night of the attack -- if they were using a tape, he would have looked better than that, and they have closer lookalikes. That means he was healthy but shaken that night.

Then, perhaps that same day, he suffered a debilitating physical ailment, perhaps a stroke. If he can't move one side of his face or talk coherently, he wouldn't be very militaristic either. I tend to think he's either in this condition or dead. If he were merely crippled, he could at least do radio.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on April 2, 2003 11:42 AM

Remember one of the insults hurled at the recent Arab summit: "curse be upon your mustache." That's a traditional verbal assault on manhood. So it could be as simple as a facial wound that caused his mustache to be shaved off and is serious enough to prevent the use of a false mustache.

Posted by: Dave Trowbridge on April 2, 2003 12:11 PM

I think this just points up the serious animatronics gap between the United States and the rest of the world.

If Saddam had been spending his money on theme parks instead of WMDs he'd now have the experts and technology to build a convincing robot likeness, one capable of delivering the Gettysburg Address (in Arabic).

Posted by: H.D. Miller on April 2, 2003 01:20 PM

I think the explanation is that Saddam is getting the same lousy P.R. advice that Osama's been following.

Posted by: Bill Allison on April 2, 2003 06:17 PM

Actually, I did think you missed one, but then why gild a lilly? (No.6 ... other unheroic limitations - man!)

Posted by: Keith Macdonald on April 3, 2003 12:18 AM

If he had sustained any of the injuries listed above, imagine being one of his body doubles. "Take off your clothes and lie down on the gurney, Abdul. Here, let me give you this little shot, it will help you to relax. Don't worry. Everything will be fine. Just fine."

Posted by: Ernie G on April 4, 2003 03:21 PM

For a 65 year old man to lose a limb is quite a trauma, and I think it would take him more than two weeks to recover from it.

Posted by: Michael Lonie on April 5, 2003 07:07 PM