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Bringing Out the Dead

Reflections on Uday, Qusay, and il Duce.

12:00 AM, Jul 31, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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GIVE THE UNITED STATES military some credit. After wiping out Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, with a barrage of small-arms fire and TOW missiles, they not only put their bodies on display--they made them look presentable (after those initial photos that could have appeared in Fangoria). No, it's nothing like Lenin, Mao, or even Ferdinand Marcos. But then again, they didn't have much to work with. Qusay took bullets straight to the head while his brother suffered blunt trauma (also to the head). In the end, both men looked like props from Madame Tussaud's latest exhibit. In other circumstances, their faces would have required a closed-casket funeral.

But while a closed-casket would've shown more respect, it wouldn't have convinced the Iraqi people any more than it convinced Doors fans that Jim Morrison was dead and buried in Montmartre. Critics charge that the Uday and Qusay episode is simply another example of American imperial arrogance and brutality--showing off bodies in the tradition of Jesse James, Che Guevara, and, yes, Benito Mussolini. Others claim this is a violation of the Geneva Convention, since the bodies of the enemy are not supposed to be shown for humiliation or ridicule. And still others point to America's hypocrisy since we expressed outrage when Saddam's government showed videos of U.S. casualties during the war.

The thing is, Americans did not demand to see their dead on television. The Iraqi people, on the other hand, did want to see Uday and Qusay for themselves. As one Iraqi told the Washington Post, "I know it is forbidden to show the dead on television, but the Iraqi people wanted this, so they could have the truth." Not that this will convince everyone the two brothers were killed. Said another Iraqi in the Post article, "Yesterday I saw the photos, and today I saw the dolls. It was difficult for the Americans to make people believe, so they made wax dolls like a museum."

As for the Geneva Convention argument, the corpses are being used as proof, not for humiliation or ridicule. If that were the case, instead of embalming Uday and Qusay, U.S. troops could have just dumped the two brothers' bullet-riddled bodies in the center of Baghdad and left the Iraqi people to their own devices. In other words, they could've given them the Mussolini treatment.

ON APRIL 18, 1945, as Allied forces climbed their way up the boot of Italy, ex-dictator Benito Mussolini (forced to step down after the king told him he was "the most hated man in Italy") decided to leave his villa near Lake Como and make a run for the Swiss border--despite the fact that the Lombard region was teeming with resistance. Il Duce embarked on the road to Switzerland but soon found it blocked. Desperate, he hitched a ride with German soldiers headed for Austria. The convoy, however, was stopped by the 52nd Garibaldinians, a group of Italian partisans. At this point, Mussolini was wearing a not-terribly-convincing disguise that consisted of a Luftwaffe overcoat and a helmet. He was quickly found out and arrested. He was then briefly reunited with his mistress Clara Petacci--the two were then executed by a firing squad on April 28.

But what to do with his body? Mussolini, his mistress, and a number of his unlucky associates were loaded onto a truck headed toward Milan in the middle of the night. Upon arriving, the partisans dumped all the bodies at the Piazzale Loreto, near the train station. This was, as Richard Bosworth, author of the titanic biography "Mussolini," points out, the very same location where 15 partisans were executed for reprisals and left for public display a year earlier. As Bosworth writes, "The moment had come when they could show what they thought about Mussolini's tyranny, the disaster of the war, great politics, and, most simply, the fall of a dictator. The dead Mussolini at last could be attacked with impunity."

"Not only did the crowd hurl imprecations at their ex-leader and spit at his remains," says Bosworth, "they also hit out at the corpse with sticks and their bare hands. Local women, it is claimed, urinated on it. . . . When, with a certain mercy, his body was strung up . . . it was covered with detritus. Brain matter seeped out from wounds which were especially deep on the right side of Mussolini's head." After a full day on display, il Duce's body was transferred to the hospital at the University of Milan, where U.S. authorities performed an autopsy on it. Doctors also extracted slivers of his brain and sent them to St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital in Washington. (They remained there until 1966, when the specimens were finally sent back to the dictator's family in test tubes.)