On a dusty Baghdad avenue, less than a day before the Gulf War kicked off in 1990, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers marched in sync with Star Wars–themed music — a show of defiance against the American troops who would soon start bombing the country. The Iraqi soldiers passed under the city’s Victory Arch, a giant pair of 141-foot crossed swords resembling Darth Vader’s famous Empire Strikes Back pose with light sabers. The patriotic procession, broadcast live to millions of stunned viewers around the globe, marked an overlooked and surreal detail of military warfare in Iraq: an obsession with a galaxy far, far away.
Saddam Hussein had a penchant for fantasy and owned paintings by American fantasy artist Rowena Morrill, whose friend and fellow sci-fi illustrator Boris Vallejo created the Empire Strikes Back poster. But it was the dictator’s eldest son, Uday, who took the sci-fi fixation to the extreme. Put in charge of the so-called Fedayeen Saddam, “Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice,” Uday — whose unhinged brutality made his father look statesmanlike — formed a sadistic team of regime enforcers and killers. His first order of business? Ordering black shirts, black ski masks and black helmets that sloped in the back to make his troops resemble Darth Vader.
It’s like they were saying, ‘We’re so tough we’re ready to go and die right now.’
Kevin Woods, deputy director, Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses
The Fedayeen had a macho image and “did a lot to stand out,” says Kevin Woods, deputy director of the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, who analyzed the Pentagon’s secret study of Saddam Hussein’s regime based on Iraqi documents seized in 2003. Uday was seen as an “extreme playboy,” Woods says, noting how image was everything for his young guerrilla fighters, some of whom had been recruited as young as age 10 into the Ashbal Saddam, or Saddam’s Lion Cubs. While the black operation uniforms were reserved for the battlefield, the paramilitary unit would often dress in all white, the Middle East death shroud, likening themselves to martyrs for parades, or even stormtroopers. “It’s like they were saying, ‘We’re so tough we’re ready to go and die right now,’” Woods explains.
Often recruited from rural backgrounds, the Fedayeen reported directly to the Presidential Palace, not army command, and often carried out the regime’s dirty work. This meant combating public vice by using methods that even Saddam’s Republican Guard would balk at. These were tactics “meant to terrorize the masses that the formal military [were] loath to conduct,” said Ibrahim Al-Marashi, a history professor at California State University San Marcos. Responsible for the patrol of neighborhoods and anti-smuggling duties, the Fedayeen handed down harsh punishments in Sharia-like fashion — cutting off hands for theft and tongues for lying, tossing people off towers for sodomy and doling out 100 lashes for sexual harassment, even to members of their own unit. Military failings, from simply hesitating to complete one’s duties to cooperating with the enemy, were all punishable by death. It’s no wonder that the bloodthirsty commandos, who in promotional videos practiced the art of decapitation and, in one instance, ate a live dog, were the most fanatical of Iraq’s forces. “They portray a regime that was about as vicious as any regime could conceivably be,” then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told CNN in 2003, when the Iraq War began. The unit was incentivized, however, with on-the-spot bonuses for successful missions, free land just for volunteering and “martyr privileges” such as pensions for families of the deceased.
But the 40,000-strong Fedayeen didn’t gain international attention until the 2003 Iraq War, when they offered stiff resistance while much of Hussein’s Republican Guard collapsed. They were among the last on the front lines before the regime was conquered, even ambushing a U.S. convoy in the town of Samarra in November, just a month before Saddam himself was captured. But for all their machismo, the lack of formal military training caught up with them; unprepared for modern warfare, these Star Wars–esque fighters were killed by the thousands.
The grand display, just a day before the bombs would begin raining down, was a “moment of dress-up” and a “little bit of a ‘fuck you’ to the Americans,” says artist Michael Rakowitz, whose 2009 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern explored the parallels between Saddam’s regime and Star Wars. When Iraq fell out of favor with America, he says, the attitude was, “‘This is what you think of us, suddenly we’re the villains? OK, we’ll wear the uniform.’” Uday and his fanatical troops, Rakowitz says, were “painting the lines of good and evil as thickly as people were talking about it.”
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