By Peter Maass
Best Defense guest columnist
Ten years ago, I rolled into Baghdad's Firdos
Square with photographer Gary Knight and the Marine battalion that famously draped
a flag atop a statue of Saddam Hussein before tearing it down in front of the
world's television cameras. As we all know, this moment of promise was followed
by a lot of pain. The last American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, and
our attention has turned away, but the invasion's 10th anniversary falls next
month, offering a chance to remember and explore the still-painful aftermath.
How can we best do this?
A few years ago, I began working on a story
that reconstructed the statue's toppling; it was published by the New Yorker in 2011 but the most important thing is that while reporting it I
met Lt. Tim McLaughlin, whose flag was placed on the statue. Tim had left the
Marines, gone to law school and was a lawyer in Boston. He shared his war
diaries with me, and I realized, when I thumbed through the first pages and
sand fell from them (Tim had not touched them since Iraq) that I was holding an
amazing document. I had been a foreign correspondent for many years, and had
seen lots of documentation about war, but this was the most original and
emotional -- war as seen by the combatant, in the combatant's handwriting,
written in his downtime between battles. It wasn't filtered by the media, by
politicians or generals, and it didn't even suffer the visual flattening of a
The content stunned me. Tim was at the Pentagon
on 9/11 and was a tank platoon commander in his tip-of-the-spear battalion in
2003. His diaries contain raw descriptions of everything from the smoke-filled
corridors of the Pentagon on that tragic September day to the violence of the
Iraq invasion and the craziness of the toppling of the iconic statue. The agony
of firing too soon and shooting civilians, and firing too late and losing a
fellow Marine to enemy bullets, as well as the boredom and humor and exhaustion
of the invasion--these searing things are in the diaries, in addition to Tim's
evocative maps and pictures. While the diaries are remarkably personal, they
reflect multiple facets of the combatant experience of war.
To cut a long story short, Gary and I discussed
the idea of an exhibit centering around the diaries, and Tim readily agreed.
The exhibit is called "Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in
Iraq," and it will open in New York City at the Bronx Documentary Center on March
15, just a few days before the invasion's 10th anniversary. The exhibit will
feature large-format reprints of pages from Tim's diary, and on some days it
will display his American flag, which has not been on public view since its
Baghdad cameo. The exhibit will also feature invasion photographs by Gary, who
like me was a "unilateral" journalist driving from Kuwait into Iraq
in a rented SUV (mine came from Hertz). There will be a few texts by me, as
well as videos that feature Tim and news footage from the time. Tim, who is president
of a non-profit that provides free legal advice to veterans and the homeless, has
received a 50 percent disability rating from the VA for his PTSD diagnosis, and
that will be in the exhibit, too.
It's an innovative exhibit that, we hope, will
get people thinking about the war and its legacy -- things that are slipping
into a collective memory hole. We launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign
earlier this month and we're nearing our goal but we're not yet there. If we
can reach it and go further, we will start working on stage two of our project --
to assemble and publish war diaries from other combatants and civilians. Yes,
this post is a bit of a fundraising pitch, though we also
want people to just know about the exhibit and not let the anniversary pass without
remembrance. In mid-March, Foreign Policy
plans to publish an online series of photos and stories about Tim's diaries.
For Tim, Gary, and me, it has been an uphill
battle. Part of the backstory involves being turned down by a number of
galleries and museums before the non-profit Bronx Documentary Center agreed,
enthusiastically, to host our exhibit. The fancy places were not interested in
Iraq -- old news, time to move on, tired of war, there's no money to be made in
war diaries, etc. We have been working on this as a labor of love, because we
think it's a unique and provocative way to fight the tide of forgetting.
Please come visit the exhibit when it opens on
March 15, and if you can help our fundraising, we would
be delighted, too. Also, if you are affiliated with an organization that would
be interested in hosting the exhibit after it closes in New York, please give
us a shout.
Peter Maass, author of Love Thy Neighbor and Crude World, has written about Iraq and Afghanistan for the New Yorker and the New
York Times Magazine. Gary Knight is a founder of the VII Photo Agency and director of the Tufts University Program for Narrative &
Documentary Practice. Tim McLaughlin is a lawyer in Boston and president of Shelter Legal Services, which provides free
legal advice to veterans and the homeless.
Peter Maass/Tim McLaughlin