Ten years ago today, TV carried one of the most iconic, if stage-managed and misremembered, images of the invasion of Iraq: Moments before toppling the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square, several Marines used a United States flag to cover Saddam's face before prudently swapping it for an Iraqi standard.
In anticipation of that anniversary, the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, went looking for the American flag, hoping to put it on display. But the flag's keeper, former Lt. Tim McLaughlin, has told the Corps he won't provide it, because he doesn't want it used for pro-war propaganda.
"Over the years, I've become more aware of the symbolism that attached to the flag," McLaughlin told Salon's Jordan Heller. "But for me, it doesn't have any of those things—and I don't want it to again."
Instead, McLaughlin has already incorporated the flag into a museum exhibition of his own, intended to show viewers an unretouched perspective of the war. It was carved mainly out of diaries he kept in Iraq—colorful pages that include tallies of kills his unit accumulated. The exhibition was rejected by a series of museums and galleries, until it found a home at the Bronx Documentary Center.
"Our perception of war is mostly filtered through one, two, three, four filters," New Yorker writer and co-exhibitor Peter Maass said of McLaughlin's journals. "This is his handwriting on the wall. No filters." Maass tells much of McLaughlin's personal war story in "The Toppling," his epic postmortem of the Firdos Square photo op. As a tank officer in the first wave of troops to Baghdad, McLaughlin shot an innocent man at a driving checkpoint, and it made him tentative; later, he hesitated in recognizing an attack by insurgents, and one of his comrades died in the subsequent skirmish.
McLaughlin had been at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and the flag was given to him by a staffer from the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, in recognition of McLaughlin's aid to his colleagues in the aftermath of the attack. He took it with him overseas, hoping to photograph himself with it somewhere in Iraq. But after the Saddam statue encounter, after his tour, after he'd made it back to his parents, he stowed it away in a safe-deposit box near their New Hampshire home.
"For me it was a period of death and killing people," McLaughlin—now an attorney for indigent clients in Boston—told Salon. He didn't like how the flag "facilitated the media's narrative of wars as neat and tidy things."