An unusual exhibit about our invasion of Iraq, ten years later

An unusual exhibit about our invasion of Iraq, ten years later

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 The last American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, and our attention has turned away, but the invasion’s 10th anniversary falls next month, offering a chance to remember and explore the still-painful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 computer font.

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.