A Personal History, An American History

How one Marine's diary helps us understand the Iraq war.

Gary Knight/VII
Gary Knight/VII

Ten years ago, as U.S. President George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office and announced the invasion of Iraq, Lt. Tim McLaughlin was already at war. He was maneuvering his Marine Corps tank in enemy territory when the president looked dead ahead at a television camera and said, "My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." It was March 2003, the time of shock and awe.

A decade has passed.

In our collective memory, the invasion tends to fuse with everything that came later: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the improvised explosive devices, the beheadings of Westerners, the suicide bombings at mosques, the civil war of Sunnis against Shiites. Our memory of the invasion itself is nearly washed away by the tragedies that followed it. Could there be anything new to say or learn about the first steps into a quagmire?

I found the answer when I opened McLaughlin’s invasion diaries. It was 2010, and I was working on a magazine article about the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue at Firdos Square; the flag that was famously draped on the statue was McLaughlin’s. I wanted to see it, so I met McLaughlin in Boston and we drove to his hometown in New Hampshire, where he kept the flag in a safe-deposit box. It was almost as good as new — it had been displayed just once — though it was smaller than I expected and had a synthetic feel that seemed at odds with the fame it had acquired. Holding it, I couldn’t help thinking, "This is what created so much awe?"

In fact, it wasn’t McLaughlin’s flag but his diaries that stole the show during my visit. Sand fell out when I opened them — he had not touched the notebooks since writing the last entry in Iraq in 2003. He started the diaries when his tank battalion was deployed to Kuwait in the months before the Iraq invasion, but the narrative is far grander: His diaries revisit the morning of 9/11, when he was working at the Pentagon, providing a jolting reminder of how everything began. McLaughlin writes about stumbling through the building’s dark, smoke-filled corridors, trying to make sure his brother, also a Marine who worked there, had not been injured. He writes of the flashing emergency lights and robotic evacuation warning, and of his numb awareness that although his country was now at war, he had no idea what to do or what would come next.

The one thing he knew for sure was that he would not fight for America from behind a desk. He pleaded his way out of his Pentagon job and was assigned to a tank battalion at Twentynine Palms, California. By the time he was deployed to Kuwait, he commanded a platoon of Abrams tanks that soon spearheaded the Marine attack on Baghdad. His diary chronicling that operation is unlike any document of war I have come across: It is a combatant’s handwritten description of the killing, chaos, and exhaustion of an invasion that culminated with his own flag becoming a global icon.

"Company volley into buildings," he wrote one day. "Killed 4 soldiers trying to run away.… My position is good to cut off back door exit. Kill dismounts in grove (3-7?) then 1 swimming across canal. 2 just about in canal." He also kept a list of the enemy vehicles, soldiers, and civilians that his tank alone eliminated. At the bottom it says, "70 people dead."

There are maps of Firdos Square and the Pentagon, phrases from a Johnny Cash song, poems about love and longing — and darkly funny entries too, including a letter he wrote to a Victoria’s Secret model while he was waiting in Kuwait for the invasion to begin: "It’d be nice to get a few letters. And I know this probably isn’t going to work." There is also the simply moving, like his letter to the parents of a Marine in his platoon who was injured. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart," McLaughlin wrote. "The parents of America put a tremendous faith in me as I am trusted with the lives of your children."

McLaughlin shared his diaries with me because in 2003 I had followed his battalion to Baghdad as a "unilateral" journalist driving a rented SUV through the war zone; I was at Firdos Square when his flag was raised on the statue. I used his diaries as source material for my story, published in the New Yorker, and I showed them to Gary Knight, a photographer who, like me, had driven into Iraq and followed McLaughlin’s battalion to the capital. Knight recognized that the vivid pages should be enlarged and displayed in a gallery. McLaughlin agreed, and on March 14 our exhibit opens at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City, featuring McLaughlin’s diaries, as well as articles I wrote about the invasion and photographs Knight shot.

No American has experienced war and peace in quite the way McLaughlin has, or written about it in quite the way he has. The difference in his account is not just the honesty of his words and the lethality of his actions, or the PTSD diagnosis he received from doctors after the invasion, or the iconic flag that he still possesses, or even the copy of the U.S. Constitution that was on his Pentagon desk on 9/11, now charred from the smoke of the attack. It is also the fact that his account of war is written in his own hand, at the time of the invasion, immediate and unfiltered, without the flattening look of a computer font. There is just this startling and timeless thing, a warrior’s diary that puts blood and flesh into words like invasion and war.

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