Peter Maass, The Toppling

June 13, 2012  |  permalink

‘The Toppling’ Wins Mirror Award

Nice news—my New Yorker story about the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad has won the John M. Higgins Award for Best In-Depth/Enterprise Reporting, given out as one of the Mirror Awards by the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. The Mirror Awards are for stories that look into the role of the media.


April 12, 2011  |  permalink

Toppling Dictators in the Youtube Age

The world’s first icons, predating the era of mass reproduction, originated in times when it was at least theoretically possible to smash every painting of a religious figure or tear down every statue of a potentate. That’s no longer possible. As the uprisings in the Middle East show, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, along with the eternal life the Internet grants to digital imagery, is reshaping the form and impact of political iconography. Hosni Mubarak will not be the last dictator to suffer the consequences. My thoughts on the subject are in a video-studded posting at NewYorker.com. The text-only version is here.


February 08, 2011  |  permalink

Tahrir 2011, Firdos 2003


January 18, 2011  |  permalink

The Literature of 3/4

There are a number of books about 3/4, the Third Battalion Fourth Marines, which toppled the statue at Firdos Square. John Koopman, who was an embedded reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, wrote “McCoy’s Marines: Darkside to Baghdad.” Jack Coughlin and Casey Kuhlman, a sniper team in the battalion, co-wrote “Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper.” Bing West, a former Marine and Defense Department official, co-wrote with Ray Smith “The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the United States Marines.” Nick Popaditch, a gunnery sergeant in the battalion, wrote “Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander’s Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage and Recovery.” And last but not least, Bryan McCoy, the battalion’s commander, wrote “Passion of Command: The Moral Imperative of Leadership.”


January 14, 2011  |  permalink

The Strategic Corporal at Firdos Square

If Leon Lambert, a 35-year old gunnery sergeant, hadn’t been at Firdos Square, the statue of Saddam Hussein probably wouldn’t have been toppled on April 9. It was Lambert who gave a sledgehammer and rope to a handful of Iraqis at the square, thereby triggering the process that led to the statue’s downfall. Lambert’s role was a manifestation of the “strategic corporal” theory that Marine General Charles Krulak described in an influential 1999 article. Krulak argued that, in an interconnected world, the actions of even a lowly corporal can have global consequences. “All future conflicts will be acted out before an international audience,” Krulak wrote. “In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well.” Click here for the article.


January 13, 2011  |  permalink

The Map to the Palestine Hotel


The Marines who were dispatched to the Palestine Hotel were given a grid coordinate for an area that was a square kilometer large but they did not know where the hotel was located in that area; the hotel was not marked on the map they used. The map is posted above. The red circle, which I placed on the map, shows the area where the Palestine Hotel and Firdos Square are located. The versions below show the area in greater detail; the red arrows that I put on these maps (I have made no other alterations) point to the intersection where Firdos Square and the Palestine Hotel are located. Because the map did not show the precise location of the hotel, a photographer who knew the hotel’s location rode atop the turret of the first tank into Firdos Square.


January 11, 2011  |  permalink

Shelling the Palestine Hotel

On April 8, the day before Marines arrived at Firdos Square, an Army tank on the Al Jumhuriya Bridge fired a shell at the Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists and injuring three others. Those killings increased pressure on the Pentagon to secure the hotel, so that no further harm would come to journalists there; the next day, Marines were dispatched to the Palestine. Subsequent investigations revealed that although key officers on the ground, including brigade and battalion commanders, knew the Palestine should not be fired on, they did not know the hotel’s precise location, because it wasn’t marked on their maps; the tank’s crew did not know that journalists were in the building they were firing on. Click here to read the investigation from The Los Angeles Times, and click here to read the report from the Committee to Protect Journalists.


January 11, 2011  |  permalink

Being There

If you were at Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, you would end up in somebody’s picture. This photo was shot by Robert Nickelsberg of Time, and it shows Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy outside the Palestine Hotel, moments after he pulled up in his Humvee. McCoy is on the phone, and the guy on the left, in a jacket and tie, is the hotel manager who had nervously come outside to meet his new boss. At the far left of the photo, partially obscured, the fellow with sunglasses who is holding the digital recorder—yes, guilty as charged, that’s me.


January 07, 2011  |  permalink

Inside the Palestine Hotel, 2

On the fifth anniversary of the invasion, New York Times reporter John Burns wrote about the precarious status of journalists at the Palestine Hotel, and how he felt when Marines arrived at Firdos Square.


January 06, 2011  |  permalink

CBS News Coverage of the Statue Falling

Lara Logan reports for CBS News on the statue being toppled.


January 06, 2011  |  permalink

Fox News Coverage of the Statue Falling

Here’s a two-minute clip of Fox’s coverage of the statue being torn down.


January 05, 2011  |  permalink

The Psychological Operations Myth

In 2004 the Army published a report that credited a psychological operations team with playing a crucial role at Firdos Square. A Los Angeles Times story about the report, headlined “Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue,” circulated widely on the web, fueling the notion that the toppling was a psyop trick. But the Army was wrong, and the L.A. Times was wrong. I interviewed the psyop team leader, Staff Sgt. Brian Plesich, and he acknowledged that his team arrived at the square well after the toppling began; video from Firdos shows Plesich’s distinctive Humvee, with loudspeakers on its roof, arriving an hour-and-half after the first tanks. The Army report credited Plesich with getting an Iraqi flag on the statue, but this was wrong, too; a Marine, Casey Kuhlman, did it. Click “Continue Reading” to see the section of my story that clears up the psyop myth.

Continue Reading »


January 04, 2011  |  permalink

The Grenade Picture


From my story…

McCoy, who has written a monograph on military leadership, “The Passion of Command,” understood the importance of the media. That was one reason he had agreed to let me and ten other unilateral journalists follow his battalion, which already had four embedded journalists. The reporters worked for, among others, the Times, Time, Newsweek, the Associated Press, and several photography agencies. McCoy occasionally joined us for coffee in the morning, giving us briefings about the battles along the way to Baghdad, and he made it clear to his men that we were to be welcomed. When he threw a grenade at an Iraqi position one day, a photographer was at his side, and the photograph was widely disseminated.

The photo was taken by Robert Nickelsberg of Time.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

The Map for Invading Baghdad


The final assault into central Baghdad was planned in a surprisingly ad-hoc manner. I had thought it would have been prepared in depth, with lots of intelligence and surveillance on hand, but instead it was devised on the outskirts of Baghdad, at the Diyala canal, by two majors, John Schaar and Andrew Milburn, who were told to plan hit-and-run raids. As I explain in my story—

Until Diyala, they had not even examined a map of the city, but they quickly concluded that the raids were a bad idea. “We did a little study and thought this was really stupid,” Schaar told me not long ago. Raiding units risked becoming trapped in the city, creating an Iraqi version of “Black Hawk Down.” Schaar and Milburn also concluded that Iraqi forces could not withstand a direct assault by the regiment; for nearly three weeks, the regiment had blasted through every Iraqi unit in its path. They then divided central Baghdad into twenty-seven zones, with each battalion responsible for occupying four or five zones (several low-priority zones were unassigned). Schaar and Milburn had received from divisional headquarters a list of about thirty sensitive sites—a hodgepodge that comprised embassies, banks, detention centers, potential nuclear facilities, and hotels, including the Palestine. The most important targets were in four central zones across the Tigris River from the Republican Palace, which the Army had already seized. Schaar recently sent me a photograph of the twenty-seven-zone invasion map. The map has six thumbtacks marking key targets. One of them, in the central zones, was the Palestine Hotel. According to Schaar, there was never any doubt about which battalion would be assigned the central zones. “Three-four”—McCoy’s battalion—“got tagged to that because they were the sharp guys,” he told me.

On Schaar’s picture of the map, the Palestine Hotel is marked by the yellow thumbtack.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

Journalists Outside the Frame


The hundreds of journalists at Firdos Square were rarely shown on TV or in photos; their influence on the toppling was obscured. But a Marine who was at Firdos shared with me a series of photos that show the journalist-saturated scene around the statue. The first two photos in the set show the cameramen and photographers atop the M88 that took down the statue. The third photo shows them at the base of the statue, waiting for it to come down. The final photos show the mixture of photographers and Iraqis in the melee around the fallen head of Saddam. All photos by Bryan Mangan. Click here for the photo set.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

Academic Studies of the Firdos Toppling

There are a number of interesting media studies about the toppling at Firdos Square. The best was done by a George Washington University team led by professor Sean Aday; entitled “As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War: The Emergence of the Victory Frame in Television Coverage of the Iraq War,” you can download the study by clicking here. Deborah Jaramillo, a Boston University professor, wrote a useful book, “Ugly War, Pretty Package: How CNN and Fox News Made the Invasion of Iraq High Concept,” which is available on Amazon.com. Another useful study is “Shoot First and Ask Questions Later: Media Coverage of the 2003 Iraq War,” which is also available on Amazon.com. Shahira Fahmy, at the University of Arizona, wrote “They Took It Down: Exploring Determinants of Visual Reporting in the Toppling of the Saddam Statue in National and International Newspapers,” which can be accessed here. Svetlana Boym, a professor at Harvard whom I quote in my story, writes insightfully about monuments and memories in “The Future of Nostalgia.” Last but not least, Lucia Allais is a smart Princeton scholar on the history and theory of architecture.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

My Other Stories About the Third Battalion

The military unit that toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square was the Third Battalion Fourth Marines, based at Twentynine Palms, California and led by Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy (who is now a full colonel, based in Tampa with Central Command). During the invasion I was what the military called a “unilateral” journalist, driving unescorted into Iraq on the first day of the invasion in an S.U.V. rented from Hertz in Kuwait. A few days into the war, I happened to meet Col. McCoy at a staging area in the Iraqi desert north of Nasiriya, and he agreed to let me and a number of other unilaterals follow his battalion to Baghdad. I have written two previous pieces about the battalion; the first, titled “Good Kills,” was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2003 and told of the battalion’s capture of a key bridge over the Diyala canal, a feat that unfortunately left a number of civilians dead. I also wrote a long piece for Outside magazine about my strange journey through the invasion; it was titled “The Race to Baghdad.” For “Good Kills,” click here. For “The Race to Baghdad,” click here.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

ProPublica Video About the Toppling

My story about the toppling was helped along by two generous and wonderful non-profit institutions. Most of the research was conducted while I was a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. The story was written with support from ProPublica, which produces investigative journalism in the public interest. I also worked with ProPublica on a three-minute video that explains some of the key points of the story. Here it is.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

The Passion of Command

Col. Bryan McCoy, who commanded the battalion that toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, has written a fine book about military leadership. It’s called Passion of Command: The Moral Imperative of Leadership, and it has a lot of admirers in the military community.


January 03, 2011  |  permalink

The Toppling in The New Yorker



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About The Toppling by Peter Maass

On April 9, 2003, American Marines toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square in Baghdad. Broadcast across the world, the event symbolized what was thought to be an American victory in Iraq. My reconstruction, written with support from ProPublica and the Shorenstein Center, was published in The New Yorker. This section contains documents, photos, videos and links related to the story.


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