A Diarist At War

The New York Times
March 14, 2013
(The following story ran on the NYT’s At War blog)

With the invasion of Iraq just weeks away, Lt. Tim McLaughlin began a military ritual that dates back to Homer. He started a war diary. It was not a blog or e-mails sent from his waiting-to-invade base in the Kuwaiti desert, it was a plain notebook and pen with which he kept track of what was on his mind and what was in the crosshairs of his Abrams tank.

“Town car pops out on me, 200 meters,” he wrote of a battle near Baghdad. “Sgt. Wellons coaxed it, vehicle slowed down, swerved left off road + hit tree. Civilian shot 5 times in back and legs. Continued progress to Afaq.” He also penned a letter to a Victoria’s Secret model as well as a poem to his girlfriend, yet the heart of his diary, and the heart of warfare, is violence. After another battle he wrote, “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…Covered canal w/.50 cal —killed 2 more.”

His journals are a raw reminder of what happens when young men, equipped with weapons that give them life-and-death powers, are dispatched on a mission to invade a foreign country. Lieutenant McLaughlin, who is now a lawyer in Boston, commanded a platoon of tanks that led the Marine advance on Baghdad, and his descriptions are brutal. That is why he shared the diaries with me and agreed, on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion, to have them displayed in an exhibition that opens Thursday at the Bronx Documentary Center. We are familiar with the polemics — Should we have gone to war? Why did we go to war? — but we are losing sight of what happens on the ground in the defining act of invasion. His journal is a jolt, a corrective.

Lieutenant McLaughlin is the perfect diarist. To begin with, he was a Russian language and poetry major at Holy Cross, he was raised in a big Irish-American family in the bedrock of New Hampshire and he emerged from the war with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder — which, he will tell you, should not be called a disorder, because he regards it as a normal reaction to the infliction and burden of extreme trauma. But Lieutenant McLaughlin was also at the Pentagon on 9/11, and his diary includes his recollection of what happened there — the thuds he heard when the plane hit the building, his effort to get through its smoke-filled corridors to find his brother, who also worked there, and the flashing emergency lights and emergency warning to evacuate the premises immediately.

That was the start of Lieutenant McLaughlin’s unique experience of our wartime. His battalion was the first Marine unit into the center of Baghdad and was responsible for the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square. The flag that was controversially placed on the statue belonged to Lieutenant McLaughlin. He still has it, and it will be displayed in the exhibit on select days. His diary explains what happened to him at Firdos Square, too — the chaos of storming into the heart of an enemy capital, the antiwar protester who called him a child killer, the order to get his flag for a souvenir picture atop the statue.

I covered the invasion for the Times Magazine as a “unilateral” journalist driving into the war zone in a Hyundai sport-utility vehicle I had rented from Hertz in Kuwait City; for most of the time I was following Lieutenant McLaughlin’s unit, the Third Battalion Fourth Marines. Years later I began to work on a story for The New Yorker that reconstructed the toppling of the Saddam statue, and while reporting it I got in touch with Lieutenant McLaughlin and he showed me his diaries, which he hadn’t opened since Iraq. Sand spilled out when I opened the first pages.

Not long afterward, I showed the diaries to photographer Gary Knight, a friend who also covered Lieutenant McLaughlin’s battalion during the invasion; Mr. Knight suggested an exhibit that would feature diary pages blown up to poster size. It is one thing to read a soldier’s words on an anodyne computer screen, but quite another thing to read his handwriting; testimony does not get much purer. The nonprofit Bronx Documentary Center agreed to host our exhibit — which is titled “Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq” — and we raised nearly $17,000 on Kickstarter. The exhibit, which also features Knight’s photographs and excerpts from my stories, begins Thursday with an opening reception at the center and the online publication of Lieutenant McLaughlin’s diaries by Foreign Policy.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.