A Radical Lesson from the Invasion of Iraq: War Moments Should Honor the Sacrifice of Civilians

The Intercept
April 9, 2018

WAR MONUMENTS ARE vexing. The forever war that began on 9/11 has caused enough bloodshed to inspire an entirely new generation of memorials. Some have already been built or authorized, even though the fighting is not close to ending. We don’t need more war monuments, however. We need counter-monuments. The dead we need to memorialize are not our dead.

This comes to mind on a strange war anniversary, 15 years to the day after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled by Marines in Baghdad. On that day, one monument was destroyed and another was created. The new monument was a product of iconoclasm, the act of destroying the old one. Broadcast live across the world, the toppling of the statue in Firdos Square was anointed in the American media and by the American government as a virtual monument to the liberation of Iraq and the success of the invasion.

I was at Firdos Square that day because, as my war luck would have it, I had been following the battalion of Marines that tore down the statue. Cut off from cable news at the time, I was startled when I later learned the toppling was considered a major event. Just two days earlier, I had watched these same Marines conduct a military operation that was more representative of what the invasion consisted of and what the future would bring: the harming of civilians. The picture below shows what I was thinking of as the statue came down – a blue van in which three Iraqi civilians had been machine-gunned to death by these same Marines, who feared the van was carrying soldiers or suicide bombers.

Iraq, O4-09-03<br /> Few bodies of civilians shot dead by the 4th marine on their advance in the outskirts of Baghdad.<br /> More than One hundred bullets hit this van.<br /> Photo Laurent Van der Stockt/Gamma

Bullets fired by Marines hit this van near the Diyala Canal on the outskirts of Baghdad, killing three Iraqi civilians inside, on April 7, 2003. Photo: Laurent Van der Stockt

For the most part, we make monuments to our soldiers, and the good things we want them to represent, not to what foreign civilians suffer as a consequence of their actions. Consider the great American war memorials, the statues of generals and GIs that are everywhere. Also consider the ongoing controversies over Confederate statues (a subset of the whole), which show how much war memorials can mean, and how wrong and damaging they can be. Our war memorials tend to celebrate in bronze and iron the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who fight our wars. The most controversial and certainly the best American war monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, does not show any individuals but lists, on a black wall, the names of more than 58,000 soldiers who died there. It is somber yet counts only U.S. deaths.

It doesn’t take anything away from soldiers’ work — as a war correspondent in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere, I have seen lots of soldiers live, fight, and die — to note that in today’s wars, the greatest suffering and the greatest injustices are visited upon civilians, who are also responsible for some of the most amazing heroism. In the past century, the pendulum has swung from soldiers being the main casualties (think of the slaughter of trench warfare in World War I) to large proportions of civilians perishing in Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, to name a few.


A Marine tank-recovery vehicle, with journalists riding on top, prepares to tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Photo: Bryan Mangan

The statue toppling in Baghdad is a cautionary tale about our monumental focus on just the noble things we believe our soldiers have done.

The toppling riveted a global audience and had particular resonance in the United States, where pretty much every newspaper featured a front-page picture of the scene the next day. Lots of them showed the moment in which a Marine placed an American flag on the face of the Saddam statue. Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. defense secretary at the time, said a few minutes after the statue came down, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad, are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”

We know how this story played out. President George W. Bush donned a flight suit, landed on an aircraft carrier in a Navy jet, and made his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, telling the world that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Everyone saw the statue come down, Saddam was in hiding (he would soon be found and hanged), Ahmed Chalabi was going to help create a new government — what else was needed? But the liberation of Iraq was a mirage. The invasion turned into an occupation, which triggered an uprising against American control, which included a civil war among Iraq’s Sunni and Shia, which led to a takeover of a swathe of the country by the Islamic State – and who knows what’s next. At least several hundred thousand Iraqis have died in the ongoing tragedy, though the figure could be far higher, and millions have been forced from their homes. About 4,500 American soldiers have died in Iraq.

You didn’t have to wait a few months or a few years to know the falsity of the anti-monument created in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. It was abundantly clear, in the square, that the toppling was a sideshow. Just a handful of Iraqis were there, and the broadcast images of the small crowd didn’t show that about a quarter to a half of them were journalists. I later wrote an investigative story about the toppling for the New Yorker and ProPublica, and noted that much of the TV-friendly activity that day was caused and shaped by the media – beginning with the sledgehammering of the statue at the outset of the spectacle:

At key moments throughout the toppling, the level of Iraqi enthusiasm appeared to ebb and flow according to the number and interest of photographers who had gathered. For instance, when [the] sledgehammer made its first appearance, photographers clustered around as one Iraqi after another took a few shots at the base. Not long afterward, many photographers and cameramen drifted off; they had got their pictures. The sledgehammering of the statue soon ceased, too.

The Iraqis tried to pull down the statue with a rope, but that didn’t work; the statue was too heavy. The Marine commander on the scene, Col. Bryan McCoy, gave the order for his unit’s tank-recovery vehicle to finish the job (it had a powerful crane and a thick wire to take care of matters). I had gotten to know McCoy during the invasion, and later I interviewed him about the toppling. He mentioned the “buzzkill” of not doing anything. “Put your virtual-reality goggles on,” he said. “What would that moment have been if we hadn’t? It would have been some b-reel of Iraqis banging away at this thing and eventually losing interest and going home. There was a momentum, there was a feeling, this atmosphere of liberation. … That was the attitude — keep the momentum going.”

What was particularly crazy about this mutant monument: Its significance was determined to a great extent by producers and editors who were thousands of miles away watching their televisions. I didn’t take notes while the statue was going down – it was a small thing in a city coming apart. Gary Knight, a photographer for Newsweek who was also in the square (and who shot the photograph below), didn’t bother to take pictures of the statue until talking on his satellite phone with his editor, who was watching the scene on his TV in America and ordered Knight to start shooting.

Iraqi civilians killed by an innapropriate use of force by US Marines during the battle for the Bagdhad Highway Bridge. Instaed of waiting for their snipers to correctly identify the target the Marines opened fire with machine guns and automatic rifles on a minibus of 2 women and 3 old men.</p> <p>Gary Knight/VII</p> <p>8 April 2003

The windshield of a civilian van that was struck by a hail of bullets fired by Marines at the Diyala Canal on the outskirts of Baghdad on April 7, 2003. Three Iraqis inside were killed. Photo: Gary Knight

The editors and producers who made a monument out of the actions of the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment – McCoy’s battalion – did not choose the wrong battalion, just the wrong moment in the battalion’s eventful invasion.

Two days earlier, the battalion had mistakenly gunned down about a dozen civilians as they drove down a highway that was one of the few escape routes out of Baghdad, which was being bombed by U.S. forces. These Marines, who had just crossed the Diyala Canal into the capital’s outskirts, were advancing up that road and shot every car that came toward them. I wrote about these deaths for the New York Times Magazine in 2003, and I’ve just written a long thread about it on Twitter, describing how I walked along the kill box afterward and counted six vehicles that had been destroyed. The corpses were still inside. The blue van, a Kia, had more than 20 bullet holes in its windshield (see the photo above). Two bodies were slumped in the front seats. In the back, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor, dead. There were no weapons, no ammunition — these people were just trying to escape U.S. bombs.

Iraq, 04-09-03</p> <p>The body of a old man shot by the 4th marine on their advance to the outskirts of Baghdad.</p> <p>Photo Laurent Van der Stockt

The body of a man shot by Marines at the Diyala Canal on the outskirts of Baghdad on April 7, 2003. Photo: Laurent Van der Stockt

As I watched the statue come down, I was also thinking of an old man whose corpse was face-up along the road near the Diyala Canal, next to his walking cane. He lay not far from the blue van, with its tires shot out and its windows shattered by bullets, its interior stained with blood and smelling of death, with flies feasting on already-rotting flesh. That van was the monument the invasion deserved, the visual that should have been broadcast across the world, and that the secretary of defense should have felt obliged to speak about.

I know, it is a ridiculous proposition. The problem with my idea is that we don’t care very much about foreigners who die in our wars, just our own soldierly kin (as is the case for most countries). The 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero belongs in a separate category, because it does focus on the deaths of civilians, but only those killed on American soil. (Our memorials to the Holocaust are in yet another category, honoring the exterminated victims of Nazi Germany.) Viet Thanh Nguyen, in “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” a book that is a necessary corrective to our way of thinking about our wars, quotes photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths as observing that the Vietnam War memorial would have to be nine miles long if it were to include the names of the millions of Vietnamese who died in that conflict. As it stands, counting only U.S. casualties, the wall is about 150 yards long.

We should do better, though the odds are that with President Donald Trump signing a bill authorizing the creation of a Global War on Terrorism Memorial, we will not rise to the occasion. It likely wouldn’t be popular, but the monument the war on terror deserves is the bullet-riddled blue van. Put it on a pedestal on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. If we start building monuments that focus our attention on the pitiless killing of civilians in our wars, maybe we would have fewer wars to fight and less reason to build these monuments.

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.