Sunday Times Magazine (London)
March 3, 2013
A few years ago, a former marine named Tim McLaughlin drove to New Hampshire in his red pickup to visit his parents’ farmhouse, which is where he stored his gear from Iraq, among which were his war diaries. A marine decal was on one of the covers, and below it, a haunting phrase he had written based on both a Johnny Cash song and the Book of Revelations: “His horse was named Death… and Hell followed them.” When he opened the first pages, sand fell out; the journals had not been touched since he returned from the invasion in 2003.
These days, we are drawn to digital methods of memory preservation — blogs and tweets and status updates — but handwritten diaries endure, especially in wartime. They do not need electricity or to be handled with care, and they carry a unique form of literary DNA. Each stroke of the pen is a highly individualised signature that reveals the writer’s emotional state. Diaries were kept by American and British soldiers in Iraq, as they were kept by Iraqis. McLaughlin was a 25-year-old Marine Corps first lieutenant when he started his journals in the Kuwaiti desert. As he waited for the invasion, he was filled with a combination of boredom and anxiety, a longing to be at war and no longer at war. His diary opens with a stunning remembrance of the day that marked the start of his journey to Kuwait and beyond.
On September 11, 2001, McLaughlin’s workday began at the Pentagon, where he was a general’s aide. He went to a basement gym around eight in the morning, and in the locker room he heard a radio report about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Odd. Moments later, he saw live television reports of a second plane hitting the centre. He was shocked. He headed outside for his run. After a mile and a half, he heard two thuds behind him. A cloud was over the Pentagon. Emergency vehicles roared past. He sprinted back to the torn building and rushed inside to find his brother, also a marine, who worked there.
“It was like climbing a chimney with smoke filling in from top to bottom,” McLaughlin wrote in his diary’s first pages. “I stopped, finally realising that I was completely alone in the largest office building in the world. I could barely see my hand in front of me, the only light was from the refraction of the blinking emergency lights and the only sound was from a mechanical/computerised woman’s voice that repeated — There has been an emergency. Please exit the building immediately.”
Outside again, McLaughlin met a corporal who asked: “What do we do now, sir?”
McLaughlin’s experience makes for an ideal diarist.
He read Russian language and poetry at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, he was at the Pentagon on 9/11, he commanded a tank at the tip of the invading force in 2003, and he played a key role in the invasion’s famous culmination — the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square. It was McLaughlin’s American flag that was draped controversially on the statue. And when he left the marines, McLaughlin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Few people are connected so intimately to such essential matters of war and peace.
Back in New Hampshire, McLaughlin brought out the flag and described how it was given to him by a family acquaintance a few days after 9/11, how he packed it in his rucksack when his tank company was deployed to Kuwait two years later, and how he tried to raise it several times during the invasion, to get a souvenir snapshot. Once, he almost got hit by bullets while trying to raise it atop a building, another time a tank ran over the flagpole he was about to use. By the time his tank company stormed into Baghdad and surrounded the statue, his flag was semi-famous among his fellow marines. So the order went out: McLaughlin, get your flag, it’s time.
The core of the diary is an account of violence and death and regret. In McLaughlin’s tight script, there is this after-battle notation: “Killed 4 soldiers trying to run away… then 1 swimming across the canal.” And this one, about his tank turning its 7.62mm coaxial machinegun on a car that suddenly drove onto the road during a battle: “Civilian [driver] shot 5 times in back and legs. Continued progress to Afaq.” On another page, there is a careful list of vehicles his tank had destroyed. At the bottom is the tally in lives: “70 people dead.” The diaries are a visual experience. There are pictures and maps of the places he has been and things he saw — drawings of the Pentagon on the day it was attacked and of Firdos Square on the day of the toppling. The pages devoted to the toppling are a mad rush of impressions: “Swamped by mass of reporters — could not move/peace protester ‘How many children have you killed today’ ” — until he writes, “Capt Lewis sent me back to get flag… [Corporal Edward] Chin draped it over Saddam’s face… Got flag back — people tried to get it from me.”
Diaries reflect the mess of life, the incoherence of events as they trip over each other, tragedy followed by farce and absurdity and tragedy again. On the second-to-last page of one of the diaries, there is a picture of a kitten and the warning: “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten.” Funny. On the last page, facing the kitten, McLaughlin quotes from a country song by Tim McGraw: “So you do what you do and you pay for your sins and there’s no sense wondering what might have been that’s a waste of time, drive you outta your mind.” Not funny.
Ten years on from the Iraq invasion, McLaughlin is now a lawyer in Boston and heads a nonprofit organisation that provides free legal advice to veterans and the homeless. But it is in his diaries that we learn of the things he still carries with him.
Sunday Times Magazine (London)