The Toppling

Posted on January 8, 2011

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How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war.

by Peter Maass

On April 9, 2003, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy, commander of the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines, awoke at a military base captured from the Iraqis a few miles from the center of Baghdad, which was still held by the enemy. It had been twenty days since the invasion of Iraq began, and McCoy had some personal chores to take care of—washing his socks, for one. Afterward, he walked over to a group of marines under his command who were defacing a mural of Saddam Hussein. As I watched, he picked up a sledgehammer and struck a few blows himself. The men cheered. Then he began preparing for the serious business of the day: leading the battalion into the heart of the city. He expected a house-to-house brawl that would last several days.

The battalion’s tanks were followed by Humvees with the barrels of M-16s pointing from every window. But only a few potshots were fired at the marines, and small groups of Iraqis and their children were on the streets waving. On the radio, McCoy’s men told of being served tea. “We’re not getting resistance, we’re getting cakes,” McCoy remarked.

As the battalion neared the center of the city, Colonel Steven Hummer, the regimental commander, ordered it to the Palestine Hotel. The hotel was in Firdos Square, but neither the hotel nor the square was labelled on McCoy’s map. All he had was a grid coördinate for an area that was a square kilometre.

The hotel was filled with international journalists, and by three in the afternoon some who had remained in Baghdad during the invasion were probing the city, freed of government minders who had controlled their movements until then. A few of them ran into McCoy as he was examining his map. McCoy turned to Remy Ourdan, a reporter for Le Monde. “Where is this damn Palestine Hotel?” he asked. Ourdan indicated the road to take.

Not far away, Captain Bryan Lewis, the leader of McCoy’s tank company, spotted a car with “TV” scrawled on its side and shouted from his turret, “Is this the way to the Palestine?” A Danish photographer named Jan Grarup pointed down the avenue—they were heading the right way. Lewis motioned for Grarup to come along, in case further directions were needed. Grarup hopped onto the turret and led the tanks to Firdos Square.

After the marines arrived, a small group of Iraqis gathered around a statue of Saddam Hussein in the middle of the square and tried to bring it down with a sledgehammer and rope. More photographers and TV crews appeared. An American flag was draped over the statue’s head. Eventually, a Marine vehicle equipped with a crane toppled the statue. The spectacle was broadcast live around the world.

Some have argued that the events at Firdos were staged, to demonstrate that America had triumphed, the war was over, and the Iraqis were happy. After all, the marines had seized the only place in Baghdad where a large number of foreign reporters could be found—at least two hundred were at the Palestine. And U.S. officials were suspiciously quick to appropriate the imagery from Firdos. A few minutes after the toppling, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, “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.”

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development. It expresses a media theory developed by, among others, Walter Lippmann, who after the First World War identified the components of wartime mythmaking as “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality.” As he put it, “Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities [and] in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.” In the nineteen-sixties, Daniel J. Boorstin identified a new category of media spectacle that he called “pseudo-events,” which were created to be reported on. But Boorstin was theorizing primarily about political conventions and press conferences, not about events on a battlefield.

The 2004 documentary film “Control Room” featured Al Jazeera journalists who argued that the toppling of Saddam’s statue was merely “a show . . . a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. Skeptics have also questioned whether the crowd was as large or as representative of popular sentiment as U.S. officials suggested. Might it have been just a small group of Iraqis whose numbers and enthusiasm were exaggerated by the cameras? Did the media, which had, with few exceptions, accepted the Bush Administration’s prewar claims about weapons of mass destruction, err again by portraying a pseudo-event as real? And were lives lost as a result of this error?

I had followed McCoy’s battalion to Baghdad for the Times Magazine. 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 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. On April 9th, I drove into Firdos with his battalion, and was at his side during some of the afternoon.

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Posted in: Baghdad, Iraq, US Invasion