On April 9, 2003, American troops, having rolled across much of the country, arrived at Baghdad's Firdos Square and a colossal statue of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein. With some help from evidently enthusiastic Iraqis (whether it was Americans or Iraqis who started the topple seems to be a matter of dispute), American service people got onto a crane, covered the head of the statue with an American flag, and then spent some hours pulling the whole thing over and exulting over its ruin.
The Washington Post took the anniversary as an occasion to find the flag and the Marine who brought it to Baghdad. The story describes the events as follows.
The senior officer in the square took note of the large number of journalists and decided the Marines should help. He ordered Lambert to tear down the statue. Someone told McLaughlin to find his flag, which made its way to Cpl. Edward Chin, who was in the process of climbing the crane. The 23-year-old Brooklyn native draped the flag over the statue’s face and tied a heavy chain around its neck. McLaughlin watched from the ground and snapped a picture with his disposable camera. Soon the Iraqis were tearing the statue apart and beating on the statue’s severed head with their shoes.
These images, as the Post story and many others have noted, became the emblem of the war, or at least of the initial invasion. If you were then of an age to remember, you remember these images. "Fox News replayed footage of the statue’s fall every 4.4 minutes on April 9. CNN was close behind at 7.5 minutes.""Breathtaking," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But the flag now sits in an accordion folder in the New Hampshire basement of Tim McLaughlin, the Marine who brought it to Baghdad, and who has been unspooling the trauma of what he witnessed ever since.
In 2009, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and McLaughlin messaged about donating his flag. “It is a remarkable bit of history,” a museum official wrote him. McLaughlin asked a couple of questions about how it might be displayed and then decided the best place for it was in his basement. “It has meaning for me, which is different from its meanings for everyone else,” McLaughlin said of the flag. “And I do not wish it to have all those other meanings anymore.”
All of this is a wind-up for saying something: unless you really have a very particular and perhaps psychotic belief system, you know that symbols are basically powerless. For example, someone could tear up a piece of paper on which my name was written or burn a photo of me, and I might not even know it happened, much less be damaged. It seems like tearing apart a big hunk of metal just can’t have the same sort of ethical implications as tearing apart a human body. And yet thousands of actual bodies were torn apart in April 2003. They’re all forgotten, more or less, except by the people who survived and loved them. But the Post and everyone else still remember the statue, and still respond to the images.
"The power of symbols," that is, depends entirely on the way they’re treated. An American flag can’t nurture or kill anyone, for example. A statue has no plans. An image of a dictator has no power but what we imaginatively attribute to it: it just sits there on the wall. The power of these inanimate objects over all of us is bizarre and irrational. The results can be sort of happy unifying and uplifting, as when we all stand for the national anthem. They can also be unbelievably destructive. Either way, these effects depend on illusion. We need to see through the screen of symbols from time to time.
The fall of Baghdad as epitomized at Firdos Square was a beautiful summary of the jive-ass power of representation. A flag is a summary of symbol derangement. It's just a piece of cloth or possibly a simple design. It's not a nation, not a person, and any competent human knows this clearly. Burn it, though, and people have the sense that you’re burning themselves or their deepest convictions. Right. They aren't, though.
Similar to a flag is the classical 20th-century use of the visage of the dictator—Ferdinand Marcos, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein—blown up to epic proportions in many public spaces, and probably watching you from the wall of your kitchen too. The leader himself may think of each image as some sort of surrogate, as though he's watching and controlling things everywhere simultaneously with his many symbolic bodies. His eyes are everywhere, and your eyes are full of him.
But if Marcos or Hussein thought that thousands of represented hims could control the country, that sounds mentally ill. Everyone understands that pictures, statues and printed names can't do things like that. But maybe in our hearts we believe they can. At any rate, whole societies act like they can. They seem to worship images. But also to attack them physically, to pull them down or tear them up or burn them. And then symbolic action performed on symbols becomes the primary way that a real event involving real bodies gets interpreted and remembered. It seems like the purpose of the Iraq war was to attack a statue. Bythat standard, we won.
It’d be worth trying to figure out what’s going on with this and why, or why people would beat on a statue's head with their shoes. But perhaps this morning I will try to be satisfied with this: these ways of treating statues or thinking about the relation of representation to reality are irrational. They constitute a superstition. They come from and lead to bizarrely false beliefs, for example that we have won the war or that Joseph Stalin is much, much more than an ordinary human being. Thinking that representation matters is very likely to turn you into an insane and oppressed person.
This is what Tim McLaughlin sees now. He wants that flag to be seen as an ordinary piece of cloth. The symbolic weight that's been loaded onto it is intolerable, irrational and dangerous. It’s "fantastical": only the result of people's pointed misapprehension. To Donald Rumsfeld, pulling down that statue was the moment of victory. But the Iraqi resistance was just getting started, using IEDs rather than pictures. It’d be worthwhile to try to consider what sorts of efficacy a fully rational person could attribute to a representation. Not none, but also not the power to reconfigure the world as though (just as though) by magic.
But the Iraqis involved were perhaps a bit less fantastical than the Americans, for whom they were performing. Here's a bit of advice bearing on your self-preservation: no matter who the conquering army is, when they take your town you should greet them as liberators.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell