Backstory

A Personal History, An American History

How one Marine's diary helps us understand the Iraq war.

Ten years ago, as U.S. President George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office and announced the invasion of Iraq, Lt. Tim McLaughlin was already at war. He was maneuvering his Marine Corps tank in enemy territory when the president looked dead ahead at a television camera and said, "My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." It was March 2003, the time of shock and awe.

A decade has passed.

In our collective memory, the invasion tends to fuse with everything that came later: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the improvised explosive devices, the beheadings of Westerners, the suicide bombings at mosques, the civil war of Sunnis against Shiites. Our memory of the invasion itself is nearly washed away by the tragedies that followed it. Could there be anything new to say or learn about the first steps into a quagmire?

I found the answer when I opened McLaughlin's invasion diaries. It was 2010, and I was working on a magazine article about the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue at Firdos Square; the flag that was famously draped on the statue was McLaughlin's. I wanted to see it, so I met McLaughlin in Boston and we drove to his hometown in New Hampshire, where he kept the flag in a safe-deposit box. It was almost as good as new -- it had been displayed just once -- though it was smaller than I expected and had a synthetic feel that seemed at odds with the fame it had acquired. Holding it, I couldn't help thinking, "This is what created so much awe?"

In fact, it wasn't McLaughlin's flag but his diaries that stole the show during my visit. Sand fell out when I opened them -- he had not touched the notebooks since writing the last entry in Iraq in 2003. He started the diaries when his tank battalion was deployed to Kuwait in the months before the Iraq invasion, but the narrative is far grander: His diaries revisit the morning of 9/11, when he was working at the Pentagon, providing a jolting reminder of how everything began. McLaughlin writes about stumbling through the building's dark, smoke-filled corridors, trying to make sure his brother, also a Marine who worked there, had not been injured. He writes of the flashing emergency lights and robotic evacuation warning, and of his numb awareness that although his country was now at war, he had no idea what to do or what would come next.

The one thing he knew for sure was that he would not fight for America from behind a desk. He pleaded his way out of his Pentagon job and was assigned to a tank battalion at Twentynine Palms, California. By the time he was deployed to Kuwait, he commanded a platoon of Abrams tanks that soon spearheaded the Marine attack on Baghdad. His diary chronicling that operation is unlike any document of war I have come across: It is a combatant's handwritten description of the killing, chaos, and exhaustion of an invasion that culminated with his own flag becoming a global icon.

"Company volley into buildings," he wrote one day. "Killed 4 soldiers trying to run away.… 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." He also kept a list of the enemy vehicles, soldiers, and civilians that his tank alone eliminated. At the bottom it says, "70 people dead."

There are maps of Firdos Square and the Pentagon, phrases from a Johnny Cash song, poems about love and longing -- and darkly funny entries too, including a letter he wrote to a Victoria's Secret model while he was waiting in Kuwait for the invasion to begin: "It'd be nice to get a few letters. And I know this probably isn't going to work." There is also the simply moving, like his letter to the parents of a Marine in his platoon who was injured. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart," McLaughlin wrote. "The parents of America put a tremendous faith in me as I am trusted with the lives of your children."

McLaughlin shared his diaries with me because in 2003 I had followed his battalion to Baghdad as a "unilateral" journalist driving a rented SUV through the war zone; I was at Firdos Square when his flag was raised on the statue. I used his diaries as source material for my story, published in the New Yorker, and I showed them to Gary Knight, a photographer who, like me, had driven into Iraq and followed McLaughlin's battalion to the capital. Knight recognized that the vivid pages should be enlarged and displayed in a gallery. McLaughlin agreed, and on March 14 our exhibit opens at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City, featuring McLaughlin's diaries, as well as articles I wrote about the invasion and photographs Knight shot.

No American has experienced war and peace in quite the way McLaughlin has, or written about it in quite the way he has. The difference in his account is not just the honesty of his words and the lethality of his actions, or the PTSD diagnosis he received from doctors after the invasion, or the iconic flag that he still possesses, or even the copy of the U.S. Constitution that was on his Pentagon desk on 9/11, now charred from the smoke of the attack. It is also the fact that his account of war is written in his own hand, at the time of the invasion, immediate and unfiltered, without the flattening look of a computer font. There is just this startling and timeless thing, a warrior's diary that puts blood and flesh into words like invasion and war.

Gary Knight/VII

Democracy Lab

Who Shot A.A.?

Mauritanians are still wondering who fired a gun at their country’s president. What the latest whodunit tells us about the state of democracy in a strategic corner of West Africa.

On the night of October 13, a car carrying Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz approached a military checkpoint. In one version of the story, the driver of the car -- possibly the president himself -- disobeyed an order to stop, and soldiers opened fire. Abdel Aziz sustained a wound, reportedly to his arm. He was treated initially at a military hospital in the capital Nouakchott and then evacuated to Paris, where he remained for some forty days, convalescing. As Abdel Aziz's absence lengthened, Mauritania's opposition called for the implementation of a transitional political framework, and uneasiness grew in the streets. The president's return on November 24 put some doubts to rest and seemed to confirm that he remains in control of the country. Yet the shooting raised a central question in Mauritanian politics: To what extent has the country built credible institutions of civilian democracy, and to what extent does its politics remain dominated by the military, or by Abdel Aziz himself?

One way to understand civil-military relations in Mauritania is to examine Abdel Aziz's own biography, which has paralleled Mauritania's trajectory from civilian rule to military regimes and back. Born in 1956, four years before the country's independence from France, Abdel Aziz grew up under the one-party civilian state of President Moktar Ould Daddah. By 1977, when he enrolled at Morocco's Royal Military Academy in Meknes, Abdel Aziz had started his rise within the Mauritanian military, which at the time was fighting the Polisario Front in Western Sahara (the conflict that began when Spain handed Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975; the Polisario Front rebelled in a quest for national liberation). Mauritania's costly and unsuccessful involvement in Western Sahara, combined with suffering caused by drought, prompted the first military coup in the country's history. Under military rule, Mauritania continued to suffer from coups and coup attempts, especially as faith in the regime of President Maa'ouya Ould Taya crumbled in the early 2000s. After foiling coup attempts in 2003 and 2004, Taya fell in 2005.

Abdel Aziz, at the time a colonel and head of the Presidential Guard (BASEP), was a key leader in the 2005 coup. That coup paved the way for a transition to civilian rule under President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who took office in 2007. But the military perceived Abdallahi's approach to Muslim militancy as too lenient, and commanders grew tired of Abdallahi's struggles with parliament. As conflict between Abdallahi and Abdel Aziz grew, the President attempted to fire the (by then) General. Abdel Aziz seized power in August 2008.

The 2008 coup drew international condemnation. The U.S. and the European Union suspended aid. But Abdel Aziz organized, contested, and won "generally free and fair" elections in July 2009. Ruling as a civilian president has brought Abdel Aziz international legitimacy, and foreign aid has resumed. Intensifying a trend that began among Mauritanian military rulers after September 11, 2001, Abdel Aziz has also won international support by presenting himself as tough on terrorists, especially Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has (under different names) perpetrated attacks in Mauritania since 2005. Under Abdel Aziz, the Mauritanian military has foiled AQIM plots, clashed with militants at remote outposts and, in 2010 and 2011, hunted AQIM fighters in northern Mali. During the turmoil in Mali this year, which has involved the seizure of northern Mali by a coalition of armed Islamists that includes AQIM, Mauritania has held its forces back. American and European officials, however, have been visiting the Mauritanian capital as they consider policy options toward Mali and the broader Sahel.

Given Mauritania's history, coups and terrorists leapt to many observers' minds when Abdel Aziz was shot. "President Shot ‘By Accident' in Land Where Coups Prevail," one headline read. "Mauritania Shooting May Have al-Qaida Link, Some Say," read another. The weeks since the shooting have brought little evidence to corroborate either the coup theory or the terrorism theory, but have also brought little information that would convince skeptics to believe the official story. The televised account of one of the soldiers who allegedly fired at Abdel Aziz's car did not put an end to questions about the story's authenticity.

In the weeks after the shooting before the president's return, the focus of political debate in Mauritania moved from the question of what happened on October 13 to the question of what would happen next. The opposition umbrella group known as the Coordination of the Democratic Opposition went from calling for an investigation into the shooting to calling for a transitional political framework to guide the country in the president's absence. As part of this call, some in the opposition broached the issue of the military's role in politics.

Since Abdel Aziz became a civilian president, critics inside and outside Mauritania have charged that military control of Mauritania's government has not ended, but merely changed form. Such criticism intensified during the Arab Spring, when Mauritanian protesters in the "February 25" movement -- so named for the date of their first street protest -- made the military's withdrawal from politics one of their core demands. The demand in and of itself cast doubt on the authenticity of Abdel Aziz's claims to civilian status.

After the shooting, opposition politicians and activists reiterated demands for the military to leave politics. Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani acted as head of state during Abdel Aziz's absence, a situation that occasioned outcry. At an opposition rally in the capital of Nouakchott on November 1, Khadiata Malik Diallo of the Union of the Forces of Progress stated, "The soldiers held the power for more than 40 years, and today it's not just a coincidence if everyone thinks it's the army chief of staff who has the power." Other opposition leaders, such as Jamil Mansour of the Islamist Tewassoul Party, made similar statements. On November 6, activists from the February 25 movement distributed 10,000 fliers denouncing "dictatorship." Some commentators saw the episode of Abdel Aziz's absence as one that, in Professor Boubacar N'diaye's words, "reveals [a] military regime parading as a democracy."

The return of Abdel Aziz renders the debate about who rules Mauritania, for the time being, moot. But the February 25 movement's charges of continued military dominance, and the anxiety generated by Abdel Aziz's time away from Mauritania, point to deep uncertainties about the solidity of civilian institutional frameworks in Mauritania. Problematically, the 2006 Mauritanian constitution gives little detail regarding the mechanisms for transferring executive authority in the event of a president's incapacity. As the blog The Moor Next Door reported, while the president was away, different actors proposed different solutions to the "constitutional vacuum" in Mauritania, including a constitutional amendment to clarify succession mechanisms, the installation of a vice president, and the election of a transitional president by parliament. The opposition pushed for a transition, not only organizing demonstrations but also forming committees to reach out to civil society, political parties, and other actors. No one seemed to know what should or would happen, but key political actors openly debated the mechanics of a post-Abdel Aziz transition in new ways. When Mauritania faces its next political crisis, expect debate over the military's role in politics -- and calls for that role to diminish -- to resurface.

Abdel Aziz is back, but he returns to a political landscape that has subtly shifted. As he reasserts his domestic leadership, outsiders will also be watching how he approaches the ongoing crisis in neighboring Mali. Mauritania is not a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which plans to deploy soldiers to Mali in 2013. Abdel Aziz stated in August that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali, and in an interview with Radio France Internationale the day before his return home, he avoided committing himself to any particular course on Mali. While regional and international powers might desire Mauritania's active backing for an intervention in Mali, Abdel Aziz may continue to keep Mauritania on the sidelines.

Photo by KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images