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.