Feature

The Toppling

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

This article was originally published in the New Yorker on January 10, 2011, and is reproduced with permission.

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 German photographer named Markus Matzel pointed down the avenue -- they were heading the right way. Lewis motioned for Matzel to come along, in case further directions were needed. Matzel 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.

My understanding of events at the time was limited. I had no idea why the battalion went to Firdos rather than to other targets. I didn't know who had decided to raise the American flag and who had decided to take down the statue, or why. And I had little awareness of the media dynamics that turned the episode into a festive symbol of what appeared to be the war's finale. In reality, the war was just getting under way. Many thousands of people would be killed or injured before the Bush Administration acknowledged that it faced not just "pockets of dead-enders" in Iraq, as Rumsfeld insisted, but what grew to be a full-fledged insurgency. The toppling of Saddam's statue turned out to be emblematic of primarily one thing: the fact that American troops had taken the center of Baghdad. That was significant, but everything else the toppling was said to represent during repeated replays on television -- victory for America, the end of the war, joy throughout Iraq -- was a disservice to the truth. Yet the skeptics were wrong in some ways, too, because the event was not planned in advance by the military. How did it happen?

***

Three days earlier, Marine Regimental Combat Team 7, under the command of Colonel Hummer, arrived at the Diyala Canal, which loops around eastern Baghdad. The center of the city was less than eight miles away, but the regiment did not have orders to seize it. The plan was to stay along the Diyala and send small units on quick raids into the city.

The task of planning the raids was given to two majors on the regiment's staff, John Schaar and Andrew Milburn. Until Diyala, they had not even examined a map of the city, but they quickly concluded that the raids were a bad idea. "We did a little study and thought this was really stupid," Schaar told me not long ago. Raiding units risked becoming trapped in the city, creating an Iraqi version of "Black Hawk Down." Schaar and Milburn also concluded that Iraqi forces could not withstand a direct assault by the regiment; for nearly three weeks, the regiment had blasted through every Iraqi unit in its path.

They then divided central Baghdad into twenty-seven zones, with each battalion responsible for occupying four or five zones (several low-priority zones were unassigned). Schaar and Milburn had received from divisional headquarters a list of about thirty sensitive sites -- a hodgepodge that comprised embassies, banks, detention centers, potential nuclear facilities, and hotels, including the Palestine. The most important targets were in four central zones across the Tigris River from the Republican Palace, which the Army had already seized. Schaar recently sent me a photograph of the twenty-seven-zone invasion map. The map has six thumbtacks marking key targets. One of them, in the central zones, was the Palestine Hotel.

According to Schaar, there was never any doubt about which battalion would be assigned the central zones. "Three-four" -- McCoy's battalion -- "got tagged to that because they were the sharp guys," he told me.

Bryan McCoy, who has a stocky build and a blunt Oklahoma manner, became known as the regiment's toughest battalion leader. During the drive to Baghdad, McCoy mentioned Sherman's famous dictum that war is cruelty. "My idea of a fair fight," he said, "is clubbing baby harp seals." When McCoy returned from Iraq, he disdained the well-equipped fitness center at the regiment's training base, in California, and built a prisonlike gym that had no air-conditioning or fancy exercise machines, the better, he believed, to accustom his men to the rigors of battle; they weightlifted with sandbags.

The Marine Corps is the smallest branch of the U.S. military and the most precarious, because one of the key missions it fulfills -- amphibious landings -- does not require a separate branch. The Army knows how to conduct amphibious landings, and has done more of them in the past century than the Marines. Moreover, the future of warfare is not likely to revolve around landings on the shores of Tripoli. As McCoy remarked to me one day, "Our existence is always threatened."

This circumstance makes the Corps particularly aware that it must be successful in the halls of Congress as well as on the fields of battle. For that reason, perhaps, marines tend to be friendlier toward the media than other branches of the military; they recognize the value of good stories and images. It is not surprising that the most famous war photograph in American history -- the flag-raising at Iwo Jima -- depicts marines.

McCoy, who has written a monograph on military leadership, "The Passion of Command," understood the importance of the media. That was one reason he had agreed to let me and ten other unilateral journalists follow his battalion, which already had four embedded journalists. The reporters worked for, among others, the Times, Time, Newsweek, the Associated Press, and several photography agencies. McCoy occasionally joined us for coffee in the morning, giving us briefings about the battles along the way to Baghdad, and he made it clear to his men that we were to be welcomed. When he threw a grenade at an Iraqi position one day, a photographer was at his side, and the photograph was widely disseminated.

McCoy heard about the Palestine Hotel from the journalists in his battalion. One of the photographers, Gary Knight, of Newsweek, had mentioned it to him on several occasions, because a colleague was having a hard time there; Knight's editors wanted McCoy to know that journalists at the hotel were in peril. "As we got closer to Baghdad, it got ramped up," Knight recalled last year. "It was, like, ‘Can you try and persuade the marines to get to the Palestine Hotel?' "

The photographer Laurent Van der Stockt, working with me for the Times Magazine, also mentioned the Palestine to McCoy, often while sharing his stash of Cuban cigars with him. Van der Stockt would tell the Colonel what he was hearing from Remy Ourdan, with whom he spoke almost every day on his satellite phone. Ourdan had stayed at the Palestine throughout the invasion, hiding his phone behind a ceiling panel and using it surreptitiously at night or in the early morning, when he would crouch on his balcony and talk in whispers to his editors in Paris.

On the morning of April 9th, as McCoy was washing his socks, Van der Stockt wandered over while talking to Ourdan on the sat phone. Ourdan told Van der Stockt that Iraqi forces had abandoned the center of Baghdad. For the first time, there were no security forces at the Palestine or in the area around it.

"Colonel, my friend at the Palestine Hotel is saying there is nobody in front of us -- the city is empty," Van der Stockt said.

McCoy nodded but said the battalion wouldn't get to the center so fast. The Army had met fierce resistance in the western part of the city. The next few hundred yards were of far greater importance to him than a hotel several miles away. Besides, marines do not take orders from French journalists

Van der Stockt told Ourdan that they wouldn't be seeing each other that day.

"But tell the Colonel that Baghdad has fallen!" Ourdan said. "There is no more resistance. The city is open!"

The battalion moved out, and, to McCoy's surprise, faced little opposition. Simon Robinson, a reporter for Time, was in the back of McCoy's vehicle when the regiment's commander, Colonel Hummer, ordered the battalion to the Palestine. Robinson vividly recalls the order, because it prompted him to lean forward to remind McCoy that reporters were there. When he did, he saw a satisfied expression spread over McCoy's face.

"He was fully cognizant that he was about to move into an area where there were a lot of journalists and there were going to be opportunities," Robinson told me.

***

 

In 1999, Marine General Charles Krulak wrote an influential article in which he coined the term "strategic corporal." Krulak argued that, in an interconnected world, the actions of even a lowly corporal can have global consequences. "All future conflicts will be acted out before an international audience," Krulak wrote. "In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well."

At Firdos Square, it was a thirty-five-year-old gunnery sergeant, Leon Lambert, who bore out Krulak's thesis. Lambert's background was typical of that of many youths who enlist in the military. His father was a car mechanic with five children. Leon had to get a dishwashing job when he was twelve. One of his brothers joined the Army, another the Air Force. Lambert went for the Marines. By 2003, after almost sixteen years of service, he commanded an M-88 Hercules, a tow truck for tanks that is equipped with a crane.

At 4:30 p.m., as the M-88 rumbled into Firdos not far behind the lead tank, Lambert noticed the statue of Saddam. Installed a year earlier to celebrate the leader's sixty-fifth birthday, it was the sort of totem that American troops had been destroying across Iraq. On the first day of the invasion, I had watched in the Iraqi border town of Safwan as a Humvee dragged down a billboard of Saddam. Erasing the symbols of regime power is what conquering armies have done for millennia.

Lambert radioed his commander, Captain Lewis, whose tank was carrying the German photographer.

"Hey, get a look at that statue," Lambert said. "Why don't we take it down?"

"No way," Lewis responded. He didn't want his men distracted.

There was no hostile fire, or even hostility, other than some shouts from American and West European "human shields," who had remained in Baghdad to symbolically stand in the way of the invaders. The Iraqi forces had fled. Lewis's tanks blocked the streets leading to Firdos while armored personnel carriers disgorged the infantry, which fanned out. Within minutes of the marines' arrival, Firdos had been secured.

When McCoy's Humvee stopped in front of the Palestine, he was surrounded by reporters. In addition to the journalists at the hotel, others who had followed U.S. troops to Baghdad began pulling up in their dusty S.U.V.s. One of the reporters, Newsweek's Melinda Liu, introduced McCoy to the hotel's manager, who nervously greeted his new boss and led him into the hotel. Striding inside, McCoy held his M-16 at the ready.

Outside, a handful of Iraqis had slipped into the square. Lambert got on the radio and told Lewis that the locals wanted to pull down the statue.

"If a sledgehammer and rope fell off the 88, would you mind?" Lambert asked.

"I wouldn't mind," Lewis replied. "But don't use the 88."

Higher authorities were unaware of these developments. McCoy, Hummer, Rumsfeld, President Bush -- they hadn't a clue about the chain of events that Lambert had triggered with a wink, a nod, and a sledgehammer.

One after another, Iraqis swung Lambert's sledgehammer against the statue's base. In a much photographed moment, a former weight lifter got into the action, but only a few inches of plaster fell away. The rope, thrown around the statue's neck, was not sufficient to topple it, either.

"We watched them with the rope, and I knew that was never going to happen," Lambert told me recently. "They were never going to get it down."

***

 

At the Palestine, McCoy briefly talked with reporters in the manager's office. Then he walked outside to Firdos Square and saw Lambert's rope flopped around the statue's neck as various Iraqis futilely wielded the sledgehammer. Cameras were everywhere. "A military operation was developing into a circus atmosphere," McCoy recalled when I interviewed him last spring at his home in Tampa, where he serves at Central Command.

Other commanders had already concluded that toppling the dictator's likeness might help get the point across and had tried it elsewhere. A few days into the war, British tanks mounted a raid into the heart of Basra, in the south of the country, where they destroyed a statue of Saddam. The Brits hoped the locals, seeing a strike against a symbol of regime power, would rise up against Saddam. As the British military spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, told reporters, "The purpose of that is psychological." The statue was destroyed, but the event wasn't filmed and drew little attention. Similarly, on April 7th, after Army soldiers seized the Republican Palace in Baghdad, their commander, Colonel David Perkins, asked his men to find a statue that could be destroyed. Once one was found -- Saddam on horseback -- a nearby tank was ordered to wait until an embedded team from Fox News got there. On cue, the tank fired a shell at the statue, blowing it up, but the event had little drama and did not get a lot of TV coverage. No Iraqis were present, and just a few Americans, and the surrounding landscape was featureless.

The situation at the Palestine was different. "I realized this was a big deal," McCoy told me. "You've got all the press out there and everybody is liquored up on the moment. You have this Paris, 1944, feel. I remember thinking, The media is watching the Iraqis trying to topple this icon of Saddam Hussein. Let's give them a hand."

McCoy also considered the "buzzkill," as he phrased it, of not helping. "Put your virtual-reality goggles on," he continued. "What would that moment have been if we hadn't? It would have been some B reel of Iraqis banging away at this thing and eventually losing interest and going home. There was a momentum, there was a feeling, this atmosphere of liberation. Like a kid trying to whack a piñata and he's not going to get it with a blindfold on, so let's move the piñata so he can knock it. That was the attitude -- keep the momentum going."

Captain Lewis, the tank commander, walked over to McCoy and asked whether the marines should finish the job for the Iraqis. McCoy asked if the Iraqis had requested help; Lewis told him they had. A marine asked whether the battalion was authorized to tear down statues; McCoy responded that it would not be a problem.

He got on the radio with Colonel Hummer, who had set up a regimental command post behind the partially destroyed Information Ministry, to update him on the events. Hummer did not have aerial reconnaissance from Firdos, or even a TV. While the rest of the world was watching the scene in the square, the colonel who authorized its climax was blind to the event.

Hummer, in a phone interview recently, explained what happened: "I get this call from Bryan and he says, ‘Hey, we've got these Iraqis over here with a bunch of ropes trying to pull down this very large statue of Saddam Hussein.' And he said, ‘They're asking us to pull it down.' So I said, ‘O.K., go ahead.' And I didn't think much of it after that."

Before signing off, Hummer instructed McCoy to make sure no one got killed by falling debris.

McCoy then issued a brief order to Lewis: "Do it." He also told Lewis not to get anyone killed in the process.

The M-88, with its crane, was the perfect tool. Lambert, who had started everything by handing out the sledgehammer and the rope, was told to finish the job.

***

Before dawn on September 11, 2001, a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant named Tim McLaughlin arrived at the Pentagon, where he was a general's assistant. After taking care of some paperwork, he went down to the gym, changed into running clothes, and jogged across Memorial Bridge, along the Jefferson Memorial, until he heard a deep, soft thud. He rushed back to the Pentagon. As people streamed out of the building, McLaughlin made his way into it. The corridors were deserted and were filling with smoke; he could barely see his hand.

A few days later, as a personal token of appreciation for his service in the military, a congressional staffer who worked for Senator Charles Schumer and was a friend of the McLaughlin family presented McLaughlin with a flag bought at the Senate stationery store. Two years later, when McLaughlin was packing to leave for Iraq under McCoy's command, he put the flag in his duffel.

During the invasion, McLaughlin tried to raise the flag several times. On the first attempt, he was preparing to hoist it on top of a building but realized that there was too much shooting going on. Another time, Lambert's M-88 rolled over the flagpole that McLaughlin was about to use. McLaughlin's efforts became an inside joke in his tank company. When McCoy ordered the toppling in Firdos Square, Captain Lewis told McLaughlin to fetch his flag for the mother of all flag pictures. Soon it was handed up to Corporal Edward Chin, who had climbed atop the M-88's crane and was hooking a chain around the statue's head.

"I remember thinking, What am I going to do?" Chin told me. "I didn't want to just wave the flag." At that moment, the wind blew the flag and it stuck to the statue's head. "That worked for me. I later realized the flag was upside down. That is actually a symbol of distress."

McCoy, too busy to keep an eye on the statue, wasn't looking when the flag went up. People watching TV from their sofas in America saw it before he did. When he finally looked up, his first thought was Oh, shit! An American flag would seem like a symbol of occupation. He instantly ordered it taken down.

Around this time, McCoy's superior, Colonel Hummer, got an urgent order from his commander, Major General James Mattis, who had apparently received an urgent order that Hummer assumes originated at the Pentagon.

Get the flag down. Now.

With the breeze keeping the flag in place, Chin had returned to his rigging work. As he was finishing up, he took the flag down of his own volition. It had been on display for just a minute and a half. There had not been time for the orders to reach him.

One of the battalion's lieutenants, Casey Kuhlman, had also realized that the American flag would not be a welcome symbol for Iraqis and other Arabs. Kuhlman had acquired an Iraqi flag during the invasion. "I grabbed it and started going up to the statue," he recalled. "And I didn't get but ten or twenty metres when an older Iraqi man grabbed it from me and it sort of got passed through the crowd and then went up. I thought, My souvenir is gone. But this is a little bit better than a souvenir."

His flag helped create one of the Firdos myths.

Staff Sergeant Brian Plesich, the leader of an Army psychological-operations team, arrived at Firdos after the sledgehammer-and-rope phase had begun. He saw the American flag go up and had the same reaction as Kuhlman: get an Iraqi flag up. Plesich, whom I interviewed last year, told his interpreter to find an Iraqi flag. The interpreter waded into the crowd, and soon an Iraqi flag was raised.

Plesich assumed that the Iraqi flag had got there because of his initiative, and in 2004 the Army published a report crediting him. The report was picked up by the news media ("army stage-managed fall of hussein statue," the headline in the Los Angeles Times read) and circulated widely on the Web, fuelling the conspiracy notion that a psyops team masterminded not only the Iraqi flag but the entire toppling. Yet it was Kuhlman who was responsible for the flag. Plesich's impact at Firdos was limited to using the loudspeakers on his Humvee to tell the crowd, once the statue had been rigged to fall, that until everyone moved back to a safe distance the main event would not take place.

By the time it was over and the sun was setting at Firdos Square, Sergeant Lambert and his M-88 crew had become so famous that even Katie Couric wanted an interview. Lambert had to hide from the spectacle he had unleashed.

"God's honest truth," Lambert told me. "We went inside the 88, we locked the hatches, and the only time we would come out was when we were directed to."

***

The Palestine was built in the early nineteen-eighties for tourists, who were then visiting Iraq in large numbers, and it was run by the Méridien hotel chain. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, in 1990, and was slapped with international sanctions, the Méridien got rid of its outlaw franchise. The Palestine, with more than three hundred rooms and seventeen floors, stayed open under state control but was outclassed by the Al Rasheed Hotel, which stood on the other side of the Tigris and was surrounded by government ministries and Presidential palaces. For years, the Al Rasheed was favored by foreign journalists who wanted to be close to the action, but they moved out just before the invasion, to get away from the bombs that would presumably destroy the government district. When the Shock and Awe campaign began, a couple of hundred reporters watched from their balconies at the Palestine.

Like everyone else, Pentagon officials viewed TV reports from Baghdad which often noted that the Palestine was the point of broadcast. It was at the hotel that the Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, known as Baghdad Bob, held many of his extravagant press conferences.

During the aerial bombardment of Baghdad, the Palestine was not hit, and, once ground troops had moved into the city, most commanders in Baghdad were made aware of the Palestine's do-not-bomb status. But the commanders failed to convey the information to the soldiers in every unit, and this caused the casualties that contributed to the dispatch of McCoy's battalion to Firdos Square.

On April 8th, the day before McCoy's battalion arrived at Firdos, an Army tank that was on the Al Jumhuriya Bridge, over the Tigris, fired a shell at the Palestine, killing two journalists and injuring three others. The tank's crew mistakenly thought that a camera aimed at them from a balcony was a spotting device for Iraqi forces. Journalists at the Palestine were outraged; some thought it was a deliberate attack on the media. Subsequent investigations by the military and reporters found that although key officers on the ground, including brigade and battalion commanders, knew that the Palestine should not be fired on, they did not know the hotel's precise location, because, as McCoy was to learn, it wasn't marked on their maps. The tank's crew did not know that journalists were in the building.

The killings increased media pressure on the Pentagon to insure the hotel's safety; calls and e-mails to Pentagon officials reached a furious pitch, and at a Pentagon press conference a few hours after the attack the Palestine was a major topic. The media demanded that the Pentagon see to it that no further harm came to the journalists at the Palestine.

Some journalists considered the hotel to be a death trap. When the photographer Seamus Conlan came across American troops in the hours before McCoy's battalion showed up, he asked for a rescue mission. "I was sure that today was going to be the day that we got killed by Saddam's enraged and retreating militiamen," Conlan later wrote. "A Marine officer assured me that every journalist in Baghdad was telling him the same thing."

***

The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush Administration's claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The W.M.D. myth, and the media's embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth.

Because the world's media were based at the Palestine, television networks had the equipment to go live the moment the marines arrived there. It was certainly a legitimate and dramatic story -- proof that Baghdad was falling under American control. But problems with the coverage at Firdos soon emerged, including the duration, which was non-stop, the tone, which was celebratory, and the uncritical obsession with the toppling.

One of the first TV reporters to broadcast from Firdos was David Chater, a correspondent for Sky News, the British satellite channel whose feed from Baghdad was carried by Fox News. (Both channels are owned by News Corp.) Before the marines arrived, Chater had believed, as many journalists did, that his life was at risk from American shells, Iraqi thugs, and looting mobs.

"That's an amazing sight, isn't it?" Chater said as the tanks rolled in. "A great relief, a great sight for all the journalists here. . . . The Americans waving to us now -- fantastic, fantastic to see they're here at last." Moments later, outside the Palestine, Chater smiled broadly and told one marine, "Bloody good to see you." Noticing an American flag in another marine's hands, Chater cheerily said, "Get that flag going!"

Another correspondent, John Burns, of the Times, had similar feelings. Representing the most prominent American publication, Burns had a particularly hard time with the security thugs who had menaced many journalists at the Palestine. His gratitude toward the marines was explicit. "They were my liberators, too," he later wrote. "They seemed like ministering angels to me."

The happy relief felt by some journalists on the ground was compounded by editors and anchors back home. Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.

Wilson Surratt was the senior executive producer in charge of CNN's control room in Atlanta that morning. The room, dominated by almost fifty screens that showed incoming feeds from CNN crews and affiliated networks, was filled with not just the usual complement of producers but also with executives who wanted to be at the nerve center of the network during one of the biggest stories of their lives. Surratt had been told by the newsroom that marines were expected to arrive at Firdos any moment, so he kept his eyes on two monitors that showed the still empty square.

"The climax, at the time, was going to be the troops coming into Firdos Square," Surratt told me. "We didn't really anticipate that Hussein was going to be captured. There wasn't going to be a surrender. So what we were looking for was some sort of culminating event."

On that day, Baghdad was violent and chaotic. The city was already being looted by swarms of people using trucks, taxis, horses, and wheelbarrows to cart away whatever they could from government buildings and banks, museums, and even hospitals. There continued to be armed opposition to the American advance. One of CNN's embedded correspondents, Martin Savidge, was reporting from a Marine unit that was taking fire in the city. Savidge was ready to go on the air, under fire, at the exact moment that Surratt noticed the tanks entering Firdos Square. Surratt vividly recalls that moment, because he shouted out in the control room, "There they are!"

He immediately switched the network's coverage to Firdos, and it stayed there almost non-stop until the statue came down, more than two hours later. I asked Surratt whether, by focussing on Firdos rather than on Savidge and the chaos of Baghdad, he had made the right call.

"What were we supposed to do?" Surratt replied. "Not show what was going on in the square? We did the responsible thing. We were careful to say it was not the end. At some point, you've got to trust the viewer to understand what they're seeing."

The powerful pictures from Firdos were combined with powerful words. On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, "You think about seminal moments in a nation's history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that's what we're seeing right now." Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as "the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself." On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, "This transcends anything I've ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match." One of his colleagues said, "The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad."

A visual echo chamber developed: rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV. CNN, which did not have a reporter at the Palestine, because its team had been expelled when the invasion began, was desperate to get one of its embedded correspondents there. Walter Rodgers, whose Army unit was on the other side of the Tigris, was ordered by his editors to disembed and drive across town to the Palestine. Rodgers reminded his editors that combat continued and that his vehicle, moving on its own, would likely be hit by American or Iraqi forces. This said much about the coverage that day: Rodgers could not provide reports of the war's end because the war had not ended. But he understood the imperatives that kept CNN's attention pinned on Firdos Square. "Pictures are the mother's milk of television, and it was a hell of a picture," he said recently.

Live television loves suspense, especially if it is paired with great visuals. The networks almost never broke away from Firdos Square. The event lived on in replays, too. A 2005 study of CNN's and Fox's coverage, conducted by a research team from George Washington University and titled "As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War," found that between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. that day Fox replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes, and CNN every 7.5 minutes. The networks also showed the toppling in house ads; it became a branding device. They continually used the word "historic" to describe the statue's demise.

Anne Garrels, NPR's reporter in Baghdad at the time, has said that her editors requested, after her first dispatch about marines rolling into Firdos, that she emphasize the celebratory angle, because the television coverage was more upbeat. In an oral history that was published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Garrels recalled telling her editors that they were getting the story wrong: "There are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can't do it themselves. . . . Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren't joyous."

Gary Knight, the photographer who followed McCoy's battalion to Baghdad, had a similar problem, as he talked with one of his editors on his satellite phone. The editor, watching the event on TV, asked why Knight wasn't taking pictures. Knight replied that few Iraqis were involved and the ones who were seemed to be doing so for the benefit of the legions of photographers; it was a show. The editor told him to get off the phone and start taking pictures.

Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that "a jubilant crowd roared its approval" as onlookers shouted, "We are free! Thank you, President Bush!" According to Collier, the original version was considerably more tempered. "That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work," he said recently. "They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers."

British journalists felt the same pressure. Lindsey Hilsum, the Baghdad reporter for Britain's Channel 4 News, was instructed by her editors to increase her coverage of Firdos even though she believed the event was trivial. She told the authors of a study titled "Shoot First and Ask Questions Later" that the toppling was a small part of a nine-minute story that she transmitted to London on April 9th; in her view, it was "a small, symbolic event for American television." As she put it, "In London, where they had been watching, they said, ‘No, you have to make that section much larger.' "

***

Robert Capa once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," and generations of journalists have followed his maxim. But the opposite can also be true: the farther away you are, the better you can see. At Firdos Square, the farther from the statue you were, the more you could understand.

Very few Iraqis were there. If you were at the square, or if you watch the footage, you can see, on the rare occasions long shots were used, that the square was mostly empty. You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines. Because of the lo-fi quality of the video and the shifting composition of the crowd, it's hard to give a precise number, but perhaps a quarter to a half consisted of journalists or marines. The crowd's size -- journalists, marines, and Iraqis -- does not seem to have exceeded several hundred at its largest, and was much smaller for most of the two hours. The Iraqis who were photogenically enthusiastic -- sledgehammering the statue, jumping on it after the toppling -- were just an excitable subset of all Iraqis there. "I saw a lot of people watching with their arms crossed, not at all celebrating," Collier noted.

Closeups filled the screen with the frenzied core of the small crowd and created an illusion of wall-to-wall enthusiasm throughout Baghdad. It was an illusion that reflected only the media's yearning for exciting visuals, and brings to mind a famous study carried out more than half a century ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, who had just been relieved of his command by President Truman, visited Chicago for a parade and a speech that were expected to attract enormous public support. The study, conducted by the sociologists Kurt and Gladys Lang, found that the Chicago events, as experienced by people who attended them, were largely passionless. But for television viewers the events were dramatic and inspiring, owing to the cropped framing of what they saw.

The Lang study illuminates another distortion that occurred in Baghdad: the extent to which listless crowds lit up when cameras were turned on. In Chicago, the Lang researchers saw crowds shift to the places that cameras pointed toward; people were taking their cues from the lenses. "The cheering, waving, and shouting was often but a response to the aiming of the camera," the study noted.

Just after 5 p.m. local time, Fox News showed about a dozen Iraqis walking into the empty square; these were the first civilians on the site. They were followed and surrounded by an increasing number of journalists; within a minute of the Iraqis arriving at the statue's base, journalists appear to nearly outnumber them. In the first act of iconoclasm, two plaques on the statue's base were torn off by the Iraqis and hoisted in front of the photographers and the cameramen, in much the same way that a prizefighter raises a championship belt above his head as pictures are snapped.

Would the Iraqis have done the same thing if the cameras hadn't been there? At key moments throughout the toppling, the level of Iraqi enthusiasm appeared to ebb and flow according to the number and interest of photographers who had gathered. For instance, when Lambert's sledgehammer made its first appearance, photographers clustered around as one Iraqi after another took a few shots at the base. Not long afterward, many photographers and cameramen drifted off; they had got their pictures. The sledgehammering of the statue soon ceased, too.

An hour after the first Iraqis entered the square, the toppling was at a standstill, because the rope and the sledgehammer were useless. Neither Iraqis nor journalists cared any longer. Many of the Iraqis had moved into the street and gathered around the Humvee that carried Staff Sergeant Plesich and his psychological-operations team, because loudspeakers on Plesich's Humvee were broadcasting in Arabic. These were the first words in Arabic that the Iraqis had heard from their occupiers, and the Iraqis were indeed cheering.

But the area around the base of the statue was virtually empty. Though TV anchors talked excitedly about the statue, Iraqis at the square were no longer paying attention to it. Then Lambert's M-88, having received a green light from Colonel McCoy, lumbered into view, entering from the left of the television screen. On Fox, journalists can be seen hurrying toward the M-88 and the deserted statue. Iraqis do the same, like bees returning to a hive. By the time the M-88 reached the statue's base, the crowd of Iraqis, journalists, and marines had reassembled for the next act. As the Lang study noted of the MacArthur celebrations, "The event televised was no longer the same event as it would have been if television had not been there."

The journalists themselves, meanwhile, were barely photographed at all. The dramatic shots posted on Web sites that day and featured in newspapers the next morning contained almost no hint of the army of journalists at the square and their likely influence on events. One of the most photographed moments occurred when the statue fell and several dozen Iraqis rushed forward to bash the toppled head; there were nearly as many journalists in the melee, and perhaps more, but the framing of photographs all but eliminated them from view.

"It's one thing if you don't want a photographer in the picture and there's one photographer in a crowd of a thousand," Gary Knight, who now directs the Program for Narrative and Documentary Studies, at Tufts University, told me. "But when you've got three hundred journalists sitting on vehicles, sitting on tanks, it's really important contextually to include that information. Most of the imagery that was published didn't have that context, and so it was misleading."

***

At the square, I found the reality, whatever it was, hard to grasp. Some Iraqis were cheering, I later learned, not for America but for a slain cleric, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whose son Moqtada would soon lead a Shia revolt against American occupation. I met an apparently delighted Iraqi who spoke English, and he told me that his name was Samir and that he felt "free at last." About an hour later, after the statue came down, Samir was cornered by a group of men who accused him of being a spy for Saddam and were shouting, "Kill him!" A marine had to intervene to save his life.

The subsequent years of civil war, which have killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, have revealed the events at Firdos to be an illusional intermission between invasion and insurgency. For instance, one of the stars of the spectacle -- the weight lifter who sledgehammered the statue -- was Khadim al-Jubouri, a motorcycle mechanic who had worked for Saddam's son Uday but had fallen out of favor and spent time in prison. When he heard that American troops had arrived, al-Jubouri went to Firdos Square. As anniversaries of the event come around, he gets interviewed by journalists. In 2007, he told the Washington Post that, since the toppling, seven relatives and friends had been killed, kidnapped, or forced to flee their homes. Al-Jubouri was happy when the sledgehammer was in his hands, but since then his life had deteriorated. "I really regret bringing down the statue," he told the Guardian. "Every day is worse than the previous day."

Among the handful of studies of Firdos Square, the most incisive was George Washington University's, led by Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs. It concluded that the coverage had "profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America." According to the study, the saturation coverage of Firdos Square fuelled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less. "Whereas battle stories imply a war is going on, statues falling -- especially when placed in the context of truly climactic images from recent history -- imply the war is over," the study noted.

The study examined CNN, Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC from March 20th to April 20th, cataloguing the footage used each day, what the footage showed, and what was said by anchors and reporters. The study focussed particular attention on Fox and CNN, because they broadcast non-stop news. It found that, in the week after the statue was toppled, war stories from Iraq decreased by seventy per cent on Fox, sixty-six per cent on ABC, fifty-eight per cent on NBC, thirty-nine per cent on CBS, and twenty-six per cent on CNN, even though, in that same week, thirteen U.S. soldiers were killed and looting was rampant.

The George Washington University study and other examinations of Firdos -- like "Ugly War, Pretty Package," a book by the Boston University associate professor Deborah Jaramillo -- suggest that the bullishness of the post-Firdos era stemmed, at least in part, from the myth created at the square. Without the erroneous finality of the statue falling, this argument goes, the notion of "Mission Accomplished" would have been more difficult to assert; the Bush Administration would have had a harder time dismissing an insurgency that, for a fatal interlude, it all but ignored. Conventional wisdom blames the failure in Iraq on the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has been heavily criticized for its inept management of the occupation. But if the C.P.A. inherited a war rather than a victory, the story of what went wrong after Firdos needs to be revised.

In a way, statue topplings are the banana peels of history that we often slip on. In 1991, when pro-democracy forces led by Boris Yeltsin stood up to a coup by Soviet hard-liners in Moscow, a crowd outside K.G.B. headquarters forced the removal of a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who had led the K.G.B.'s notorious predecessor, the Cheka. The statue was lifted off its pedestal by a crane; its demise seemed to symbolize the end of Soviet-era oppression. Yet within a decade a K.G.B. functionary, Vladimir Putin, became Russia's President, and former K.G.B. officials now hold key political and economic positions.

Throughout the nineteen-nineties, Svetlana Boym, a Soviet-born professor of comparative literature at Harvard, visited the Moscow park where Dzerzhinsky's statue was left on its side, neglected and stained with urine. But over the years, as the power of the security state revived, the statue became the object of fond attention; eventually, Dzerzhinsky was raised to his feet and placed on a pedestal in the park. By studying a statue at not just a dramatic moment but during the course of its existence -- construction, toppling, preservation -- one can sometimes trace a nation's political evolution, but it takes patience. In "The Future of Nostalgia," Boym's book on history and memory, she described Soviet-era monuments serving as "messengers of power . . . onto which anxieties and anger were projected." The Princeton architectural historian Lucia Allais, who has examined the destruction of monuments during the Second World War, mentioned to me one of the most famous topplings ever -- of the statue of King Louis XV in Paris, in 1792, during the French Revolution. The action was portrayed by its authors as a liberation from the power of the monarchy, but they put in its spot a symbol of a new sort of power: the guillotine. These monumental destructions "are usually acts of monumental replacement, which hide continuities of power . . . behind the image of rupture," Allais wrote to me in an e-mail.

***

Not long ago, Tim McLaughlin, the officer whose flag was placed on the statue at Firdos, unpacked a wooden trunk that stored his military gear after he left the Marines to attend law school. We were at his childhood home, in Laconia, New Hampshire. McLaughlin is tall and large, but his head seems small for his frame, like a child's on a grownup's body. He majored in Russian at Holy Cross, and his favorite story, by Chekhov, is about a widowed carriage driver who can find no one to share his sorrows with; at the end of a cold night, the driver pours out his heartache to his loyal horse.

In the trunk, McLaughlin found a copy of the U.S. Constitution that was on his Pentagon desk on September 11, 2001; it was stained with ash from the fire. He pulled out a sealed envelope that had a Marine Corps insignia on the front. Inside was a letter to his parents, to be opened in the event of his death during the invasion. It was a reminder of the dread that gripped the McLaughlin household in those days.

McLaughlin had kept a list of notable events during the invasion. One day's entry said, "Killed lots of people." Another day: "Drove through house." Yet another: "Lunch w/ villagers."

He opened a diary from which silty grains of sand sprinkled out. On one page, exhausted from fighting and lack of sleep, he had written "disoriented" or "disorienting" four times.

The flag that McLaughlin carried to Iraq lay on the bed, folded in the military manner, crisp and tight. It was returned to him after it was taken down from the statue at Firdos Square; his parents had fetched it from a safe-deposit box at the local bank for my benefit.

"It's just a flag," McLaughlin said, unfolding it. "A whole lot of fuss has been made over it, but it's not the most important thing to me."

The diaries explain why:

Company volley into buildings. 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. . . .?Covered canal w/.50 cal -- killed 2 more. ?

McLaughlin also wrote of shooting at a fast-moving car that he considered suspicious. After his bullets killed the driver, McLaughlin realized that an innocent man had perished. A few days later, wishing to avoid the same mistake, McLaughlin didn't fire when he spotted a group of suspicious Iraqis just ahead of the battalion. Moments later, the Iraqis got off the first shots in an ambush that killed a marine.

The war icons that McLaughlin cares about are not made of metal. They are made of flesh and blood.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

‘Good Kills’

The bloody battle for the Diyala bridge.

This article was originally published in the New York Times Magazine on April 20, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

As the war in Iraq is debated and turned into history, the emphasis will be on the role of technology -- precision bombing, cruise missiles, decapitation strikes. That was what was new. But there was another side to the war, and it was the one that most of the fighting men and women in Iraq experienced, even if it wasn't what Americans watching at home saw: raw military might, humans killing humans. The Third Battalion, Fourth Marines was one of the rawest expressions of that might. Based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., it specializes in desert warfare, and its forces number about 1,500 troops, equipped during the war in Iraq with about 30 Abrams tanks and 60 armored assault vehicles, backed up with whatever artillery and aircraft were required for its missions, like 155-millimeter howitzers and Cobra gunships and fighter jets. The battalion made the ground shake, quite literally, as it rumbled north from Kuwait through Iraq, beginning its march by seizing the Basra airport, continuing on past Nasiriya, into the desert and through a sandstorm that turned the sky red and became, at its worst moments, a hurricane of sand that rocked armored vehicles like plastic toys nudged by a child's finger. On the way to Baghdad, the battalion also fought fierce but limited battles in Afaq and Diwaniya, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, and in Al Kut, about 100 miles from the Iraqi capital.

On April 6, three days before the fall of Baghdad, the battalion arrived at the Diyala bridge, a major gateway into the southeastern sector of the city. The bridge crosses the Diyala River, which flows into the Tigris. Once across its 150-yard span, the Third Battalion would be only nine miles from the center of Baghdad. The bridge was heavily defended on the north side by both Republican Guard and irregular forces, and the battle to seize and cross it took two days. It was, in retrospect, a signal event in the war, a vivid example of the kind of brutal, up-close fighting that didn't get shown on cable TV.

The Third Battalion had a consistent strategy as it moved toward Baghdad: kill every fighter who refused to surrender. It was extremely effective. It allowed the battalion to move quickly. It minimized American casualties. But it was a strategy that came with a price, and that price was paid in blood on the far side of the Diyala bridge.

The unit's commander, Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy, had a calm bearing that never seemed to waver as he and his troops made their way through Iraq. His mood stayed the same, whether he was in battle or drinking his morning coffee or smoking a cigar; neither the tone nor the pace of his voice strayed from its steady-as-she-goes manner. Perhaps his calm came from experience. His father was an Army officer in Vietnam, serving two combat tours there. McCoy was born into the military and has lived in it for his entire life. This wasn't the first time he fought against Iraqi soldiers; he was a company commander during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

When I spoke to him on the southern side of the Diyala bridge soon after the battalion arrived there on the morning of April 6, he was in a serene mood. "Things are going well," he said. "Really well."

When Colonel McCoy told you that things were going well, it meant his marines were killing Iraqi fighters. That's what was happening as we exchanged pleasantries at the bridge. His armored Humvee was parked 30 yards from the bridge. If one of the Republican Guard soldiers on the other side of the bridge had wanted to shout an insult across the river, he would have been heard -- were it not for the fact that Colonel McCoy's battalion was at that moment lobbing so many bullets and mortars and artillery shells across the waterway that a shout could never have been heard, and in any event the Iraqis had no time for insults before dying. The only sound was the roar of death.

"Lordy," McCoy said. "Heck of a day. Good kills."

McCoy's immediate objective was to kill or drive away enough of the forces on the north side of the river to let him move his men and equipment across. He had no doubt that he would succeed. He was sitting in the front seat of his Humvee, with an encrypted radio phone to his left ear. He had the sort of done-it-again pride in his voice that you hear from a business executive who is kicking back at the clubhouse as he tells you he beat par again. Two Abrams tanks lumbered past us -- vehicles that weigh 67 tons apiece do not move softly -- and the earth shook, though not as much as it was shaking on the other side of the river, where American mortars were exploding, 150 yards away. The dark plumes of smoke that created a twilight effect at noon, the broken glass and crumpled metal on the road, the flak-jacketed marines crouching and firing their weapons -- it was a day for connoisseurs of close combat, like the colonel.

"We're moving those tanks back a bit to take care of them over there," he explained, nodding to his right, where hit-and-run Iraqi fighters were shooting rocket-propelled grenades at his men, without success. Colonel McCoy's assessment was Marine blunt: "We're killing 'em."

He turned his attention to the radio phone, updating his regiment commander. His voice remained calm.

"Dark Side Six, Ripper Six," he said, using his call sign and his commander's. "We're killing them like it's going out of style. They keep reinforcing, these Republican Guards, and we're killing them as they show up. We're running out of ammo."

McCoy, whose marines refer to him as, simply, "the colonel," was not succumbing, in his plain talk of slaughter, to the military equivalent of exuberance, irrational or otherwise. For him, as for other officers who won the prize of front-line commands, this war was not about hearts and minds or even liberation. Those are amorphous concepts, not rock-hard missions. For Colonel McCoy and the other officers who inflicted heavy casualties on Iraqis and suffered few of their own, this war was about one thing: killing anyone who wished to take up a weapon in defense of Saddam Hussein's regime, even if they were running away. Colonel McCoy refers to it as establishing "violent supremacy."

"We're here until Saddam and his henchmen are dead," he told me at one point during his march on Baghdad. "It's over for us when the last guy who wants to fight for Saddam has flies crawling across his eyeballs. Then we go home. It's smashmouth tactics. Sherman said that war is cruelty. There's no sense in trying to refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it's over."

When I suggested to Colonel McCoy one morning that Iraqi civilians might not appreciate the manner in which his marines tended to say hello to the locals with the barrels of their guns raised, he did not make any excuses.

"They don't have to like us," he said. "Liking has nothing to do with it. You'll never make them like you. I can't make them like me. All we can do is make them respect us and then make sure that they know we're here on their behalf. Making them like us -- Yanks always want to be liked, but it doesn't always work out that way."

Though the fighting was lopsided, the marines did not get to the Diyala bridge unscathed. On April 3, three days before the battle for the bridge, the Third Battalion entered the town of Al Kut. It was an incursion intended to convey the point that, as Colonel McCoy described it, there were new "alpha males" in the country.

The attack began at dawn with an artillery barrage that had excited marines next to my vehicle. They yelled "Bam! Bam!" as each shell was fired into the air. Tanks led the way into town, and as I stayed a kilometer behind at a medic station, the sounds of battle commenced, mortars and machine-gun fire that were accompanied, as ever, by the visuals of war -- smoke plumes that were an arsonist's dream.

A half-hour into the battle, a Humvee raced out of the city and stopped at the medic station. A marine, whose body was rag-doll floppy, was pulled out and put on a stretcher. A marine doctor and medics surrounded him. His clothes were stripped off and needles and monitors placed on and into his body, and the dialogue of battlefield medicine began among the team, all of whom had slung their M-16's over their backs as they tried to save their comrade's life.

"Left lower abdomen."

"He's in urgent surgical."

"Wriggle your toes for me."

"Ow, ow."

"He needs medevac, now."

"Iodine."

"My arms are numb."

"Keep talking, Evnin."

His name was Mark Evnin. He was a corporal, a sniper who was in one of the lead vehicles going into Al Kut. Iraqi fighters were waiting in ambush and had fired the first shots; one of them got him.

"Keep talking to us. Where are you from?"

"Remon," he mumbled.

"Where? Where are you from?"

"Verrrmon."

Evnin was not doing well. The battalion chaplain, Bob Grove, leaned over him, and because the chaplain knew Evnin was Jewish, he pulled out of his pocket a sheet with instructions for "emergency Jewish ministration." Grove read the Sh'ma, which begins, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God." Then he began reading the 23rd Psalm, at which point Evnin said, "Chaplain, I'm not going to die."

A Chinook landed 50 yards away. Evnin's stretcher was lifted from the asphalt and rushed to the chopper. Shortly after he was airborne, he went into shock and died.

Colonel McCoy was just a few feet from where Corporal Evnin was mortally wounded. "I saw him go down," he said afterward. "That fight lasted about nine seconds. We had about 15 human-wave guys attack the tanks. They were mowed down. They drew first blood. They got one of us, but we got all of them."

Corporal Evnin was the battalion's first K.I.A., but he was certainly not the only marine to die in Iraq. The men of the Third Battalion paid close attention to news of marine battle deaths. The day before they arrived at the Diyala bridge, a Marine tank was blown up by an explosives-laden truck that drove alongside it and was detonated by its driver. It was the realization of one of the marines' worst fears: suicide bombers.

McCoy remained focused; he told me that his mission, to kill Iraqi fighters, had not changed. "I'm not allowed to have the luxury of emotions to guide my decisions," he said. "It'll cloud my decisions, and I'll make a bad one if I submit to that. I have to look at everything very clinically." He reacted to the suicide bombing tactically: a new danger had emerged, and his troops would have to be on increased alert to the threat posed by civilian vehicles.

But the deaths of their comrades deeply affected the grunts, and when the battalion got to Diyala bridge, every man was primed to kill.

"There's an unspoken change in attitude," McCoy told me a few days before we reached the bridge. "Their blood is up."

The battle for the Diyala bridge lasted for two days. One of the bridge's main pylons had been badly damaged, and armored vehicles could not move over it. So after the first day of fighting on April 6, the battalion dug itself into the southern side for the night, giving itself time to plan an infantry assault over the span the next morning.

In the morning, the battalion released another round of heavy artillery barrages to soften up the opposition on the northern side of the river. In the fighting, two more marines were killed when an artillery shell hit their armored vehicle on the southern side of the bridge. Eventually, the battalion killed most of the Republican Guard fighters, or at least pushed them back from their dug-in positions on the northern side, and McCoy decided that it was time to try a crossing.

The men of the Third Battalion moved across the Diyala bridge "dismounted," that is, on foot. It was a tableau from Vietnam, or even World War II; grunts running and firing their weapons in front of them. This was, as McCoy described it, "blue-collar warfare."

When the marines crossed to the northern side, they found themselves in a semi-urban neighborhood of one-story shops and two-story houses, a few dozen palm trees and lots of dust. A narrow highway led away from the bridge, toward Baghdad. Immediately, they were met with incoming fire -- occasional bullets and the odd rocket-propelled grenade, fired mostly from a palm grove on the eastern side of the road to Baghdad. Colonel McCoy set up his command position -- basically, himself and his radioman -- adjacent to a house by the bridge. Marines fanned out into the palm grove, while others moved north up the road, going house to house. Advance units set up sniper positions and machine-gun positions a few hundred yards farther up the road; beyond them, American mortars and bombs, fired by units near and behind Colonel McCoy's position, were loudly raining down.

One of Colonel McCoy's sergeants ran up to him and told him that Iraqi reinforcements had just arrived.

"A technical vehicle dropped off some [expletives] over there," he said, pointing up the road.

"Did you get it?" Colonel McCoy asked.

"Yeah."

"The [expletives]?"

"Some of them. Some ran away."

"Boys are doing good," the colonel said moments later. "Brute force is going to prevail today."

He listened to his radio.

"Suicide bombers headed for the bridge?" he said. "We'll drill them."

Then, one by one, about a half-dozen vehicles came up the road, separately, and the marines got ready to drill them.

Battle is confusion. If a military unit is well trained and well led, the confusion can be minimized, but it can never be eliminated. Split-second decisions -- whether to fire or not fire, whether to go left or right, whether to seek cover behind a house or in a ditch, whether the enemy is 200 yards ahead or 400 yards ahead -- these kinds of decisions are often made on the basis of fragmentary and contradictory information by men who are sleep-deprived or operating on adrenaline; by men who fear for their lives or for the lives of civilians around them or both; by men who rely on instincts they hope will keep them alive and not lead them into actions they will regret to their graves. When soldiers make their split-second decisions, they do not know the outcome.

The situation was further complicated on the north side of the Diyala bridge, because what was left of the Iraqi resistance had resorted to guerrilla tactics. The Iraqis still firing on the marines were not wearing uniforms. They would fire a few shots from a window, drop their weapons, run away as though they were civilians, then go to another location where they had hidden other weapons and fire those.

Amid the chaos of battle McCoy was, as usual, placid yet focused. Black smoke blew overhead and through the streets; hundreds of marines crept forward on their bellies or in low runs, darting, as fast as they could with their combat gear, from palm tree to palm tree or from house to house. On all sides, there was the sound of gunfire, an orchestra of sounds -- the pop-pop of assault weapons, the boom-boom of heavy machine guns, the thump of mortars. Harmony was taking a day off. There would be a sudden burst of a few shots, then a crescendo in which, it seemed, every marine in the vicinity was firing his weapon at an enemy who was, for the most part, unseen; and then it would stop, briefly.

The bulk of the fire emanated from McCoy's forces, not the Iraqis. Some marines branched farther out to the east, beyond the palm grove. Others moved forward, straight down the road, trying to "go firm" on a front line there, to establish a defensive perimeter into which Iraqi fighters could not penetrate.

The plan was for marine snipers along the road to fire warning shots several hundred yards up the road at any approaching vehicles. As the half-dozen vehicles approached, some shots were fired at the ground in front of the cars; others were fired, with great precision, at their tires or their engine blocks. Marine snipers can snipe. The warning shots were intended either to simply disable a vehicle -- wrecking the engine or the tires -- or to send the message that the cars should stop or turn around, or that passengers should get out and head away from the marines.

But some of the vehicles weren't fully disabled by the snipers, and they continued to move forward. When that happened, the marines riddled the vehicles with bullets until they ground to a halt. There would be no car bombs taking out members of the Third Battalion.

The vehicles, it only later became clear, were full of Iraqi civilians. These Iraqis were apparently trying to escape the American bombs that were landing behind them, farther down the road, and to escape Baghdad itself; the road they were on is a key route out of the city. The civilians probably couldn't see the marines, who were wearing camouflage fatigues and had taken up ground and rooftop positions that were intended to be difficult for approaching fighters to spot. What the civilians probably saw in front of them was an open road; no American military vehicles had yet been able to cross the disabled bridge. In the chaos, the civilians were driving toward a battalion of marines who had just lost two of their own in battle that morning and had been told that suicide bombers were heading their way.

One by one, civilians were killed. Several hundred yards from the forward marine positions, a blue minivan was fired on; three people were killed. An old man, walking with a cane on the side of the road, was shot and killed. It is unclear what he was doing there; perhaps he was confused and scared and just trying to get away from the city. Several other vehicles were fired on; over a stretch of about 600 yards nearly a half dozen vehicles were stopped by gunfire. When the firing stopped, there were nearly a dozen corpses, all but two of which had no apparent military clothing or weapons.

Two journalists who were ahead of me, farther up the road, said that a company commander told his men to hold their fire until the snipers had taken a few shots, to try to disable the vehicles without killing the passengers. "Let the snipers deal with civilian vehicles," the commander had said. But as soon as the nearest sniper fired his first warning shots, other marines apparently opened fire with M-16's or machine guns.

Two more journalists were with another group of marines along the road that was also involved in the shooting. Both journalists said that a squad leader, after the shooting stopped, shouted: "My men showed no mercy. Outstanding."

The battle lasted until the afternoon, and the battalion camped for the night on the north side of the bridge. The next morning, April 8, I walked down the road. I counted at least six vehicles that had been shot at. Most of them contained corpses or had corpses near them. The blue van, a Kia, had more than 20 bullet holes in its windshield. Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too. There was no visible cargo in the van -- no suitcases, no bombs.

Two of the van's passengers had survived the shooting; one of them, Eman Alshamnery, had been shot in the toe. She had passed out and spent the night in the vehicle. When she woke in the morning she was taken by marines for treatment by their medical team.

Alshamnery told me that her home in Baghdad had been bombed and that she was trying to flee the city with her sister, who was the dead woman I had seen in the back seat of the van. Alshamnery said she had not heard a warning shot -- which doesn't mean that one wasn't fired. In fact, it would have been difficult, particularly for civilians unaccustomed to the sounds of war, to know a warning shot when they heard it, or to know where it came from, or how to react appropriately.

Alshamnery, who spoke to me through a Marine interpreter, was sitting next to another woman, who gave her name as Bakis Obeid and said she had been in one of the other passenger vehicles that was hit. She said her son and husband had been killed.

There were other survivors. A few yards down the road from the Kia van, three men were digging a grave. One gravedigger gave his name as Sabah Hassan and said he was a chef at the Al Rashid hotel, which is in the center of Baghdad and, in more peaceful times, was where foreign journalists stayed. Hassan said he was fleeing the city and was in a sedan with three other men on the road when they came under fire, apparently from the marines. A passenger in his car was killed. I asked him what he felt.

"What can I say?" he replied. "I am afraid to say anything. I don't know what comes in the future. Please." He plunged his shovel back into the earth and continued his funereal chores.

Not far from the gravediggers, I came across the body of the old man with the cane. He had a massive wound in the back of his head. He died on his back, looking at the sky, and his body was covered with flies. His cane, made of aluminum, lay by his right hand.

Just a few yards away, a Toyota pickup truck was by the side of the road, with more than 30 bullet holes in its windshield. The driver, who was wearing a green military tunic, was dead, his head thrown back, slightly to the left. Nearby, the body of another man lay on the ground, on his stomach; attached to the back of his belt was a holster for a pistol. An AK-47 assault rifle was in the sand nearby. These were the only fighters, or apparent fighters, that I saw on the road or in adjacent buildings.

As I took notes, several marines came by and peeked inside the blue van.

"I wish I had been here," one of them said. In other words, he wished he had participated in the combat.

"The marines just opened up," another said. "Better safe than sorry."

A journalist came up and said the civilians should not have been shot. There was a silence, and after the journalist walked away, a third marine, Lance Cpl. Santiago Ventura, began talking, angrily.

"How can you tell who's who?" said Corporal Ventura. He spoke sharply, as though trying to contain his fury. "You get a soldier in a car with an AK-47 and civilians in the next car. How can you tell? You can't tell."

He paused. Then he continued, still upset at the suggestion that the killings were not correct.

"One of these vans took out our tank. Car bomb. When we tell them they have to stop, they have to stop," he said, referring to civilians. "We've got to be concerned about our safety. We dropped pamphlets over these people weeks and weeks ago and told them to leave the city. You can't blame marines for what happened. It's bull. What are you doing getting in a taxi in the middle of a war zone?

"Half of them look like civilians," he continued. He was referring to irregular forces. "I mean, I have sympathy, and this breaks my heart, but you can't tell who's who. We've done more than enough to help these people. I don't think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people didn't die. Innocent people die. There's nothing we can do."

Two days later, the Third Battalion arrived at the Palestine Hotel in the center of Baghdad, the first marines to reach the heart of the city. They had made it from the Kuwaiti border in 22 days. As the marines were taking up defensive positions around the hotel, I noticed a sniper I had become acquainted with during the past weeks. (Because he has children who do not know precisely what he does in the Marines, he had asked me not to name him.) He was squatting on the ground in Firdos Square, in front of the hotel, scanning nearby buildings through the scope on his rifle, looking for enemy snipers. About 150 yards away, at the other end of the square, one of the battalion's armored vehicles was in the process of wrapping a metal chain around the statue of Saddam Hussein, preparing to pull it down.

Although this was a moment of triumph, I was still thinking about the civilians killed at Diyala bridge, and I said to the sniper that I had heard that he was one of the men who had fired shots there. He nodded his head, and I didn't need to ask anything more, because he began to talk about it. It was clear the bridge was weighing on his mind, too. He said that during the battle, he fired a shot at the engine block of a vehicle and that it kept moving forward. For him, this had been evidence that the person behind the wheel was determined to push ahead, and to do harm.

I said that a civilian driver might not know what to do when a bullet hits his vehicle, and might press ahead out of fear or confusion.

"It's easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback on Monday morning," he replied. "But we did everything we could to avoid civilian casualties."

When I visited the kill box down the road from Diyala bridge the morning after the battle, I noticed that the destroyed cars were several hundred yards from the marine positions that fired on them. The marines could have waited a bit longer before firing, and if they had, perhaps the cars would have stopped, or perhaps the marines would have figured out that the cars contained confused civilians. The sniper knew this. He knew that something tragic had happened at the bridge. And so, as we spoke in Baghdad, he stopped defending the marines' actions and started talking about their intent. He and his fellow marines, he said, had not come to Iraq to drill bullets into women and old men who were just trying to find a safe place.

Collateral damage is far easier to bear for those who are responsible for it from afar -- from the cockpit of a B-1 bomber, from the command center of a Navy destroyer, from the rear positions of artillery crews. These warriors do not see the faces of the mothers and fathers they have killed. They do not see the blood and hear the screams and live with those memories for the rest of their lives. The grunts suffer this. The Third Battalion accomplished its mission of bringing military calamity upon the regime of Saddam Hussein; the statue of Saddam fell just a few minutes after the sniper and I spoke. But the sniper, and many other marines of the Third Battalion, could not feel as joyous as the officers in the rear, the generals in Qatar and the politicians in Washington.

The civilians who were killed -- a precise number is not and probably never will be available for the toll at Diyala bridge, or in the rest of Iraq -- paid the ultimate price. But a price was paid, too, by the men who were responsible for killing them. For these men, this was not a clean war of smart bombs and surgical strikes. It was war as it has always been, war at close range, war as Sherman described it, bloody and cruel.

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