In this week’s podcast, we are joined by reporter Peter Maass to discuss the 2003 toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad. Maass explains how he found himself in Firdos Square on that iconic day and how the ensuing media frenzy produced false hope about U.S. occupancy in Iraq.

“The flags, the statues, these aren't the icons that really tell us what war is like. We're looking at the wrong icons. The icons are not ones that are made of metal and cloth, they're made of flesh and blood. And those are the things that we need to be focused on.”

Listen to the podcast here.

Transcript

Mike: Hi. I'm Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. This week we're going to reveal the true story of how Saddam Hussein's statue was taken down at Firdos Square during the Iraq War. The author of the piece is freelance journalist Peter Maass. And Peter is the author of "Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil." He's written for several magazines including The New Yorker in which this piece about Saddam's statue appears as well as The New York Times magazine, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and Foreign Policy among many others. Welcome to the podcast, Peter.

Peter: Great to be here.

Mike: Alright, so why don't we start, let's set this up a little bit. You were actually in Iraq when the fall of Saddam's statue took place. Why were you there?

Peter: I covered the invasion for the New York Times magazine. And I was one of these crazy, as it turned out, reporters who rented an SUV in Kuwait City and kind of drove it across the border on the first day of the invasion, kind of snuck across.

And then a few days into the invasion realized that I would get shot by American or Iraqi forces if I drove around on my own. So, just by chance, when I was north of Nasiriyah, I encountered this battalion that was in this staging area. It was headed to Baghdad, as I found out.

And I along with some of these other unilateral journalists, as we were called, asked the commander, the lieutenant colonel, permission to follow his battalion to Baghdad, and he agreed. And this, as just total luck would end up having it, was the battalion that took down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.

Mike: OK and then once you got to the square, what did you see?

Peter: Well, once I got to the square, I must say that I personally felt great relief, because for the previous three weeks I had been covering this invasion, and it was a very dangerous invasion to be covering, to be a participant in, whatever side of the weapons that you were on. So for me, it was a relief to be there. And I arrived at the square, pulled up kind of right in front of the Palestine Hotel, in fact, and Colonel McCoy, the battalion commander, also pulled up right there. So I immediately went over to him and he was immediately surrounded by a group of journalists, because journalists were at the Palestine and these were the first Marines, the first Americans that arrived, so they conglomerated around him.

And then he walked into the Palestine Hotel, surrounded by journalists, with the manager of the hotel at his side, and kind of went in to see what was going on there, to be sure that people were safe, et cetera, and then came back out. And then when he came out, he kind of saw this toppling process that had already begun. Because while the Commander...

Mike: Toppling of the statue?

Peter: The Commander of this whole Battalion had no idea there was a statue at Firdos Square.

Mike: Because he had other concerns.

Peter: They had other concerns, it wasn't on their map. Actually, this is one of the strange and interesting things about it all was that the maps that the Commander had, he had a grid for where the Palestine was located, but in that grid, when he looked on the map, there was nothing that said, like Palestine Hotel, here. There was nothing, therefore, that said, statue of Saddam Hussein, here. So, when they drove into Firdos Square, it was news to them that, hey, there's this big statue of Saddam Hussein here. Some of the Marines did kind of remark to each other, and one of the Marines in the Tank Company said on the Tank Company's radio net, you know hey, take a look at that statue, as they're going in. Let's tear it down.

Mike: What did they see when they rolled in?

Peter: What they saw when they rolled in was an empty square with a statue of Saddam Hussein, a 40 foot tall statue of Saddam Hussein dominating it. And it isn't just American soldiers that were tearing down statues. Throughout the course of history, this is what invading armies do, you invade a country, you tear down the representations of the regime that you are opposing.

Mike: Right, it shows they're no longer in power.

Peter: And this particular battalion had done this before, not statues, but you know posters, billboards, things of that sort, throughout the entire invasion. Throughout other invasions in history, this is what goes on. So it was just kind of natural when they come in and they see this big statue, hey, let's take that thing down. Now, initially the Commander of the Tank Company told the fellow who suggested taking it down over the radio net, no. We're not going to do that right now. We've got to secure this place. Once they secured it, because there wasn't any enemy there, actually, then this one Gunnery Sergeant, who was the one who noticed the statue and said, hey, why don't we take this thing down, then radios his Commander and they're all stationary now, and everything's very secure, Colonial McCoy's inside of the Palestine Hotel. This Gunnery Sergeant, whose name is Leon Lambert, asks his Commander "hey, you know, there's some Iraqi's here who want to take down the statue." Do you mind if I give them a sledge hammer and a bit of rope? The Captain who was in charge of the Tank Company said "sure, go ahead, but don't use your vehicle."

So the Gunnery Sergeant was the one who started the whole thing. It wasn't started in the Pentagon. It wasn't started in the White House. It was started by this Gunnery Sergeant, who like any Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corp, is all gung-ho to take down the statue. So he hands out the sledge hammer, hands out the rope, and the Iraqi's start going at the statue. The media is all there, because they were based at the hotel.

Mike: Right.

Peter: So, this scene of the Marines arriving at Firdos Square was broadcast from almost the instant that the troops first arrived there.

Mike: I don't recall who was broadcasting it.

Peter: Pretty much everybody was broadcasting it. Because in the morning...That morning, basically, there were no Iraqi forces at the Palestine Hotel. The journalists were free to do as they wished. Now, there were not American forces there either, so it was still a very dangerous place to be, because it was in the War Zone, undeclared, unconquered territory. So, it was a still very, very, very risky time for people there. And although there were some feeds going out, they weren't necessarily being broadcast all over the place, because what was there to see; just an empty square. But because the Marines were so close, and some journalists who were at the Palestine Hotel, had gone out and had actually seen the Marines, everybody sort of knew the Marines are close and they're going to be coming.

At CNN, for example, I talked to the Executive Producer who was in charge of deciding what was going to go on the air. They were aware in the control room of CNN that any moment now you're going to see Marines coming down into Firdos Square, on this live shot.

And so the Executive Producer at CNN, like Executive Producers in control rooms in other networks, all over the world, not just American, were keeping an eye on their monitors, waiting for that first tank. And the moment they saw the first tank, the Executive Producer, when he saw that first tank, he shouted out, "There they are," and immediately that feed was put out live on CNN's air.

Mike: The Americans coming in to capture the square?

Peter: It was a very important moment. This was kind of the proof that Americans had arrived in the center of Baghdad, unopposed. So, there was no doubt that this was, you know, worth going live to. The question and the problem then become, well, why are you staying there? The statue that's been toppled...Why are you there for two hours nonstop? Because there's still fighting going on elsewhere. There's looting going on elsewhere. Actually, it's a very complicated situation, and this kind of notion of, you know, utter joy, which was broadcast by the networks, focusing very, very tightly on the very few Iraqis who were at the square, was that really representative of what was going on in Baghdad?

Mike: Because there were so many journalists there.

Peter: It was...

Mike: It just was much more complex then what it looked like on TV.

Peter: It was. Most things are more complex then they look like on TV. It's very hard in this really chaotic world. I'm a writer, that's got to do justice to the complexity that exists. TV is a medium that is even more difficult to use to convey complexities of ideas, complexities of emotion, and complexities of history. Yet, that's the medium that dominates events such as this. So, you had these images that were coming across that were really quite striking, but that's all they were. They were striking. They weren't as meaningful as they were striking. Yet, that's what we saw and that's what shaped our ideas.

Mike: Now, I want to jump forward a little bit, and just kind of talk about, why do you think so many conspiracy theories developed? Was it because it just seemed so easy?

Peter: The conspiracy theories developed for a lot of reasons. First off, it did seem a little bit to pat. It's like, wait a minute. Is it just coincidence that the American Marines happened to arrive and seize the one target where there’s hundreds of journalists? Actually, the non coincidence wasn't due to the fact that the American military had this great idea to put on a big show from the very beginning. So, that wasn't known, why they really went there. What were the reasons for them going there?

So, when you don't know, it's easy to kind of suspect the worst, because quite often that is the case. In this case, however, actually, no, there wasn't the forethought that some of the conspiracy theories thought.

However, one of the reasons that the...I don't even want to call them conspiracy theories, let's call them doubts because they were very legitimate questions and very legitimate doubts. There was an Army report after the invasion about kind of how the whole invasion went. It actually had...It was mistaken when it wrote about Firdos Square because there was an Army psychological operations team that rolled into Firdos Square about, I don’t know, 15, 20, 30 minutes after this toppling began.

The leader of the psychological operations team kind of seemed to credit himself with much more in the way of power and influence than he actually had. And the Army report kind of said this dramatic event actually was...There were psychological operations teams, our guys were involved in that, and the Army was very glad for that actually.

But the case actually was that this Army psychological operations team really had virtually no role to play whatsoever, but the Army wanted to claim some credit for it. And that fed some of the doubters because it's like, "Oh, well, here's the Army saying they had a psychological operations team there and the psychological operations team was active." The fact was that actually the psychological operation team that was there was not there at the beginning and had no influence whatsoever over it. But that did, and understandably, inform and inflame the people who thought this was all a set up from the very beginning.

Mike: Right. Now, your story is not just a first person account. You went back and talked to all of the players involved. Is that correct?

Peter: I went back, talked to...I found all of the players who were involved who I thought were key: battalion commander of course because he's the one who gave the order to take down the statue; his commander, the regimental commander who had to authorize it. But then also the whole chain of individuals including the guy who put the flag up on the statue, the Gunnery Sergeant who commanded the vehicle that tore down the statue, the Marine whose flag it was that was put up on the statue, as well as a lot of the journalists who were involved in creating this event.

And so, for me, it was the most important thing about the story, the story within the story that is most important is the one that I tell about Tim McLaughlin who was a tank commander whose flag it was that was put up on the statue.

He, as a tank commander, had kind of led the invasion for this battalion which was a front line battalion. This was the one that was kind of the fist of the fist. He is involved in a lot of combat. His tank company killed a lot of enemy soldiers as well as some civilians by mistake.

I tell his story, and how in the end he still has the flag. I went to New Hampshire where the flag is kept, actually, at a local bank in a safe deposit box. I went to his parents’ home, they had taken it out of the safe deposit box. He looks at the flag, we're in this room with the flag, 'the flag,' and he says, "You know, it's really not that meaningful to me. There are a heck of a lot more things that occurred during that war that are a lot more meaningful."

Then he talked about the engagements that he had in the invasion where he killed enemy soldiers. The engagements that he had where, by mistake, he killed civilians. The engagements that he had in which Marines were killed. And he said to me, "You know, these are the things that really matter to me."

When we talk about war icons, this story is kind of about the making of a war icon, the statue falling, the flag on the face. These aren’t, the flags, the statues, these aren't the icons that really tell us what war is like. We're looking at the wrong icons. The icons are not ones that are made of metal and cloth, they're made of flesh and blood. And those are the things that we need to be focused on.

And so the people who doubt the authenticity of an event, an iconic event, like this one are correct actually. Even if the event is literally true, and it is visually stunning, it is not true as a measure of what war is like as an informational source that tells us what this war was like. This is not what we should remember, really, when we remember war because these victorious moments, I mean, this is not what war is really about. You know, war is about is the killing of people and if we sanitize it by focusing only on these kind of joyous liberatory, or seemingly liberatory moments, we are really missing the point of what we do.

Mike: Peter, I want to thank you so much. It's a really great story, a really great read. Thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Peter: Thank you.

Mike: That was Peter Maass. You can read the full story of the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue at propublica.org and in The New Yorker magazine. And now for our "Officials Say" fav Tumblr of the week. Illinois comptroller Dan Hynes in an interview on “60 Minutes” said the following about his state's fiscal troubles, "The State of Illinois is known as a deadbeat state. This is a reputation that has taken us years to earn and we've reached, you know, the heights of, I think, becoming the worst in the country." Congratulations, Dan. That's this week's show. This podcast was produced by Quadia Muhammad. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb, we'll see you next week.

Transcription by CastingWords