When former Marine Lt. Tim McLaughlin packed an American flag into his bags before being deployed to Iraq, he had no idea it would become a piece of history.
When Saddam Hussein’s statue toppled down in Firdos Square in downtown Baghdad in April 9, 2003, the image of an American flag covering the face of Hussein’s statue was seared into the mind of every person impacted from the Iraq War, including the owner of that flag. That American flag belonged to a U.S. Marine, Lt. Tim McLaughlin, who has since stowed it away in a safe deposit box in a New Hampshire bank for fear that the flag would be used as war propaganda.
Before the 10-year anniversary approached, the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va., called McLaughlin and asked him for the flag, hoping to display it in an exhibition. But McLaughlin never returned the museum’s calls and kept the flag for himself.
Former Lt. Tim McLaughlin joined MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell to talk about how his flag came to cover the toppled leader’s statue.
“When we arrived in the square, Firdos Square, the company commander said, ‘Hey Mac, we’re not getting shot at. Let’s get a picture of your flag. And what I think I didn’t perceive at the time is that the world’s media was filming that for the rest of the world to see it. So from my point of view, it’s just my flag that I took a picture of. It’s not a burden or a trophy, but at the same time, I understand that the world saw it and it’s laden with symbolism.”
Not knowing that by lending his commander the flag that it would become a piece of history, McLaughlin brought it with him to Iraq to take a photo of it in a foreign country. But McLaughlin discovered a few weeks later that his flag had gone viral, after photographic images of an American flag covering Hussein’s face were on the covers of newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Since 2003, McLaughlin has become more aware of the significance attached to his flag, and has understood that the flag represents the mismanaged invasion and occupation of a war that dragged on for a decade. But McLaughlin said on MSNBC that the flag was never intended for such a purpose.
“In years since, I’ve understood that the world has lots of opinions about that, and that’s fine. And that’s part of why I keep it to myself, because it was never intended to foster a conversation about ‘Is it an occupation?’ ‘Should it or shouldn’t it have been done?’ It’s the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps loves its flag, we love our country, and when you ask young men and women to go invade a country, we don’t think of it from a political point of view, we think about it as doing what our country has asked us to do and the country is reflected in my American flag,” he said.
Moments before the statue fell, a U.S. Marine climbed a ladder and draped McLaughlin’s flag over the face of Saddam Hussein then cautiously replaced it with an Iraqi flag. The Marines hung a noose around the statue’s neck and dragged the statue around Firdos Square. That day marked the beginning of a war that was far from over and with an American flag covering a Middle Eastern leader’s face, the United States began a controversial war that took more than 4,400 American lives and 1000,000 Iraqis’ lives.
“For me, it reminds me of what came beforehand which was a lot of death and destruction for both Marines and Iraqis,” McLaughlin said. “And then a war kept going for ten years. So I keep it to myself because it has personal meaning for me which wasn’t intended for the world’s consumption.”
McLaughlin was working at the Pentagon at the time American Airlines Flight 77 hit the base. McLaughlin was running by the Jefferson Memorial when he saw the smoke, and forced his way into the building to help firefighters rescue personnel. A few days later, a friend who was also a staffer to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer gave McLaughlin the flag as a token of appreciation for his service. That day, McLaughlin “knew the world just got a lot more complex.”
Take a look back at the NBC News video of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003.