By
The Last Word
updated 4/10/2013 4:20:50 PM ET 2013-04-10T20:20:50

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.

Video: 10 years later: Saddam and the American flag

  1. Closed captioning of: 10 years later: Saddam and the American flag

    >>> the scenes of free iraqis celebrating in the streets, tearing down statues of saddam hussein in baghdad are breathtaking. watching them, one can't help but think of the fall of the berlin wall and collapse of the iron curtain . we are seeing history unfold, events that will shape the course of a country.

    >> that was ten years ago on this very day, april 9th , the day u.s. marines helped topple the statue of saddam hussein in baghdad. as you will recall before the statue fell, a marine climbed the ladder, placed an american flag over the face of saddam hussein . less than two minutes later, that was replaced with an iraqi flag , but photographic images of the american flag over his face were already being sent all over the world. today on salon.com, jordan heller said this about that briefly famous american flag , the flag has become more burden than trophy for tim mcclauf lynn, the marine that trucker that infamous flag in his duffle. it is a symbol of the sanitized idea of war, of lies and myths that nations spin to bureau initial their aggression. that's why it is hidden in a safety deposit box in a small town bank in new hampshire. joining me now, former marine lieutenant, tim . thanks for joining us.

    >> my pleasure.

    >> tell us the story of this flag, where it came from, why you brought it with you to iraq?

    >> sure. the first part, it is neither a burden or trophy for me, it is a personal flag that i think you'd find most marines would have with them, and if not marine corps flag or american flag , then some sticker. marine corps is a patriotic service, that's just what it is. this flag was given to me a few days after the 9/11 attacks, didn't come from the pentagon, i just worked there at the time. i had it. we packed our bags, went to iraq, tried to take a picture a few times of my flag. we got shot at once, got a flagpole run over . when we arrived in the square, he said we're not getting shot at. get a picture of your flag. what i think i didn't perceive was that the world's media were filming that for the rest of the world to see it. from my point of view, it is just my flag that i took a picture of, it is not a burden or trophy but at the same time i understand the world saw it, and it is laden with symbolism and that's okay, too.

    >> why have you kept it hidden the last ten years?

    >> i wouldn't say i kept it hidden. i just keep it because it's mine. i don't share it with the rest of the world because i never intended to in the first place. and it has a lot of personal meaning to me, which would be different than the symbolic meaning it would have for you or anybody else that saw it. for me, it reminds me what came beforehand, which was a lot of death and destruction for marines and iraqis. and what came afterwards, corporal gonzales was killed a few days later, then a war kept going for ten years. so i keep it to myself because it has personal meaning to me, which wasn't intended for the world's consumption, but there it is.

    >> tim , tell us when that flag went on it, did you all realize this was a mistake, that's not the flag that should be there?

    >> no. keep in mind, it is the marine corps . i would never think of the american flag as a mistake. 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 or shouldn't it have been done. it is the marine corps . they love the flag, love our country. when you ask young men and women to invade a country, we don't think of it from a political point of view, we think about it as doing what our country asked us to do and the country is reflected in my american flag . that's the story.

    >> and tim , you worked, want to close, you worked in the pentagon, worked there on 9/11, but you weren't in the building when the plane hit.

    >> i had stepped out for my morning run, was across the river near the jefferson memorial , ran back, forced my way into the building, spent the day working in the inner courtyard helping firefighters rescue personnel with ladders and stuff.

    >> did you know that day you were going to be going to war?

    >> i knew i was in the

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