A multimedia exhibition telling the story of the Iraq War through the perspectives of a Marine, a reporter and a photojournalist, “Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq,” opened May 15 with a panel discussion in the URBN Center Annex.
The exhibition, currently on display in the URBN Center lobby, includes diary pages from Marine Lt. Timothy McLaughlin, texts by journalist and author Peter Maass, and photographs by Gary Knight of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was brought to Philadelphia by Drexel’s Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies and the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
The discussion, led by Rudman Institute Executive Director Karen Curry, included the details of how the exhibition came to fruition and why the exhibit is important, as well as the panelists’ personal opinions on the Iraq War, post-traumatic stress disorder and the media today.
In 2003, Maass and Knight were reporting on the Iraq invasion with the same battalion in which McLaughlin was serving as a tank commander. Although they didn’t meet during the war, their paths would eventually intersect in 2008 when Maass was assigned to write a story about the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. When the statue was toppled in 2003, one marine put an American flag on the head of the statue.
“When I started researching this story, trying to reconstruct what happened, how that flag got there, how the statue was toppled, who gave the orders and how this kind of image was created in the media, I needed to find the flag guy. That was one of the threads that I needed to follow,” Maass said.
After some investigation, Maass learned that McLaughlin was the marine who placed the flag on the statue. Maass and McLaughlin met and got to know each other, and in 2009 McLaughlin took Maass to his parents’ home in Cambridge, N.H., where the flag was kept in a safe deposit box. While at McLaughlin’s parents’ home, McLaughlin showed Maass some of his military equipment and things he kept from the Iraq War. In his trunk of souvenirs laid two diaries he kept during the invasion of Iraq.
“You start working on something and cover something, and then something that you don’t even expect to happen, happens,” Maass said.
Maass showed the diaries to Knight, who saw the pages not only as a great story but as works of art. From here, the idea of combining each of their “versions” of the war into one exhibit was realized.
“There were so many different versions of the same event. There’s a bunch of us traveling in these cars up to Baghdad, and we witnessed everything differently and we bring our accumulated experience. I’m a photographer, Peter’s a writer, Tim’s a Marine; and I realized in the diaries that this was another version of history that we all shared,” Knight said.
McLaughlin was 25 when he wrote the diaries. The pages include light things like a picture of a young woman that McLaughlin was dating at the time and a letter he wrote to a Victoria’s Secret model. The pages also included the more serious aspects of McLaughlin’s war, like a letter to the parents of one of his Marines who was shot in the leg during an accidental fire, when he accidentally shot a civilian cab driver, as well as a list of events that changed McLaughlin’s life.
“It’s a little weird for me, to be honest. I didn’t write the diaries for you to read them,” McLaughlin said about having his diary pages on display. “When I explain to you what it is, it’s a third person explaining it to you. It’s not 2003 Tim anymore. It’s a different experience for me that I didn’t expect.”
McLaughlin left the Marine Corps in 2006 and said he had a lot of trouble transitioning. “I moved to Bosnia so I could go someplace more normal for me, which should sound weird to you.”
After coming home from Bosnia in 2009, McLaughlin said he had nightmares constantly and couldn’t sleep. Finally, in 2010, his wife told him to go get help. “Think about a 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound war-veteran marine going up to the mental health floor. That was not an easy thing for me to do,” he said.
“If you go see a doctor in the military, we call it going to see the wizard. You probably guessed that that’s not a good connotation. You’ll get made fun of, you probably won’t get promoted, and you certainly won’t be in command of anything,” he said.
“My goal is to stand here and tell you, … on the credential list, I wear everything that I need to wear. And I tell you that I have PTSD, or whatever you want to call it, because it’s normal, and it shouldn’t be a stigma. And people should understand that when you ask [a Marine] to go do these things at 18 years old, he’s going to be affected,” McLaughlin said.
“It’s not post-traumatic stress ‘disorder’ … it would be a ‘disorder’ if I was not affected. I would be Charles Manson if I had had my experiences and wasn’t bothered by them,” he said.
McLaughlin was candid in explaining his opinion of the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying that the bureaucracy of getting seen by a doctor is too much. “The people of this country need to do a better job of making sure that the VA is there to catch people who aren’t as fortunate as me,” he said. “I’m a bright guy, and I’m capable and I can take care of myself. There are lots of people with my experiences who didn’t get as lucky as I did. … I don’t know what you think about the VA, but it doesn’t really work that well. They mean well, [but it] doesn’t work.”
McLaughlin, Maass and Knight all had a hand in picking which diary pages, photographs and texts would complete the exhibit. “It was hard because there are three of us and not one of us,” Maass joked. They wanted the exhibit to reflect their versions of reality, so they didn’t include outside producers, directors or curators.
Maass said the exhibit is a new way to tell a story. He said he hopes that people come away from the exhibit thinking about how old stories can be told in different ways because the old ways aren’t as effective. “Be experimental; find new ways of telling the same old stories because it hasn’t sunken in yet,” Maass said.
“There’s a lot of imagery; there’s a lot of video. A lot of great stories have been written about some of the war in Iraq, but what [the exhibit] does, I hope, is personalize that in some way and give you a different lens through which you can look at this war,” Knight said. “We’re just three ordinary guys who found ourselves in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time.”
The exhibit premiered previously at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York from March 14 to April 19. It will be on display in Drexel University’s URBN Center lobby May 15-23. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a photo ID will be required to enter the building after 3 p.m. The full contents of McLaughlin’s diaries can be viewed at wardiaries.org.