“Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq” opened at The Bronx Documentary Center on March 15, 2013. Afterwards, it was displayed at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Boston College Law School, and University of California at Irvine.
WHEN THE INVASION began in 2003, Lt. Tim McLaughlin drove a Marine Corps tank into Iraq. Writer Peter Maass and photographer Gary Knight drove SUVs rented from Hertz. This project is the result of their paths crossing in the Iraqi desert-turned-warzone. Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq is a multimedia exhibit that features McLaughlin’s remarkable war diaries along with photographs by Knight and texts by Maass. The exhibit is timed to the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Conceived and designed by Knight and Maass, the exhibit breaks new ground in documentary storytelling. The exhibit displays an innovative grid of 36 pages from McLaughlin’s diaries, each page blown up to poster-size. McLaughlin was at the Pentagon on 9/11, commanded a tip-of-the-spear tank during the invasion of Iraq, and his American flag was memorably draped on the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square in Baghdad. In the diary, McLaughlin writes of stumbling through the smoke-filled Pentagon after it was attacked, of the Iraqis shot and killed by his tank’s guns in 2003, and of the chaos when his flag was placed on the statue in front of a global television audience. The grid, which includes pages with pictures, maps and poems, operates as a text about war and also an artwork about war.
Because McLaughlin’s account is in his handwriting, rather than the flat look of a computer font, its impact is unusually personal and emotional. One of the diary pages describes the flag-raising at Firdos Square: “Swamped by mass of reporters—could not move/peace protester ‘How many children have you killed today.’ Capt. Lewis sent me back to get flag…Chin draped it over Saddam’s face…Got flag back—people tried to get it from me.” This will be the flag’s first public display since it was raised in Baghdad.
Other pages contain blunt descriptions of McLaughlin’s combat. “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.” When a car suddenly and mistakenly drove onto a contested road, McLaughlin notes that his tank disabled it with machine-gun fire: “Vehicle slowed down, swerved left off road + hit tree. Civilian shot 5 times in back + legs. Continued progress to Afaq.”
The exhibit evokes the invasion in a multi-dimensional way, with an innovative mix of visuals, text and sound. Maass and Knight, after encountering McLaughlin’s battalion in the first days of the invasion, reported on the battles it fought on its march to Baghdad; the exhibit includes their work. Knight’s photographs were featured in Newsweek, while Maass’s stories were published in The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. The exhibit also features a video installation using news footage from 2003 to enhance the atmosphere of the invasion era.
The exhibit is the result of an unusual collaboration between McLaughlin, Knight and Maass, who raised funding through a Kickstarter campaign and with the generous support of Canon USA. “We hope this exhibit brings people back to the invasion and shows them, directly and without the usual filters of the government or the press, what the invasion truly consisted of,” they said in a statement. “After ten years, we feel it is time for a thoughtful examination of the invasion before it is forgotten or romanticized.”
The Bronx Documentary Center, where the exhibit had its premiere, is a non-profit gallery and educational space devoted to documentary projects from around the globe. Located on the ground floor of a recently revitalized building in the South Bronx, the BDC aims to create an engaging environment for local and international photojournalists, artists, filmmakers, critics and educators committed to innovative methods of non-fiction storytelling. The War Diaries Project is grateful for the BDC’s support, as well as the crucial help of David Gross, Fiona Turner and Jonathan Wu. The exhibit’s move to Drexel University was completed with the support and encouragement of The Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies and The Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. It was on display at Boston College Law School thanks to the generous support of Holland & Knight.