US Lieutenant Timothy McLaughlin’s Iraq diary is not an introspective journal, but 10 years after the invasion its terse, staccato account of a young man’s war holds a powerful charge.
The telegraphic style of the entries, jotted in a small notebook embossed with the Marine Corps seal, leaves the reader with a lot of work to do, and a new exhibition in New York shows it is all the more powerful for that.
The death toll among the Iraqi fighters who confront the 25-year-old junior officer’s unit is high, but the diary does not linger on the details.
“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,” he writes.
In another encounter his tank engages a car: “Vehicle slowed down, swerved left off road + hit tree. Civilian shot 5 times in back + legs. continued progress to Afaq.”
The 36 pages of the diary meticulously record all aspects of McLaughlin’s daily grind in the same dry style: lists, instructions, schedules, battles, a song, accounts of around 70 deaths, his thoughts about Iraqis.
For the exhibition the pages have been blown up as wall panels accompanied by photographs and explanatory texts to better site the story in the history of the conflict. It takes visitors into the heart of the war.
Mclaughlin’s Marines were among the first US troops in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003 and their unit’s flag was the one hoisted onto a statue of Saddam Hussein before it was symbolically toppled.
“Swamped by mass of reporters – could not move/peace protester +how many children have you killed today+,” the diary reads.
Images from the square were seen by millions of television viewers around the world, and formed part of the intense international debate about the rights and wrongs of the war and US policy.
Politics was not what interested Mclaughlin when he wrote the diary, but now, even if he is not comfortable with all that the account says about him as a younger man, he thinks his unvarnished account can serve a purpose.
“For most people in the military, they detach themselves from political decisions that are being made, so I didn’t think about the political question at all, my country said go, my job is to go,” he told AFP.
He talks of the nightmares he still suffers, and of the errors that still haunt him, errors that he says cost the lives of a fellow Marine and many Iraqi civilians.
Officially, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But he sees things differently.
“It’s not a disorder, it’s a natural reaction to combat experiences,” he says. “If you were not affected by it, that might be a disorder.
“To send young 18- and 25-year-olds to go kill people at war, to expect them to come home with no consequences, that’s not what is natural.”
McLaughlin agreed to share his diary on the tenth anniversary of a war that America seems keen to forget, in the hope that the population as a whole might better understand what he and his comrades experienced.
“There is a disconnect in my country between people who serve and everybody else, who only see those experiences through movies or politicians on the news,” he said.
McLaughlin wants American civilians to “think a little bit more critically about the decision to go to war and what it means for the people in Iraq or the people in Bosnia, or wherever.”
“It affects the people who live there, and it affects the young people who are sent to fight to wars,” he argues.
The idea for the exhibit came from American journalist Peter Maass, to whom McLaughlin showed his worn-out, forgotten notebook kept in the trunk of an old car, grains of sand still stuck between the pages.
Maass, who worked for the New York Times Magazine, had met McLaughlin in Iraq and followed his marine battalion until its entry into Baghdad. The third author of the exhibition is British photographer Gary Knight.