The Truth About Iconic 2003 Saddam Statue-Toppling

ProPublica/New Yorker investigation finds the media got it wrong

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What if the 2003 toppling of a large Saddam Hussein statue in central Baghdad, one of the most iconic and oft-repeated images of the Iraq invasion and ensuing war, wasn't what we thought? It has been widely portrayed as a moment of spontaneous Iraqi celebration of the U.S. invasion and Saddam's ousting. But a joint Pro Publica and New Yorker investigation concludes that the media, led on by a U.S. military hungry for good publicity, distorted the events at Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.

"Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception," writes Peter Maass, who was at the square on that day and now calls the media treatment of the toppling a "disservice to the truth." Here are the story's key points. Read the whole thing here.

  • Media Vastly Exaggerated Attendance  Though we're all familiar with the photos of a crowded-seeming square, ProPublica reproduces photos showing that the square was actually mostly empty, but that media portrayals used tight-focus shots of a small cluster of people to suggest it was packed. Maass adds, "very few Iraqis were there. If you were at the square, or if you watch the footage, you can see, on the rare occasions long shots were used, that the square was mostly empty. You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines." Of even the small number of Iraqis there, Maass says most were subdued, standing with their arms crossed. "Closeups filled the screen with the frenzied core of the small crowd and created an illusion of wall-to-wall enthusiasm throughout Baghdad. It was an illusion that reflected only the media’s yearning for exciting visuals." But that just isn't accurate.
  • U.S. Provided the Sledgehammer and Iraqi Flag  A thirty-five-year-old gunnery sergeant named Leon Lambert, who commanded an M-88 military tow truck, gave the Iraqis the iconic sledgehammer used to knock down the statue. "If a sledgehammer and rope fell off the 88, would you mind?" Lambert asked his superior. As for the flag, it's "One of the Firdos myths" that Iraqis brought an Iraqi flag to put over the statue. Another myth is that it was brought by a U.S. "psyops team." In fact it belonged to Marine lieutenant Casey Kuhlman, who happened to be in the area and had decided that an Iraqi flag should replace the U.S. flag that had briefly covered the face on Saddam's statue.
  • Media Ignored More Important News for 'Upbeat' Story  Maass says that, in the rush to cover the state-toppling, the media ignored or avoided far grimmer--and more important--stories: "On that day, Baghdad was violent and chaotic. The city was already being looted by swarms of people using trucks, taxis, horses, and wheelbarrows to cart away whatever they could from government buildings and banks, museums, and even hospitals. There continued to be armed opposition to the American advance." But, "The networks almost never broke away from Firdos Square"
  • News Editors Pushed Story Reporters Said Was Bogus  "A visual echo chamber developed: rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV," Maass writes. He chronicles several examples of editors ordering journalists to cover the story, which reporters warned wasn't real news. One photojournalist told his editor that "few Iraqis were involved and the ones who were seemed to be doing so for the benefit of the legions of photographers; it was a show. The editor told him to get off the phone and start taking pictures."
  • Study Finds that Media Failure at Firdos Worsened War Oversight  Maass cites the study:
Among the handful of studies of Firdos Square, the most incisive was George Washington University’s, led by Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs. It concluded that the coverage had “profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America.” According to the study, the saturation coverage of Firdos Square fuelled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less. "Whereas battle stories imply a war is going on, statues falling--especially when placed in the context of truly climactic images from recent history--imply the war is over," the study noted.

...Without the erroneous finality of the statue falling, this argument goes, the notion of "Mission Accomplished" would have been more difficult to assert; the Bush Administration would have had a harder time dismissing an insurgency that, for a fatal interlude, it all but ignored.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.