Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Happened When Saddam’s Statue Came Down In Baghdad On April 9, 2003? The Creation Of An Iraq War Myth

On April 9, 2003, a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. The U.S. press focused upon this event as a sign that the Iraq war was over, and that Iraqis were welcoming their liberation at the hands of the Americans. This was an act of myth making because the idea for taking down the statue came from two Marine units, only a sparse number of Iraqis were even there, and fighting was still raging in the city, which would eventually turn into the insurgency. The role of the Marines was largely unknown at the time, but the rest were ignored because the media wanted an iconic image to finish off the war.
The fall of Saddam's statue became the news of the day on April 9, 2003 (AP)
The toppling of the Saddam statue was hailed throughout the American media. Tom Brokaw of NBC said that the event was like, “All the statues of Lenin [that] came down across the Soviet Union.” The Washington Post had the headline, “Iraqis Celebrate in Baghdad,” the New York Times went with “Jubilant Iraqis Swarm the Streets of Capital,” and the Boston Globe wrote, “It was liberation day in Baghdad.” CNN’s Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history … indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now: Regular Iraqis with their opportunity and their chance to take their own axe to take down Saddam Hussein.” Fox’s Brit Hume noted, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. … This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” All thought the event was a historical moment that they were excited to see. To them, it seemed like Iraqis were celebrating their freedom, and the fall of Saddam both figuratively and literally, just as the Bush administration had predicted.
The 3rd Marine Battalion enters Firdos Square. It was their idea to take down Saddam's statue (AFP)
The media portrayed the fall of the statue as an act of the Iraqi people, but it was really the U.S. military that was behind it in a spontaneous act. On the morning of April 9, a psychological warfare team attached to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Baghdad, decided to head towards Firdos Square. When they arrived there, they found some Iraqis and reporters milling around. Right across from the square was the Palestine Hotel where many Western reporters were staying. The 3rd Battalion had just arrived there, and then moved to the square as well. They saw a few Iraqis in front of the Saddam statue, which led one Marine to offer a sledgehammer to them to hit the edifice with. The battalion commander then decided to help the Iraqis take the statue down. First, the Iraqis began hitting the statue with the hammer, then the psychological warfare team broadcast their plan to pull it down in Arabic, while the Marines sealed off the square. The Iraqis tried toppling the statue on their own, but that failed. The Marines then drove an M88 tank recovery vehicle up to the statue. While attaching cables to it, a Marine hung an American flag over Saddam’s head. The psychological warfare team told him to take it off because they thought it would look bad for the assembled press. An old Iraqi flag was eventually found, and put on top of the statue instead. Then the M88 pulled it down. Some Marines then suggested that Iraqi children would look nice on the M88, and some were promptly found and photographed by the press. The whole process took around two hours, and there were long down periods where the Iraqis, Marines, and reporters were doing nothing, but milling around. Writer Peter Mass who was travelling with the 3rd Battalion at the time, also believed that many of the scenes seen that day were Iraqis acting out for the cameras. For example, when the Iraqis began hitting the statue with the Marine sledgehammer, journalists swarmed them. When they stopped taking photos however, the Iraqis stopped and walked away. After the event, there was some speculation that the Marines staged the entire thing. First hand accounts by a member of the psychological warfare team included in a postwar lessons learned report, and an article by Peter Maas dismissed these ideas. The psychological warfare team and the 3rd Battalion just happened to come across the statue, and decided to take it down spontaneously. There was no advanced planning going on that day, but the psychological warfare unit was aware of how the images would play out in the press, which led them to do things such as tell the Marine to take down the U.S. flag off of Saddam’s head and replace it with an Iraqi one. What actually happened was that the American press picked up on the story, and turned it into hyperbole.
The Marines gave the Iraqis a sledgehammer to hit the statue with (AP)
The Iraqis tried and failed to take down the statue themselves (AFP)
A Marine placed a U.S. flag on top of the statue's face (AP)
He was later told to take it down because it would look bad to the press, and was replaced by an Iraqi flag (AP)
A Marine M88 tank recovery vehicle finally pulled down the statue (AP)
  The first bit of distortion done by the media was to exaggerate how many Iraqis were in Firdos Square on April 9. The BBC approximated that there were only 200 people in attendance, a figure other sources seemed to roughly agree upon. Peter Mass estimated that 25-50% of those were reporters and Marines. He also noted that most of the Iraqis there were just standing around and watching, rather than being actively involved or celebrating. Reuters took a series of long-shot photos that day that showed that the square was almost empty, and sealed off by the Marines. Some TV reporters also noted the sparse crowd before the statue came down such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and anchors at Fox News. However, as soon as the statue came down the media began talking about far more, such as Simon Robinson on CNN who claimed that 1,500 were in attendance even though the Marines had not let anyone else in since they arrived. The press also tended to use close-up shots of the people immediately surrounding the statue to give the impression that there was a large crowd there. The use of close-in shots is common in the media, but some were obviously taken in by what they were seeing, and wanted to say that there were large numbers of Iraqis there that day to emphasize how important it was. This was a view not shared by many of the journalists actually in the square or those making close observations of it.
This wide angle-photo of Firdos Square shows the sparse crowd on April 9 (Reuters)
Next, journalists began overstating the relevance of the event. Ann Garrels of National Public Radio for instance, reported that there were hardly any Iraqis in the square, and they weren’t really celebrating when the statue came down, but were just standing around observing. She was then told by her editors to emphasize Iraqis acting joyful, because that was what they were seeing on TV. Of course, that was a distorted image itself, because as noted above, the networks were only showing a cropped view of the day’s proceedings. Photographer Gary Knight who was embedded with the 3rd Marine Battalion got a call from his editor demanding that he take pictures of the square because it was on TV. He told them there were few Iraqis in attendance, but they insisted anyway. One of the worse examples came from the San Francisco Chronicle. They took a story penned by Robert Collier, which originally said that there were only a couple dozen Iraqis there, who were not overwhelmed by the statue being toppled. The next day, he found out that his editors had re-written his piece, saying “A jubilant crowd roared its approval” when Saddam’s figure fell, and some shouted, “We are free! Thank you, President Bush!” Of course, none of that happened, and Collier was later quoted as saying that his editors wanted a victory scene so they created one out of their own imagination. They told him that he didn’t understand the importance of the scene, which was why they revised his story. Many of the reporters in Firdos did not think anything special of the day. It was those in other locations, like the TV anchors and the editors that wanted to make a big deal out of the statue’s fall, and proceeded to do so.
The toppling of Saddam's statue was often compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall by the media (Boston Globe)
This desire to find a glamorous image to juxtapose what the media thought was the end of the Iraq war, was a driving force according to a media analysis done by researchers at George Washington University. They argued that the fall of the Saddam statue became what they called a “victory Frame” for the press, which consisted of the use of historical metaphors, repeated use of the image, exaggeration of the event, and using it to claim that the war was over. The paper looked at CNN and Fox News coverage of Iraq, the two major 24-hour networks, from the week before the statue came down on April 9 to the week afterward. Both ran constant live coverage of Firdos Square on the 9th. From 11 a.m. to 8 pm. Fox played the image of the statue coming down on average every 4.4 minutes, and CNN showed it every 7.5 minutes. The anchors also constantly compared it to the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and the victory of capitalism versus communism in the Cold War. This was done 1 ½ times every thirty minutes between noon and 8 p.m. on both networks. Finally, the two top newsmen for the CNN and Fox, Wolf Blitzer and Brit Hume respectively, immediately started talking about the end of the war, and the postwar situation after the statue came down. The researchers found that in matters of war and foreign policy, the press tended to follow the lead of the government. In this case, it was pushing the line that Iraqis would greet the U.S. troops as liberators. When they saw images of Firdos Square, it appeared that the White House was right, and they exploited it for everything they could to push that argument. The military didn’t have to stage the event, because the press loves these types of images, and wants to be patriotic and supportive of the administration during times of war. In this case, some even went beyond exaggerating it to straight forward fabrication to create an Iraq that they imagined, and were conditioned to expect by the government.

The media whole heartedly believed that the fall of the statue symbolized the fall of Saddam’s regime, and in the following week drastically cut back their reporting on Iraq; completely missing what was going on in the country at that time. Fox News dropped their coverage of Iraq 70%, CNN’s went down 26%, ABC’s 66%, NBC’s 58%, and CBS’ 39%. On Fox, stories about fighting declined 79% in that week, and stories about strategy and tactics used in the war were reduced by 81%. Likewise at CNN, combat reporting declined 81%, and strategy and tactics pieces were down 89%. Stories of on-going fighting with visuals dropped 76% at Fox and 73% at CNN. This had a dramatic impact upon public opinion back in the United States, where those who thought the war was over jumped from 28% on April 8 to 41% on April 15, and support for Bush’s handling of the invasion went from 69% on April 3 to 76% after the statue fell. Of course, the war was not over, but much of the media was missing that because it was so caught up on Firdos Square. Even that day, the new Iraq was emerging. Some of the Iraqis who were cheering in the square turned out to be doing so for Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father who was killed by Saddam. One Iraqi who walked up to Peter Maas and told him he felt free, was later surrounded by a mob of Iraqis who accused him of being a Baathist spy. A Marine had to stop the crowd from killing him. Starting on the 9th, Baghdad began to be torn apart by looters, and in the following seven days 13 U.S. soldiers were killed, and thousands of Iraqis came out into the streets of Baghdad calling for the Americans to leave. Hardly any of that was noted at first, because the press and their editors were so enraptured by the tale they had spun about Saddam’s statue.
On April 18, 2003 thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad demanding that the U.S. leave (AFP)
The American media is a powerful institution. They can spin tales, and create their own history. That’s what happened on April 9 in Baghdad. Two U.S. Marine units spontaneously decided to take down a statue of Saddam they found, but the press spun it as an act of jubilant Iraqis celebrating their freedom from an oppressive dictator. This was compared to the end of the Cold War, and declared the victorious image of the end of the conflict. The fact that there was still fighting going on in the capital that day, and the looting had already begun was barley mentioned, and would take at least two weeks to sink in back in America, as the press began to reduce their reporting on Iraq thinking that it was all over. The media thus fooled themselves and the public, and played into the hands of the Bush administration that claimed Iraqis would welcome their liberation by the U.S. It would take a long time for both groups to figure out what was really happening in Iraq, as the fall of the former regime was ushering in not only a period of anarchy, but almost immediate resistance to the U.S. occupation. The victors in the White House and media were too busy celebrating to notice that at the time.


Aday, Sean, Cluverius, John, Livingston, Steven, “As goes the statue, so goes the war: the emergence of the victory frame in television coverage of the Iraq war,” Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 9/1/05

BBC, “In pictures: Saddam toppled,” 4/9/03

Boston Globe, “Toppling Saddam,” War in Iraq Photo Gallery

CNN, “Saddam statue toppled in central Baghdad,” 4/9/03

Fontenot, Col. Gregory, Degen, LTC E.J., Tohn, LTC David, “On Point, The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Center for Army Lessons Learned, 5/1/03

Gilbert, Matthew and Ryan, Suzzane, “Did iconic images from Baghdad reveal more about the media than Iraq?” Boston Globe, 4/10/03

Information Clearing House, “The photographs tell the story…,” 4/10/03

Maas, Peter, “The Toppling: How the Media Inflated the Fall of Saddam’s Statue in Firdos Square,” Pro Publica, 1/30/11

Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John, Weapons Of Mass Deception, New York: Penguin, 2003

Source Watch, “Toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein,” 2003

Zucchino, David, “Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue,” Los Angeles Times, 7/3/04


Harry Barnes said...

Note -

Joel Wing said...

Harry, it's nothing new. Almost every year the PKK picks up operations during the summer seasons and Turkey goes on the offensive. They were already shelling the border earlier this year when Iran was crossing the border.

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