"And the flag--it was on the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11. That was the same flag, and me being from New York, it kind of all goes together a little bit."
--Corporal Edwin Chin, United States Marines
The draping of the U.S. flag over the statue of Saddam Hussein yesterday was, obviously, an award-winning experiment in mixing arrogance with stupidity. Among those hostile to Americans, it will be remembered for a very long time as the moment when the United States accidentally revealed the truth, and then scrambled to cover it up. That gesture contained plenty of fuel for those who want to hate the United States, and also enough spark to ignite new hatreds, no doubt. As the U.S. conquered a major Arab city for the first time in its history, filling the entire Muslim world with increased anxiety, Corporal Chin found just the right match to throw into the tinderbox.
And, of course, there can be no better symbol of our Commander in Chief's cluelessness about and insensitivity toward those who fall outside his personal experience. It's been reported that he was watching the statue event closely on television. I wonder if someone had to tell him that the effacement of Saddam with Old Glory was actually something to cause worry, not joy--or if, maybe, Bush knew enough to contain his rush of pride and shake his head with concern.
But what is most shocking about the flag scandal is that, contrary to the spin it is getting in the U.S. media, it was not the impulsive act of a soldier caught up in the emotion of the moment. Rather, it was a premeditated act of symbolism.
This iconic moment in Baghdad was a stage-managed spectacle from the start, arranged so that the media could reflect the Pentagon's preferred emphasis in this war--that it is a liberation of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator. The statue falls, the people cheer. Considering that the Marines really were freeing the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator, this scene should not have been a very hard scene to stage.
The first hitch in the production apparently happened when the extras failed to show up at the call time. But that doesn't spell disaster, necessarily. Hollywood has techniques to deal with this sort of thing. When you have a non-crowded location that looks like this:
You just avoid the wide shot from a high angle (the picture above is from the BBC). You put the camera at the level of the "crowd" and use long lenses that limit the field of vision of the camera eye. In Baghdad, the media were happy to oblige--they know that "The Iraqi People Topple Saddam Hussein" is a better movie than "Three Dozen Iraqis and a Hundred U.S. Marines Topple a Statue." They wanted the script to work. The players are nothing without a script, and it's the only one they had.
But even with the eagerness of the embedded film crews and the utter simplicity of the script as written, the United States still managed to fuck it up, by unwittingly telling a story that is more compelling than the story it was trying to tell. The United States revealed that it has written itself into a tragedy, by revealing that necessary element of all tragedies, the tragic flaw.
The U.S. in this story is a mix of classic tragedy heroes--Hamlet, driven mad by suspicion of past treachery (which, within that story, did in fact happen); and Othello, driven mad by certainty of past treachery (which, within that story, did not happen). The U.S. population is partly suspicious that, and mostly certain that, Saddam Hussein is responsible for 9-11.
The biggest news story of the United States versus Iraq has never been examined by our news media. That story is that over half of the people in the United States believe that Saddam Hussein is responsible for the September 11 attacks. The media know that poll after poll confirms this fact. They know that the people of the United States are, bizarrely, less accurately informed about an attack on their own country than people in other countries are. And the U.S. media know that we likely would not be at war if the people of the United States did not labor under this misapprehension. And they know that their uncritical delivery of Bush Administration propaganda is responsible.
They failed to report, and we decided: Saddam Hussein did 9-11.
It's a delusion. It is utterly demented. Like Othello, we are so blinded by our emotions that we can't even see straight. Like Iago, whom Othello comes to believe is the only person he can trust, the Bush Administration has manipulated us to the point that all we can rely on is what Bush tells us. We're so traumatized by 9-11, and our fears have been stoked so purposefully ever since, that all Bush has to do is point to Desdemona's handkerchief--"Don't you remember 9-11?"--and we will fly into an unthinking rage.
Like that handkerchief, the flag Corporal Chin draped over Saddam Hussein's face was a planted prop. It wasn't just lying around in a tank by accident. It was the flag that was flying at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Someone with a high rank must have made sure that particular flag went with the invading Marines instead of to the Smithsonian or the National Archives. This is not a decision that can be made by an impulsive corporal.
Clearly, for the Pentagon (did the idea go all the way up to President Bush?), the flag was an important symbol. It was a symbol of the United States' bringing things full circle--finally achieving vengeance for that awful day. And who but an American would look at that thought process and fail to see a pathetic dysfunction--understandable, perhaps, but a type of mental illness nonetheless.
If this Baghdad scene were being staged in an ampitheater in ancient Greece, one can imagine what the audience would be feeling the moment the flag came out of the backpack. Dread. "He's not going to--oh, my God, he is." And the audience winces, and reflexively turns away for a moment, not wanting to see what happens next.
The reckless action resonates at ever deeper levels as the drama continues. First, as Chin puts the flag on the statue's face, the crowd on stage immediately hushes. Like a man who has told a bad joke, Chin looks dumbly out at the crowd, wondering what's wrong. For the onstage crowd, Chin's action is an insult and a reminder of just how alien the invaders/liberators are. But the Greek audience watching this play from an aesthetic distance knows even more than the crowd does--it knows what the flag means to Chin and to most Americans, and that's what fills the gesture with tragic meaning. Even at a moment that could at least appear to be pure in its altruism, the U.S., compulsively, insists on revealing its selfishness and dementia. Our symbol of freedom becomes an emblem of our slavery to an insane idea.
The Baghdad scene isn't the climactic moment of the play--just a reminder of the risks ahead to this unstable protagonist, a reminder that one of the forces of antagonism in this drama is contained within the hero's own self. And, of course, the flag-draping moment of hubris also performs another vital dramatic function--it inflames the outside forces of antagonism, too, ensuring that the story will keep on turning.
[This essay, originally titled "The United States' Tragic Flaw," was re-published in the book Fair & Balanced: A Play in One Act and Other Short Works. It was updated here on 9-6-03 with original pictures to replace broken links, slightly edited text, and the new title.]