What did this act mean for you?
For all our misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, it was surely a moment of relief to see the capture of Baghdad go so smoothly. Perhaps there was even some satisfaction at the overthrow of a vile dictator, neatly symbolised by the tearing down of his statue.
But for many, the meaning of the act was transformed when one of the US Marines decided to plant the American flag on Saddam’s head. Gone was the sense of a people liberated; instead, the act now suggested triumphalism, even imperialism.
The crowd fell silent, the Marines understood their mistake, and they moved quickly to replace the American flag with an Iraqi one. But by then the PR damage was done. Later allegations that the entire event (excluding the flag debacle) was staged for the cameras by a US psychological operations team presented another, more cynical lens through which to view the act.
After a decade of chaos in Iraq, the meaning evoked by that act has shifted still further. Now we see hubris — pride just asking for a fall. The rope around Saddam’s neck has an uncomfortable resonance given the dictator’s subsequent fate.
But the main reason I’ve come back to this 2003 event is a recent encounter with a much older image:
The painting is entitled The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410. The statue represents civilisation under attack; the men tearing it down are, well, barbarians. The historical context is quite different of course, but the uncanny resemblance does offer still another lens with which to consider the invasion of an ancient city by a bellicose and culturally alien nation. It may not be a fair comparison, but that isn’t the point. What’s interesting is how the meaning of an act — the truth as perceived by onlookers everywhere — can change dramatically as a result of the brief flourish of a flag, the impact of later events and allegations, or even a coincidental resemblance to an unrelated image.