A simple flag is a cornerstone to memories of Marine's time in Iraq
-- Smoke pouring from his Pentagon workplace.
-- A simple battle respite turned into a media circus.
-- A quick trigger finger that kills innocent Iraqis; hesitation that renders a fellow Marine dead.
-- And one of his most personal items - a flag carried into combat - wrapped into and warped by the diatribe of any blogger, writer or commentator who wants to write about the war.
McLaughlin grew up in Laconia and is the son of former Attorney General Phil McLaughlin. Last month, a small museum in the Bronx opened an exhibit, the centerpiece of which is the diary that he kept during his time in Iraq.
"Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq" runs until Friday at the Bronx Documentary Center. The exhibit also includes photographs by McLaughlin and the work of two journalists he met in Iraq - news photographer Gary Knight and New Yorker writer Peter Maass.
The diary follows the hectic moments at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when McLaughlin, now 35, glimpsed the black smoke while returning from a morning run. And it gives a sometimes poignant, sometimes amusing narrative from a Marine commander whose tank battalion was involved in the early days of the Iraqi invasion.
"I can't move, this place is pandemonium," he wrote in Firdos Square, the Baghdad square in the early, elated days of the invasion by the coalition of U.S. and allied forces. "Guy peace volunteer jumped up on tank. I almost killed him w/M-16 - scared the life out of him. Brought him back up to greet him and apologize for startling him."
The diary includes sketches, such as a maps of Firdos Square and the Pentagon. There is a draft of a letter he wrote to Victoria's Secret asking a model to write him, to no avail. There is a poem about a childhood field where he played and the memories that will live there once he dies.
And in a chilling juxtaposition, a page with a humorous rendition of "12 Days of Christmas" - ("Seven camels thieving, Six days of waiting, Five feet of visibility . ") - faces a page with a hand-written spreadsheet of how 70 people were killed.
The word "Kills" is scratched onto the page in sharp, graffiti-like, block letters that take up the bottom half of the page.
McLaughlin said he wrote because he was bored. His battalion had been in Kuwait for at least two months before the invasion began. And as an officer, his rank prevented him from participating in the camaraderie of war-bound enlisted men.
But he had a pen and an extra military notebook.
"There was no access to email, no computers," he said. "2003 was right around the turning point of the world, just at the end of the analog age."
Unbeknownst to McLaughlin, his role at Firdos Square became a media sensation. In the bottom of McLaughlin's gear was a U.S. flag. When asked by a captain, he fished it out and gave it to a corporal, who wrapped the flag around the face of a towering statue of Saddam Hussein.
Within minutes, the statue was down, and images of a stars-and-stripes hood over Hussein were broadcast around the world.
The diary reads: "Got Flag back - people tried to get it from me - London Times Reporter talked to me - advise to keep out of sight, out of mind."
Ten years later, he is still trying to do so. For years, he kept it in a safe-deposit box in Laconia. The flag makes it into the exhibit occasionally, and McLaughlin said he realizes the symbolism attached to it. To Iraqis, it is a sign of the invaders; to "left-leaning Howard Dean Democrats," it is a sign of American oppression; to the Tea Party, a sign of everything right about America.
To McLaughlin, it's his flag.
"I never intended it to have the symbolism it had in the world," said McLaughlin. Just last week, he was disputing media reports that claimed he refused to lend the flag to the National Marine Corps Museum.
"I'm not going to give my flag away; it's mine. But lend it to the Marines for an exhibit, I have no problem with that," he said.
McLaughlin was a Marine for six and a half years. He went on to get a law degree and lives and works in the Boston area. He is the president of the board of directors of Shelter Legal Services, a Boston-based organization that provides legal services to homeless veterans.
He, Knight and Maass designed the exhibit themselves using $20,000 raised through Kickstarter, an online service that raises money for creative projects.
"New York City gets a lot of the focus of the world," McLaughlin said. "We didn't have it in Manchester because it would generate less attention." The exhibit will go to Drexel University in early May, and a few other universities have expressed interest, as have museums in France and the United Kingdom.
McLaughlin said he doesn't know whether the United States should have gone to war, and he designed the exhibit to not render a judgment either way. He said he wants people to realize the "unforgiving violence" he experienced as a Marine in Iraq.
"Shoot a few seconds too soon, and you kill a civilian," he said. "Hesitate, and another Marine dies."
Also part of the exhibit is the paperwork detailing his PTSD diagnosis. But McLaughlin disputes one part of the paperwork, the part that labels post-traumatic distress a "disorder."
"It's a normal reaction," he said, "to killing people."