Peter Maass, The Toppling

January 05, 2011  |  permalink

The Psychological Operations Myth

In 2004 the Army published a report that credited a psychological operations team with playing a crucial role at Firdos Square. A Los Angeles Times story about the report, headlined “Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue,” circulated widely on the web, fueling the notion that the toppling was a psyop trick. But the Army was wrong, and the L.A. Times was wrong. I interviewed the psyop team leader, Staff Sgt. Brian Plesich, and he acknowledged that his team arrived at the square well after the toppling began; video from Firdos shows Plesich’s distinctive Humvee, with loudspeakers on its roof, arriving an hour-and-half after the first tanks. The Army report credited Plesich with getting an Iraqi flag on the statue, but this was wrong, too; a Marine, Casey Kuhlman, did it. Click “Continue Reading” to see the section of my story that clears up the psyop myth.

One of the battalion’s lieutenants, Casey Kuhlman, had also realized that the American flag would not be a welcome symbol for Iraqis and other Arabs. Kuhlman had acquired an Iraqi flag during the invasion. “I grabbed it and started going up to the statue,” he recalled. “And I didn’t get but ten or twenty metres when an older Iraqi man grabbed it from me and it sort of got passed through the crowd and then went up. I thought, My souvenir is gone. But this is a little bit better than a souvenir.” His flag helped create one of the Firdos myths. Staff Sergeant Brian Plesich, the leader of an Army psychological-operations team, arrived at Firdos after the sledgehammer-and-rope phase had begun. He saw the American flag go up and had the same reaction as Kuhlman: get an Iraqi flag up. Plesich, whom I interviewed last year, told his interpreter to find an Iraqi flag. The interpreter waded into the crowd, and soon an Iraqi flag was raised. Plesich assumed that the Iraqi flag had got there because of his initiative, and in 2004 the Army published a report crediting him. The report was picked up by the news media (“ARMY STAGE-MANAGED FALL OF HUSSEIN STATUE,” the headline in the Los Angeles Times read) and circulated widely on the Web, fuelling the conspiracy notion that a psyops team masterminded not only the Iraqi flag but the entire toppling. Yet it was Kuhlman who was responsible for the flag. Plesich’s impact at Firdos was limited to using the loudspeakers on his Humvee to tell the crowd, once the statue had been rigged to fall, that until everyone moved back to a safe distance the main event would not take place.

About The Toppling by Peter Maass

On April 9, 2003, American Marines toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square in Baghdad. Broadcast across the world, the event symbolized what was thought to be an American victory in Iraq. My reconstruction, written with support from ProPublica and the Shorenstein Center, was published in The New Yorker. This section contains documents, photos, videos and links related to the story.

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