On this morning 15 years ago, Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, announced the capture of Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, he made this announcement in a very weird way. At a press conference in Baghdad, Bremer stepped up to the podium, stood silent for a few seconds while surveying his audience, mostly members of the press, and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen … we got him.” Applause and cheers immediately broke out.
Bremer left Iraq shortly afterward, blamed for the state of turmoil in the country, which was attributed to a number of decisions that bore his signature, such as disbanding the Iraqi army shortly after the occupation began. He is now a ski instructor in Vermont. He is also a meme.
This past summer, Bremer’s iconic declaration, often translated into “we got ‘em,” became a viral catchphrase, deployed in posts and videos. It appears in varying contexts, but is most popularly used as a shorthand for callout posts — posts that out a user in one way or another.
In one popular video with more than 92 retweets and more than 5 million views, a Twitter user does the math on the rapper Drake’s relationship with a now-18-year-old model … who he’s been kinda flirty with for at least two years. 🤔 After the video lays out this sequence of events in screenshots, it cuts to Bremer, and then footage of a SWAT team raiding a house (which is actually from an energy-drink ad). It is soundtracked by the song “Baby I’m Yours” by French electronic producer Breakbot and vocalist Irfane, which sounds increasingly blown-out as the action rises (this aural texture is known online as “ear rape”), and whose beat drops after Bremer makes his announcement.
In a similar video, the rapper 6ix9ine tells a radio host that “I fear God, and I fear the FBI.” In November, he was arrested on racketeering and firearms charges. Ladies and gentlemen … we got ‘em.
There are many videos like this in similar but not identical use cases, each one punctuated by Bremer announcing “we got ‘em”. In some cases, it’s similar to Chris Hanson telling prospective child abusers to “have a seat” on To Catch a Predator. Some dredge up old, offensive tweets; others show users falling for the Ligma/Sucon/Bofa prank. (If you’re wondering, “What’s Bofa?”, the answer is, “Bofa deez nuts.” Sorry.) The meme is also often deployed in text form after getting a Twitter user gets suspended or a cat gets owned.
It helps that “Ladies and gentlemen … we got him” is a very odd way to announce that you’ve captured a dictator hiding in a secret bunker. The phrase combines high drama with avuncular showmanship, and has none of the stiff, bureaucratic posturing typically adopted by military officials and police officers when making formal statements. And everyone knew who “he” was, so Bremer could afford to be vague. Imagining, say, Obama applying the same sort of tone to his announcement of the Bin Laden raid makes the phrase even funnier.
Bremer told the Daily Beast that he learned about his recent online infamy from his teenage granddaughter. ““Many times I couldn’t figure out what the connection was with the announcement,” he told the site. “How are the words fitting into the memes?” In Bremer’s defense (words I never expected to write), there’s a lot going on here.
The transformation of Bremer’s announcement into a meme calls to mind “Bush did 9/11”, a concise summation of the conspiracy theory that hypothesizes that what appeared to be terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were actually devised or allowed by persons within the federal government. Like “we got ‘em,” the ironic catchphrase “Bush did 9/11,” repurposes a serious geopolitical event from the early 2000s for flippant humor. Some of the appeal of these jokes comes from the generation gap. Anyone who sees 9/11 or the start of the Iraq War primarily as fodder for humor is likely too young to have lived through it, and indeed, meme culture is largely driven by bored teenagers. The jokes are funny because of their winking impertinence, but also because they remind you that you are old.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on TikTok, on which “ladies and gentlemen … we got ‘em” has become a staple in pranks on you, the viewer, rather than on other users. In one popular use, two hand-drawn signs are placed in front of the camera, one blocking the other. As the Bremer audio plays, that sign is knocked out of the way to reveal, in essence, a slightly more complicated “not!” joke.
“I ♡ My Friends” a sign says in one video. It’s then knocked out of the way to reveal another one that says, “Sike! What friends!!” with a 👌(a reference to the circle game, if that was lost on you).
What typifies these clips, and often what fuels their appeal, is the homespun production value — folded notebook paper knocked out of the way by Nerf darts or flicked rubber bands, children hiding their identities by cinching their hoodies tightly around their faces, performing Fortnite emotes once the prank is complete. All of these lead one to assume that they cannot possibly have been alive or cognizant at the time of Bremer’s original declaration.
There are plenty of memes that gain resonance from deliberately misrepresenting other media, like mislabeled film stills or medieval paintings used in “that feel when” posts. In those cases, however, the misuse is deliberate. With the Bremer meme, man, I don’t know. “Ladies and gentleman, we got ‘em” is such a general statement that it could apply to anything. Internet users, by and large, do not often seek out context for memes — they just riff on what’s in front of them. For TikTok users, I’m not sure if the meme is nostalgic or if it just … is.
But for older users, we get to watch in real-time as recent history is ripped from its moorings and repurposed by younger generations. This has been happening on the internet, and in culture, forever (I am reminded of a once-famous GIF from the Dubya era in which Snoop Dogg dances in the background of an infamous Kent State shooting photo). Still, it’s strange to witness the process in action, how the internet compresses time even more drastically, turning historical moments into joke fodder at a faster and faster pace.