Iraq's Cultural Catastrophe
Scarcely a week ago, massive statues of Saddam Hussein were being toppled and American tanks were surging through the streets of Baghdad, amidst what seemed to be widespread cheers from the Iraqi people for their American "liberators." Vindicated by the dizzying conquest over Saddam and all those antiwar curmudgeons, impatient neocons were quick to gloat:
"…on the day American troops were greeted by cheering Iraqis, Antiwar.com's Christopher Deliso wrote about the swelling frustration of the Muslim world. You'd think the Iraqis weren't Muslim. His fellow Antiwar.com writer, Justin Raimondo, spent his column writing about a conquering American imperialism, posted just as it became clear that the Iraqi people didn't have to be conquered. Journalists in the print media fared little better. For example, Molly Ivins tore into the American administration in her own syndicated column, criticizing the government for listening to Iraqi émigrés and believing the Iraqis would welcome the invading coalition with open arms. ' Anyone who has studied the history of emigre groups knows the endless infighting and delusional quality of the emigre culture,' she wrote, but the welcome of our troops was hardly a delusion."
Yet the neocons have been discredited practically overnight, as was to be expected of people who have absolutely no understanding of reality beyond the Beltway. The word on the street, in the bombed neighborhoods of Baghdad, is simply that, "everyone here now wants to kill Americans." Clearly, there is little love for the "liberators" right now.
The fairy tale of a quick, heroic liberation that would inspire orderly celebrations from the Iraqi people was not borne out. The Pentagon stage-manages pro-American rallies, while tacitly censoring the spontaneous anti-American ones. US-backed political candidates are treated with apprehension, and religious ones are torn to pieces by their flock, as unrest spreads into fatal riots. Indeed, restoring "Iraqi rule" is proving chaotic at best. While the war is said to be over, significant pro-Saddam strongholds remain.
In other words, instead of being a week of thanksgiving, it has been a week of murder, mayhem and senseless destruction and one that has struck the very soul of Iraqi civilization.
The Business of War
All of us, whether we know it or not, have suffered from the destruction and looting of Baghdad's National Museum and libraries. This is something that goes far beyond the comprehension of the political planners and "democracy builders." Destroying priceless monuments to human civilization in the name of deposing Saddam belies the fact that he or any other leader is ephemeral, a mere caretaker. It was impossible to attack the modern state of Iraq without at the same time endangering the richest archaeological area in the world. The fact that the attack was made regardless shows the level of appreciation that the United States has for world culture.
In only days, the priceless remains of 7,000 years of human history vanished. And the ostensible American liberators of the Iraqi people who have sworn to protect their true interests stood aside and did nothing while the destruction proceeded apace. However, it is telling to note that, from day one, they did not rest a second until southern Iraq's precious oil installations had been secured.
That said, Colin Powell's hurried announcement that the US will help recover scattered antiquities offers little consolation for the Iraqis. Besides, it merely distracts attention from the hard reality. As Peter Grieve put it in a White House internet letter of 2 January, "…war is serious business, more serious than Mesopotamian archaeology, I'm afraid." Indeed, war is a business, and this particular war is more about business than any other. So why should we let piddling concerns about "culture" get in the way?
A Fundamental Need for the Past
The fact that the planet Mars is this week closer to Earth than it has been for the last 73,000 years has helped the internet's antiwar astrologers explain away the current violence and mayhem consuming the world. It seems just as reasonable a suggestion as anything else in these truly baffling times.
Whatever the explanation, it is clear that today we are far, far away from anything resembling humanity. War's first and greatest evil is, of course, the needless loss of human life. However, war's real crime against humanity is the destruction of cultural treasures. This kind of destruction is irrevocable and total, eliminating the ties of a people with all of the generations who have come before them. It tends to coarsen people, to debase their values; it robs the imagination and stifles curiosity about those things past that have brought us to where we are today.
While it may be interpreted differently by different people, history is vital to the whole of humanity. And, when its physical traces whether they be in the form of monuments, manuscripts, churches or anything else are destroyed, the lives of present and future generations are impoverished. Perhaps the neocons will be proven right, and the Iraqi people will be enriched beyond their wildest dreams by exploitation of the country's oil. To be sure, there is no arguing with the fact that improving infrastructure, health care and the general prosperity are noble goals. However, they are not the only ones. The Americans, while claiming to want the best for the Iraqi people, have made the mistake of confusing the latter's desires with their own.
Those Damn Ay-rabs!
This oversight is hardly surprising. Having almost no history of its own, America is ignorant, almost contemptuous of that of other peoples. Take the indolent soldier who, upon hearing Robert Fisk's futile plea for help, drawled absent-mindedly, "this guy says that some Biblical library is on fire:"
"…the Americans did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for Ottoman troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all of them in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National Archives and then the Qur'anic library of the ministry, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased.
Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed? When I caught sight of the Qur'anic library burning there were flames 100 feet high bursting from the windows I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines' civil affairs bureau, to report what I had seen. An officer shouted to a colleague that, "this guy says some Biblical (sic) library is on fire." I gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic and English of the fire, I said that the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn't an American at the scene and the flames were now shooting 200 feet into the air."
The Pentagon: 'Caught Unprepared'
Now, in the aftermath of this destruction, we hear something that cannot qualify even as a lame excuse: "…the Pentagon admitted that it had been caught unprepared by the widespread looting of antiquities, despite months of warnings from scholars and archaeologists worldwide."
Funny that. Well before the war, public appeals had been made by international scholars, as well as by 18 Iraqi archaeologists and 15 of the world's leading museums and universities. They urged that the US not target historical sites, while at the same time sought to remind of Iraq's cultural riches and the very real possibility of looting. On 28 March, a declaration was signed by more than 100 distinguished American and European academics, which referred to "the grave danger to the priceless heritage of Iraq by military action."
That the Americans failed to protect Iraq's museums is inexcusable. Not only was it predicted by the experts, it also had precedent; in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, a great deal of antiquities went missing a fact that caused an international group of archaeologists to recently plead with the UN and UNESCO to demand that American troops secure the museums. Instead, the soldiers bombed the museums and/or abetted the looting. As one report noted, "…armored vehicles were positioned on the nearby street, manned by U.S. Marines. They did nothing to stop Tuesday's continuing trickle of looters."
However, there is no reason to expect much from them. The average grunt is young and, while highly trained and specifically educated, not necessarily very aware of another culture's heritage. While his interests might be broader if he were coming for a vacation, protecting antiquities is not generally in the Army job description.
Although the link has unfortunately disappeared, one article from the beginning of the war summed things up perfectly. It told of a young soldier's odyssey through the barren Iraqi desert. He compared his surroundings unfavorably to his own hometown in the US, which at least had "two fast food restaurants." The same area, a British journalist remarked wryly, had seen advanced civilizations at a time "when Northern Europeans were still walking around in bearskins."
The Catalogue of Destruction
It is not only that the Americans foster neglect and willful ignorance of culture, however. That would be bad enough. Worse, it seems that they went out of their way to target historical sites, for example completely destroying the Takrit Museum outside Baghdad:
"…since the commencement of the war, and according to the Iraqi representative of UNESCO, the Takrit National Museum with its collection of Islamic objects which date back to the time of Salaheddin is not the only building destroyed. Two governmental palaces of historical value, which date from the Abbassid era, as well as the Zohour (flower) Palace and its Royal Museum, which tells the history of the monarchy in Iraq with a collection of official royal wearing apparel, queens' robes, and personal possessions and utilitarian objects, have also collapsed under the weight of the bombardment and been transformed into mounds of rubble.
The 13th-century University of Al-Mustansriya, a 16th-century revered Shi'ite mosque called Al-Kadhimain, and the Arch of Cetesiphon in Baghdad have also been hit.
On day 14 of the war, Information Minister Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, addressing the Shi'a community on Iraq's satellite TV channel, announced that the aggressors (referring to Anglo-American forces) in Najaf had bombarded an area close to the mausoleums of both Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohamed, and Imam Al-Hussein, his grandson, as well as the shrine of his brother Al-Abbassi. The bombs had shaken the ground beneath them and weakened their foundations, and threatened the holy buildings with collapse."
Liberated at Last!
Nevertheless, the Iraqi people have been "liberated," have they not? Just ask the 41 year-old artist encountered in the ruins of the National Library: "…I can't express the sorrow I feel. This is not real liberation."
On Tuesday, this erstwhile center of learning was "ransacked and gutted." The "smoldering shell" of the library testified to the fact that "…a nation's intellectual legacy (had) gone up in smoke":
"…the three-story, tan brick National Library building, dating to 1977, housed all books published in Iraq, including copies of all doctoral theses. It preserved rare old books on Baghdad and the region, historically important books on Arabic linguistics, and antique manuscripts in Arabic that teacher Aziz said were gradually being transformed into printed versions.
"They had manuscripts from the Ottoman and Abbasid periods," Aziz said, referring to dynasties dating back a millennium. "All of them were precious, famous. I feel such grief."
At the same time, they also looted and burned Iraq's principal Islamic library located nearby (as Robert Fisk described above). These come on top of last week's catastrophe, when hordes of people, some armed, destroyed the National Museum in a desperate attempt to abscond with anything of value:
"…among the National Museum's treasures were the tablets with Hammurabi's Code one of mankind's earliest codes of law. It could not be immediately determined whether the tablets were at the museum when war broke out.
Thieves smashed or pried open row upon row of glass cases at the museum and pilfered or destroyed their contents. Missing were the four millennia-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls and colossal statues, ancient manuscripts and bejeweled lyres."
"Nothing remained," museum officials told the New York Times "at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East."
Free to Pillage?
No question about it, the Baghdad lootings do not represent the acts of a confident, liberated people. These are the actions of scared, impoverished individuals being herded like lemmings over the cliff of an absolutely uncertain future. It seems that the looters were of two types: first, the brazen opportunists and thugs, and second of all, those who hoped that by acting they might preserve something that would otherwise disappear. Thus there is a chance that some of the collection may be voluntarily restored. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
There is no question in the mind of Iraqis as to who is ultimately responsible for the devastation:
"'…Our national heritage is lost,' an angry high school teacher, Haithem Aziz, said as he stood outside the National Library's blackened hulk. 'The modern Mongols, the new Mongols did that. The Americans did that. Their agents did that.'"
Yet what could he mean by "their agents?" The accusation seemed as unexpected as it was alluring:
"…today, the rumors on the lips of almost all Baghdadis is that the looting that has torn this city apart is led by U.S.-inspired Kuwaitis or other non-Iraqis bent on stripping the city of everything of value."
It is of little import whether or not this suspicion is accurate. It is most important in that it shows a strong mindset and certainly not the one Washington would like to see.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it seemed that catastrophic cultural destruction could only go on unnoticed in forgotten places like Kosovo or Macedonia. Yet, as with every aspect of this war, Iraq's cultural disaster is showing that there is no longer a limit to the "collateral damage" America's wars can produce. Indeed, can the liberation of the Louvre be far off?
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a freelance writer and Balkan correspondent for Antiwar.com, UPI, and private European analysis firms. He has lived and traveled widely in the Balkans, southeastern Europe and Turkey, and holds a master's degree with distinction in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University. In the past year, he has reported from many countries, including Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, Greece, the Republic of Georgia and the Turkey-Iraq border. Mr. Deliso currently lives in Macedonia, and is involved with projects to generate international interest and tourism there.
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