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End of History: The Sequel


In 1989 as the Cold War came to a close, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, later to become a well-known book, on “The End of History.” Fukuyama, a former senior fellow at the State Department, argued that human history may be directional, with the end point the achievement of capitalist liberal democracy around the world. While Fukuyama’s vision seemed determinist and triumphalist back then, today it appears positively naïve even on its own terms, as the supposed heart of liberal democracy, the United States, acts illiberally at home and abroad.

The Bush administration’s Pax Americana is promoting a different end of history theme: the calculated and brutal erasure of historical record and collective memory. This was made amply clear as U.S. troops stood by and allowed the looting and destruction of the National Museum of Iraq last week. Over 170,000 priceless artifacts from the cradle of civilization were lost. As Iraqi archaeologist Abdul Ridhar Muhammed told the New York Times, “A country’s identity, its value, and civilization resides in its history. If a country’s civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends.” Muhammed went on to describe the American military occupation not as a liberation, but as a humiliation.

Predictably, the Bush administration is painting the museum’s destruction as an unfortunate by-product of a necessary war. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, grandmaster of glib, blamed it on the chaos that comes when a dictatorship falls. “We didn’t allow it,” he claimed on NBC. “It happened…Bad things happen in life, and people do loot.” What Rumsfeld neglected to tell the press is that months before the start of the war, U.S. scholars warned the Pentagon about the potential for looting of antiquities, especially from the museum, and were apparently given assurances that it would be protected.

The failure to prevent the looting of the museum, as well as hospitals, government offices, stores and homes, starkly reveals that the war has nothing to do with protection, except of course of Iraq’s only national treasure that matters to the U.S. — oil fields. In the first days of the invasion of southern Iraq, the Bush administration assured the American public that those had been safely secured.

The administration’s shocking and awful obliteration of Iraqi history is a powerful symbol of the new barbarism which is the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. This new barbarism also aims to erase American history, or at least the parts of it that the administration would prefer people to forget, like the picture of our man in Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld, shaking hands with Saddam in 1983. Sent as special Middle East envoy by the Reagan administration during the Iran-Iraq war, Rumsfeld’s mission was to help arrange assistance for Saddam to prevent Iran from emerging victorious.

The visit coincided with Iraq’s almost daily use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers, which according to one former U.S. intelligence officer, was “not a matter of deep strategic concern” to the U.S. Indeed, the Defense Intelligence Agency provided satellite photographs of Iranian forces to the Iraqis in order to help them develop better battle plans.

Fast forward to March 2003 and Donald Rumsfeld’s lethal handshake with Saddam is long-forgotten and the U.S. is waging war on Iraq ostensibly because of its weapons of mass destruction. Fast forward one month to April and we are supposed to forget that as well. Since there are no weapons to be found, the war is to overthrow an evil dictator. In this instance, the end of history is the constant reshaping of history by those who have a proclivity to lie through their teeth.

And when all else fails, Biblical injunctions can be used to sweep secular history under the rug. Thus, the new barbarians clothe their crusade in the language of fundamentalist Christianity, of (our) good versus (their) evil. On April 9, the U.S. Secretary of Education stated that he would prefer to see American children in schools with Christian values, which no doubt means learning the fundamentalist version of history which ends with the apocalypse. Perhaps the popular Armageddon Left Behind series will become mandatory reading in history class.

Of course, history hasn’t ended and will not end unless the new barbarians unleash a nuclear nightmare. So the challenge remains not only to preserve history, but to make it: to change the course of human affairs through political action. In the process we need to keep our collective memories alive of other past struggles for peace and social justice, remembering how they succeeded even in the darkest of times.

— Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and the author of a political thriller about the Far Right, The Truth About Fire.

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