“You ask me about the sack of Baghdad … It was so horrible there are no words to describe it. I wish I had died earlier and not seen how the butchers destroyed these treasures of knowledge and learning. I thought I knew the world, but this holocaust is so strange and pointless, that I’m struck dumb. The revolutions of time and its decisions have defeated reason and knowledge.”
–A Persian traveler’s letter, 1258 a.d. (after the Mongol sack of Baghdad)
“Civilization is hideously fragile and there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish.”
— Carrie Snow
On April 13, Robert Fisk of the Independent interviewed the director of the Antiquities Museum in Baghdad. She could not contain her dismay. The Museum’s treasures, some dating back to ancient Sumerian times, had been smashed to pieces, and the identifying cards scattered, ripped, removed or destroyed.
The year 2003 is separated from the year 1258 by nearly seven and a half centuries, yet the description given by the Persian traveler of the sack of Baghdad by the Mongol armies (led by their chieftain, Hulaga) seems to approximate the destruction by rampaging mobs that has occurred in the current conflict.
Many writers in the US who philosophize about Arab culture and history mention the importance of history to the Arab people. In fact, they specifically refer to the sack of Baghdad as one of the defining events in the Arab mind until today. It is, therefore, all the more tragic that the military occupying force, which takes its mission from the arguments of these Western ideologues, had apparently not planned for, nor given thought to, the defense of a resource much dearer, and less replaceable, than oil: Historical records of the roots of human civilization.
Fisk detailed the pillaging, looting and destruction of the museum, as well as more modern human records such as the files of the Foreign Ministry, giving reactions of the mostly middle class Iraqis he talked to. Some pointed to the well-organized Marine deployment to protect the oil ministry from attack and the lack of protection everywhere else.
The destruction of irreplaceable archeological treasures may seem, to our positivist, forward looking mindset, unequal to, or unimportant in comparison with, the loss of human life in this conflict. But this is a false juxtaposition. War always entails loss of human life (civilian as well as military), as well as destruction of human creations such as buildings, written materials, pottery, etc. To bemoan one loss is not to devalue the significance of the other. To be against war is to be aware of the significance of these losses which are, inevitably, the consequences of the military “option”.
Historically, invading armies have destroyed cultural treasures, usually deliberately, as a further mode of demoralizing and destroying their enemies by destroying their symbols. In this conflict, which was personalized by the invaders to an amazing degree in the figure of Saddam Hussein, we see that U.S. soldiers were the first to attack a statue of his image, which is typical of the behavior of armies in conflicts through the ages.
The behavior of the looters, however, given that they are citizens of Iraq, is less understandable, until we look at the authoritarian nature of the regime that was, overnight, erased from their sight, and remember that the perpetrators hail from slums that have been descending into deeper and deeper squalor since the 1991 Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions. Like all Middle Eastern societies, Iraq is harshly classist. As in Lebanon’s civil conflict, and as in revolutionary France, the downtrodden, suddenly released from an iron, oppressive control, will seek to take advantage of their situation by attacking anything that symbolizes those classes that exerted or helped to maintain that control. In Iraq, this would be the middle and upper classes, with their cultural bases such as the museum. The mob is not trying to erase history. It is sending its inarticulate message of long-harbored resentment towards oppression in the only language it has been given.
It is astounding that with the many lessons history gives of this tendency, and the importance of Iraq as a center of ancient history, that the military occupiers have been so taken by surprise and have seemingly formulated very little in the way of contingency or risk management planning to defend the ancient city of Baghdad against its own. However, the weakness of the American approach to its invasion of Iraq is not only that the conflict itself lacked justification or international support, but that the American military concentrated on the conflict as conflict (which, given the overwhelming superiority of the American and British military over Iraq’s defenses, was never in serious doubt), and not on managing the aftermath.
While U.S. Marines search for weapons of mass destruction, or evidence of Saddam Hussein’s demise or survival, they seem oblivious to the extent to which the capital has once again been sacked, or the long-term psychic implications of the destruction, throughout the Middle East and the greater Muslim world.