The Looting Of Iraq

1.  Even during the Second World War, military forces made efforts to preserve “cultural wealth.”  In the Iraq War, we saw that US-British forces had no respect for history.  What is your opinion? 

Remembering that all versions of racist imperialism are not the same, we should note an interesting difference between the Bush gang and Hitler’s Third Reich.  If the Nazis had marched into Iraq, we can be sure they would have made special provision to safeguard the monumental historical treasures of Mesopotamia and ancient Sumerian civilization.  This was not because they had any real respect for other peoples’ history.  The Nazis were eager to identify themselves with selective aspects of past civilizations and empires and therefore made a special point of cataloguing and preserving considerable portions of conquered nation’s cultural wealth. As Lynn Nichols notes in The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York, 1994), Hitler’s SS “had an art branch, the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), which sponsored archaeological research world wide in the hope of finding confirmation of early and glorious Germanic cultures.” In the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s Polish Blitzkrieg, also sold (like “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) as a “preemptive” campaign, Nazi Special Forces prepared special, elaborate lists of art works they expected to find and hoped to preserve in a newly Germanized western Poland.

“A certain amount of damage and looting are inevitable in the heat of war,” wrote Nichols, but the Germans acted on “singularly detailed knowledge of the location of works of art” and preserved the artifacts for what they saw as proper confiscation. In an obviously perverse and racist war, history mattered to the masters of European fascism.  It would have unthinkable for them to let the leading historical artifacts and cultural riches of Iraq slip away into the hands of anonymous looters.  Iraq, after all, is the cradle of civilization, home to the fabled early cities Babylon and Ur, cuneiform writing, accounting, glass and bureaucracy. The Nazis would certainly have wanted to wrap themselves in the rich historical aura of all that.

Things are different with the new bosses of Baghdad.  Bush is a onetime C student – a History major, ironically enough – who couldn’t care less about the difference between a Mesopotamian statue and a Mexican taco.  He and his crypto-fascist Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who openly admires the Chicago gangster Al Capone, represent a frankly narcissistic and proudly a-historical nation.  America’s “leaders” have always seen their country as the exceptional, elevated answer to the burdensome, creaking past – the permanently modern City on a Hill (John Winthrop) that “stands taller and sees farther” (Madeline Albright) than the rest of the hopelessly “old” world.  “History,” according to the iconic pioneer of the mass-produced automobile – the very product whose voracious need for petroleum does so much to drive the West’s toxic presence in the Arab world – “is bunk.” 

A more recent twist on America’s a-historical sense of itself and the world sees the “single sustainable model” of social development epitomized by the US – supposedly “liberal” mass consumer capitalism and “representative democracy”(really corporate plutocracy)  – as the End of History, the glorious terminal point of serious political contestation over the nature and meaning of collective human existence. 

For these and other reasons, it is not surprising that world history’s most powerful military force couldn’t spare so much as a tank and two soldiers to guard the National Museum of Iraq during the “war” for Baghdad.  Such a relatively tiny presence might have prevented the remarkable disappearance of 170,000 artifacts from the storehouse of civilization’s cradle.  

It’s not at all true that the White House and Pentagon didn’t know about the location and contents of the National Museum.  Leading American archaeological experts gave them elaborate lists of key artifact sites, placing special emphasis n the National Museum and its contents, well in advance of an invasion that was considered “imminent” since at least last December. A leading American expert on Mesopotamia, McGuire Gibson, was quoted to chilling effect in last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune.  “Not only did we make recommendations in advance,” says Gibson, “but we were given assurances” by the Pentagon “that the museum would be protected.” According to the Tribune, McGuire, who is president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, “secured an initial meeting in January to tell the military planners about the important cultural and historical sights in Iraq.” It was all to no avail. 

And to make matters worse, Donald (“For Goodness’ Sake”) Rumsfeld has spoken in dismissive, condescending, and even derisive terms about global outrage over the looting of Iraq’s cultural wealth.  “How many vases can one nation possess?” (or words to that effect),  Rumsfeld asked chuckling reporters. “Freedom,” Rumsfeld told the press, “is untidy” and bad things “happen” when nations are “liberated.”  For Rumsfeld, one of the dangerous men in the world, the loss of their inherited cultural wealth and identity is an “unfortunate” but minor price the Iraqis are paying for entry to the “messy” world of liberty.        

It may be a terrible understatement to say that the Americans were merely negligent and only permitted the rape of Mesopotamian and Sumerian treasure. The British journalist Robert Fisk recently reported that he saw the National Museum clearly marked on satellite photomaps provided to US troops in Baghdad.  Eyewitnesses report that Americans had been keeping the streets in front of the museum clear with gunfire, prior to the looting.  Then an American tank pulled up in front of the Museum and fired into it, producing a hole that was too high to have been made by looters.  US soldiers murdered the guards in front of the Museum’s administrative building and told US Arabic translators to direct looters to enter. After that it was off to the National Archives, where millions of pages of historical material were burned by mobs under the approving eye of the US military. According to one account, the Americans felt they weren’t getting enough pictures and film footage of Iraqis expressing hatred for Saddam’s regime and thought pillaging would create some of the desired images for US war propaganda.    

It’s important to US planners that the Iraqis be stripped of visible connection to a proud and powerful past.  The Iraqi people are supposed to stand in supine shock and awe before the supposedly benevolent imperialism of their new Masters from the land that invented mass production, the atom bomb, and other lovely tools of modern civilization like the “anti-personnel” cluster bomb and the Depleted Uranium artillery shell.  The presence of highly visible living evidence that Iraqis live in the cradle of civilization is inconsistent with Bush and Rumsfeld’s racist and imperialist objectives. It’s not for nothing that American occupation authorities worked diligently to strip Native Americans of their history and culture during the 19th and 20th centuries.  And it’s not for nothing that the leading dystopian novels of the 20th century – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 – put the elimination and manipulation of history at the heart of their story of how totalitarian state authorities keep their population controlled. As a key ruling party slogan from 1984 put it, “Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.”  

Of course, Americans’ “respect for history” is relative, filtered through a biased national and racial lens.  Americans are notoriously weak on their own past – a subject for late-night comedians who quiz puzzled citizens on such basic questions as the name of their nation’s first president and the author of their Declaration of Independence.  Still, the mainstream American population would be up in arms if the federal government permitted or directed the street gangs of Washington DC to pillage the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the Library of Congress.  

It is interesting to observe that, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently noted, “international rules to protect cultural property from looting and damage are an American innovation, dating back to [America’s] Civil War [1861-1865].” According to HRW, “revulsion at widespread destruction during that war led to the drafting of the Lieber Code, which gave protected status to libraries, scientific collections and works of art.”  The Lieber Code had a formative influence on the international Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was passed in 1954. This convention requires that an occupying power take necessary measures to safeguard and preserve the cultural property of the occupied nation

The oil wells of Iraq were and remain extremely well guarded by British and American forces – of course.  It’s important, after all, that the people of the world retain their greatest imaginable freedom of all at the End of History – the right to drive around cheaply in pollution-causing automobiles to and from glorious citadels of mass consumption.  Henry Ford would certainly approve.

It’s also interesting that the Iraqi Oil Ministry was spared in a US campaign that targeted hundreds of key government buildings.  This building contains too much potentially profitable information for American corporations and planners to permit its reduction to rubble. The Oil Ministry’s intrinsic capitalist and world-strategic value rescues it from the dustbin of history.   

2. Many experts, including those from America, warned the US about this beforehand.  But starting from Baghdad, all cultural wealth was plundered.  How did the historian and archeologist circles in the United States react to this plunder?

The archaeologists reacted with horror and sadness, some of which was expressed in a bitter e-mail I received from an archaeologist who noted that he wept when he learned of the shameless pillage. Once they recovered from their understandable Shock and Despair, however, many archaeologists quickly organized and went on the offensive.  They have written and spoken at length to policymakers and journalists, relating the sheer scale of the lost cultural wealth and pointing out that they went to great and early efforts to inform the Bush administration about the wealth and importance of artifacts in Iraq.  They have reminded us all that significant looting of cultural treasures took place during the last US war on Iraq (1990-1991).

They have ridiculed the sickening US line that the historical and cultural looting was “unfortunate” but surprising and unavoidable.  Jane Waldbaum, who is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, was quoted to candid effect in a reactionary American newspaper right after the pillage news broke.  “It was completely predictable,” Waldbaum told USA Today,  “and we did predict it.  We begged the authorities to watch out for this in the aftermath of the actual fighting.  All it would have taken was a tank parked at the gate.”

According to the Tribune, Gibson is “overwhelmingly angry” but saves “his richest invective” for comments made “off the record.”  Gibson says he “is sick of having to explain why the contents of the National Museum of Iraq are important, why the Mesopotamian civilization was the cradle of human civilization in general and why he differs with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s description of the events at the museum as mere ‘untidiness.'”

As a former American History professor who often tired of struggling with many American college student’s narcissistic indifference to anything that occurred prior to their births or even before the last episode of their favorite sensational “Reality TV” show, I empathize with Gibson’s exasperation.  American society is at once maddeningly indifferent to culture and history (even its own) and incredibly powerful – a dangerous combination, to say the least. 

American archaeologists have spoken and written in bitter terms about the glaring contrast between strong US protection of the oil fields and the US non-protection and perhaps even attack on Iraqi’s cultural wealth.  Three members of a Bush cultural advisory committee have resigned in protest and disgust.  And leading US archaeologists are advocating a number of logical, common sense remedial actions, including the posting of detailed descriptions of stolen artifacts on the Internet, a moratorium on penalties against those who return stolen items, and the introduction of new standards of item legitimacy on the artifact market. They have also joined a United Nations task force to formulate an adult and international response to the juvenile anti-historical perpetrators in the Bush Crime Family.

3. A prominent Arab columnist, Nevine Al Arif, asks: “How will the American archaeologists and historians tell their students that this city of civilizations was destroyed?” What is your opinion on this question?

I am currently a political commentator and an urban social policy and civil rights researcher and cannot speak for America’s archaeologists and historians.  Some academics, a minority of the professoriate that includes people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Herman, will tell the story honestly and angrily.  The majority of American academics, however, are notoriously harmless and careerist, obsessed with incestuous and innocuous forms of discourse that leave the centers of power and privilege free of serious critique.  They can usually be counted on to offer only the slightest resistance to even the worst outrages of the powerful. In some bizarre cases, supposedly “left” American academics seem curiously more interested in criticizing radicals than in criticizing power – as if Chomsky or the left-sectarian organizers of antiwar demonstrations and not the Bush Crime Family comprised the real threat to justice and democracy at home and abroad 

For historians of antiquity and archaeologists, the looting of Iraq’s cultural treasures goes right to the heart of their professional source base. I would hope to hear many of them speaking out rather boldly – maybe even putting their “richest invective” against the war criminals on the record and pointing out that the Bush gang has in fact engaged in an international war crime under the 1954 Convention mentioned above. 

Perhaps this will prove to be an overdue radicalizing experience for certain parts of the academy.  American higher education needs to start living up to its undeserved reputation (created by right-wing US lunatics like Dick Cheney’s wife Lynn and notorious gambling addict and self-appointed national scold William Bennett ) for “excessive” radicalism.  We are seeing the results of the liberal intelligentsia’s political “realism,” which prevents liberals from really identifying confronting the nature of the true evil that has seized power in America, with terrible consequences for all of humanity.   

4. Will it surprise you if the artifacts plundered appear a few years later in auctions or exhibits in London of Washington. 

I don’t know the inner workings of the international artifacts trade but I’ve read in numerous places that many of the Iraqi artifacts stolen in 1991 showed up on the market in the West and nothing was done about it.  Some of the recently looted items have reportedly already appeared for sale in Paris.  Given the sheer number of artifacts stolen, it is probably inevitable that many will become global commodities.  Look for them on the Internet and in Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Bangkok, Moscow and Hong Kong as well as Washington and London. Appropriately enough, Americans will obtain the lion’s share, as America purchases 60 percent of the world’s art, both legal and illegal.

5. What is the relationship between the plunder of cultural heritage and its degradation to merchandise which has a certain “market value?”

It is important to realize that the “freedom” the United States is purporting to export to Iraq through the barrel of a gun is little more than the right to live under the authoritarian rule of capital, which masquerades as the inevitable and faceless hegemony rule of impersonal market forces.   A relevant text here is the section of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848) where the authors describe the radical societal transformation wrought by “the bourgeoisie,” by which they mean the capitalist system of production and exchange. That system, Marx and Engels wrote,  “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment.  It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.  It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless, indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.”  Under the rule of capitalism, Marx and Engels noted, “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid,” they added, “melts into air,” and “all that is holy is profaned.” 

We can acknowledge the brilliance and continuing relevance of this formulation without sharing Marx and Engels’ confident assumption that capitalism’s rape of the past is progress, thanks to scientifically determinable and “dialectical” laws of history.  

Another relevant comment comes from the brilliant American left intellectual Chomsky.  “The level of culture that can be achieved within the US,” Chomsky wrote in 1966, “is a life and death matter for large masses of suffering humanity” (See Chomsky, American Power and The New Mandarins [2002], p.313).  Remembering that cultural identity and historical foundations are essential to meaningful collective existence, I think we can agree that formulation holds powerful and haunting significance for world civilization at the beginning of the 21st century! 

The “level of culture” achieved by the US right now, in the White House and Pentagon especially, is dangerously low, reflecting in part the special historical power in America of the dangerous, falsely liberating forces described so well by Marx and Engels.

The people and civilizations of the world would be well advised to put their historical treasures under lock and key and to develop contingency plans for cultural preservation in this new century of American imperialism.  

Paul Street is a ZNet Commentator in Chicago, Illinois. More articles by Paul Street

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