Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

19 July, 2005

"This guys says some biblical library is on fire"

I just read an interesting piece by Chalmers Johnson about the loss of historical artifacts in Iraq due to looting, theft, and the indifference of U.S. authorities there. I knew of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad but was ignorant of the burnings of National Library and Archives & the Library of Korans. Johnson recounts how Robert Fisk of the London Independent saw the fires and immediately went to the U.S. Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau to alert authorities. He reported the fires to an officer there who turned around and yelled to a colleague, "This guy says some biblical library is on fire."

The thrust of the article is that, while Bush paid lip service to preserving the cultural and historical legacy of Iraq, the Cradle of Civilization, not much, if indeed anything was done in this regard. Instead it was the liquefied dinosaurs that got all the attention.

Moreover, on March 26, 2003, the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), headed by Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jay Garner -- the civil authority the U.S. had set up for the moment hostilities ceased -- sent to all senior U.S. commanders a list of sixteen institutions that "merit securing as soon as possible to prevent further damage, destruction, and/or pilferage of records and assets." The five-page memo dispatched two weeks before the fall of Baghdad also said, "Coalition forces must secure these facilities in order to prevent looting and the resulting irreparable loss of cultural treasures" and that "looters should be arrested/detained." First on Gen. Garner's list of places to protect was the Iraqi Central Bank, which is now a ruin; second was the Museum of Antiquities. Sixteenth was the Oil Ministry, the only place that U.S. forces occupying Baghdad actually defended.

The U.S. commanders maintain that they just didn't have the troops to guard the museums and libraries to which Johnson retorts:

However, this seems to be an unlikely explanation. During the battle for Baghdad, the U.S. military was perfectly willing to dispatch some 2,000 troops to secure northern Iraq's oilfields, and their record on antiquities did not improve when the fighting subsided.

This is the weakest part of Johnson's argument and I wish it were elaborated upon more. What were the troop levels both on April 13th, when Baghdad fell as well as after fighting subsided? Insufficient troops is a legitimate reason for failing to defend museums but Johnson's riposte is not lengthy or detailed enough to refute the claim of the military brass. I’d like to see some numbers and locations of troop assignments. Still, he give examples of the carelessness of the military long after George Bush landed on that aircraft carrier and announced that major combat operations had ended. For example, the Tallil Air Base was built near the remains of the ancient city of Ur and has rendered the area useless for archaeological exploration and future tourism. In addition:

At Babylon, American and Polish forces built a military depot, despite objections from archaeologists. John Curtis, the British Museum's authority on Iraq's many archaeological sites, reported on a visit in December 2004 that he saw "cracks and gaps where somebody had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate" and a "2,600-year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles."[23] Other observers say that the dust stirred up by U.S. helicopters has sandblasted the fragile brick façade of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon from 605 to 562 B.C.[24] The archaeologist Zainab Bahrani reports, "Between May and August 2004, the wall of the Temple of Nabu and the roof of the Temple of Ninmah, both of the sixth century B.C., collapsed as a result of the movement of helicopters. Nearby, heavy machines and vehicles stand parked on the remains of a Greek theater from the era of Alexander of Macedon [Alexander the Great]."

I can certainly understand that, in a war, shit will get blown up but it is doubly sad that such carelessness caused such destruction after the war was done. Why was the airbase put where it was? Is the area of such strategic importance that putting it somewhere else would have put our troops at a distinct disadvantage and/or needlessly in harm’s way? Johnson concludes his piece by saying:

Before our invasion of Afghanistan, we condemned the Taliban for their dynamiting of the monumental third century A.D. Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in March, 2001. Those were two gigantic statues of remarkable historical value and the barbarism involved in their destruction blazed in headlines and horrified commentaries in our country. Today, our own government is guilty of far greater crimes when it comes to the destruction of a whole universe of antiquity, and few here, when they consider Iraqi attitudes toward the American occupation, even take that into consideration.

Prior to reading this article, I was unaware of most of the destruction that Johnson detailed. Most of the thoughts I had while reading the litany of demolitions were about what a shame the losses are. Now that I’ve had some time to consider what Johnson said, I tend to wonder why Iraq will be like once we’ve left (well, as much as we’re going to leave) and the Iraqis build their country up once more. By this I mean more than just what kind of society they will have in light of a great part of their cultural heritage having been destroyed. I wonder what is being done to help rebuild aside from ensuring that oil flows. What are we doing to help the Iraqis help themselves? I certainly believe that some things are being done but I’m having a hard time finding out exactly what’s going on. Now we have revelations that the Bush administration tried to influence the vote earlier this year. I don’t want to be a naysayer because I honestly do think that there’s positive things to be found in Iraq. It’s just that it’s difficult to feel positive about the venture as a whole when I hear that people blow up a car and themselves next to a group of children receiving candy from American GIs; when I hear about the destruction that we caused which Johnson detailed. All of this makes me hungry to know more, to know what’s going right over there. I’d like to hear tales of Iraqis rebuilding their own country and protecting their own people. Instead all I hear about is America doing the vast majority of work and putting its fingers in the pie. What about those billions of dollars that cannot be accounted for? Those cement factories that lie dormant while we pay Haliburton to make and transport the stuff? Johnson describes how a second(!) Burger King was built at the Tallil airbase (to go along with a Pizza Hut) so our men & women could get a whiff of home. Imagine Iraq invading this country and building a mosque over the remains of the Smithsonian or Jefferson’s home at Monitcello. While I certainly want the best for our men and women in uniform, could this not be provided by doing something other than putting a fast food joint up among ancient ruins? That Burger King just stands out in my mind as a metaphor for the situation over there generally, namely, that events seems to be centered around our interests and not the interests of the Iraqi people. Trying to influence the election, lining the pockets of Haliburton, etc. While I have a difficult time imagining most Iraqis pining for the rule of Saddam Hussein, I can easily conceive of most Iraqis wanting something other than Hussein or American occupation.
|| Palmer, 7:48 PM

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