Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Mesopotamia's burning
Keith Hart on Sat, 19 Apr 2003 08:33:36 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Mesopotamia's burning

My temporary colleagues here in the Northwestern University anthropology
department are all against the war. When it came to putting an anti-war ad
in the local newspaper, the only dispute was about how big it should be and
how much it cost. They all signed up. You can imagine the reaction when the
Baghdad museum was looted and the library torched, while US soldiers looked
on with indifference. An article is circulating by Gil J. Stein of the
University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. It is entitled The Needless
Destruction of Iraq's (and our own) Cultural Heritage -- see below. The
article was meant for the New York Times op-ed page and was
rejected.Professor Stein was a member of this department who moved recently
to the capital of orientalism next door. 

I think I can see why it was rejected. Perhaps there were more ambivalent
versions available -- certainly two others were published . A little irony
would not have gone amiss and Gil Stein doesn't seem to recognize that his
professional interest might undermine his advocacy. And Mesopotamia was the
cradle of all Eurasian civilizations, not just "ours", one of Jack Goody's
more vaild points.

I had been mulling over the irony of bombing Baghdad in the name of
democracy long before the war broke out. I don't believe that the battle to
displace agrarian civilization (aka the old regime) has yet been won. The
Phoenicians, the Athenians and the Carthaginians did their best to
establish a commercial civilization in the ancient Mediterranean for the
best part of a thousand years and it was the Romans who won in the end,
making the place safe for military landowners for another millennium and a
half. So if America is exasperated with the Old World of its own origins,
what better symbolic way of speeding up the transition to democracy than
smashing up Mesopotamia? Except that, in doing so, Bush and Co reveal their
own addiction to warfare as a technique of control, just like the old

State capitalism is essentially backward looking. The belle epoque of
Clinton's dotcom bubble now seems like the dream that it was and America
has since turned to "state capitalism in one country" (only one world
policeman allowed). It will be the ruin of us all if not checked. Arundhati
Roy said recently that the only institution on earth more powerful than the
American government is American civil society and I think she is right. We
have to explode the ideology of freedom that links them -- , free markets,
free democracy, free to get run over by a tank, free to bury the past.

So when I heard of the cultural catastrophe last week, I immediately
wondered if the looters and the lumpen crusaders had a common goal. I
haven't read many interviews with looters. It is assumed that they are just
a greedy, undisciplined rabble let loose by Saddam's fall. Lately there
have been whispers of organised crime hiding behind the general turmoil, in
which case Saddam's totalitarian regime was not wholly effective, unless
this is state-sponsored crime as in post-Soviet Russia. Saddam's hangers on
didn't run away or get to be buried in the rubble as so many remnants of
DNA -- they stayed to get rich by stealing their country's heritage under
cover of a mob they conjured up themselves. No doubt President Assad is
already lining himself up to fence the stuff to American billionaires for
their private collections. The sack of Baghdad sees the loot going back to
America, but in a privatised way similar to but not quite the same as how
the British filled the BM.

But I digress. Could there have been another motive for the looting, one
that has resonance with America's historic mission to erase the old regime
from the world, by bombing and occupying its source? Maybe the looters,
like generations of American immigrants, born again and otherwise, just
wanted to wipe out their past. Not just Saddam, but the whole sorry
history, including colonialism, back to Sumeria for Chrissake. What good
did it ever do them, this revered past? Better to make a new start. This
fits with Rumsfeld and his merry men, doesnt it? A new beginning, at least
for Bechtel. A born again Christian ideology of remaking the world from
scratch. The ironic contrast with the priority given to safeguarding oil is
made by everyone. But oil is the future, not the past -- and it's running
out. You say that these relics are priceless? Nonsense, cultural heritage
is a creative capitalist industry these days. If it depended on a fixed
stock of artefacts, where would the expansion be then? Schumpeter called it
creative destruction...Just think of how Europe and Japan bounced back
after all that real estate got wiped out. The archaeologists havent got the
point. And in any case, Baghdad had already been razed to the ground by the
Mongols, so it was no more of an antique than Los Angeles really.

Another angle. Most capitalist fortunes originated in theft. How can we
disparage the spirit of enterprise in this instance? It's like when the
Serbs asked the western powers, How can you blame us for establishing our
nation with the techniques you used at your own neighbours' expense. This
is what I find compromising about the American cultural heritage experts
who wanted to work with the  Pentagon, gave them long lists of sites "not
to destroy" while they went about killing and maiming the Iraqi people, for
whom no such lists were drawn up. And now they are outraged that their
livelihood has been disrupted. What were they doing in bed with the
Pentagon in the first place? Didn't they think that an American army on the
rampage would be as callous and brutal as any other, when it came down to
it? Did they imagine that these ill-educated blacks, latinos and poor white
trash would have anything on their minds beyond self-preservation and the
need to rest? Did they buy the rhetoric of surgical strikes, of invasion
without collateral damage? Just what is it about clay figurines from 5,000
years ago that makes them exempt from the holocaust? It exposes the
hypocrisy of our educational systems that this aberration against humanity
could be seen as being susceptible to careful cultural management. All it
would have taken was a tank or two, a few shots in the air... A quite a few
dead people, more like.

Gil Stein starts his piece by asking his American readers to imagine a
crowd looting the Smithsonian while the police stand idly by. This provoked
a thought experiment, which follows.

It is 1941. The Churchill government has escaped to Canada. The victorious
German army enters London. Derelict buildings are everywhere, some of them
still burning. Small arms fire can be heard in all directions. Snipers have
a clear line on the advancing soldiers. Public services, including the
police, have evaporated. They encounter a mob in the process of pillaging
the British museum. Frenzied looters can be seen pushing wheelbarrows
stacked with medieval tapestries and Greek statuettes. What are you
supposed to do? Tell them to take the stuff back, so that it can await
shipping to Berlin? Shoot them for getting to the loot before the Nazis?
But isn't it the case that if the perfidious Brits want to destroy their
own monarchical cultural heritage, it aids the reconstruction of their
polity by the Germans? In any case, the Germans are too tired to react and
have their hands full with the snipers. Perhaps an intrepid BBC reporter,
at least one who can imagine collaborating with the new regime, interviews
a few looters. Why are they stealing stuff from the BM? The answer is that
they want to steal anything they can. They have lost everything. Why
shouldnt they grab what they can? People are looting anything that comes to
hand -- the hospitals, the hotels, the ministries, Selfridges, anything.
It's just that these icons of cultural heritage are more shocking to the
cultured class than mattresses thrown out of the windows of the Savoy. 

Maybe all of this is simply unbelievable. The British are much too well
behaved to become this kind of undisciplined mob, arent they? Or are they?
What does it say about the nature of Iraqi society that this should the
outcome of its demise? What is the comparative evidence of how people have
behaved elsewhere under conditions of abrupt regime change, invasion or
war? Isnt the outrage of the orientalists an expression of a belief that
somehow the American empire ought to be different, perhaps as nuanced in
its techniques of control as its British predecessor? Most damning of all,
a marine is reported (by Robert Fisk, who esle?) as phoning in, 'Yeah, some
guy says some biblical library's going up...'. The shame of it, that our
soldiers should have a weak command of the language. The Europeans will be
crowing over this example of ugly Americanism for years. Maybe US marine
jokes will temporarily displace Bush jokes from the internet charts.

Irony isnt enough. But how do you talk to these self-important academic
representatives of American or 'western' civlization? I tried yesterday
with an archaeology graduate student. He beat a hasty retreat up the
stairs. In any case he had an important matter to expose to the public
view, another urgent plank of the campaign to oppose the infidels who run
the White House.

Keith Hart


 The Needless Destruction of Iraq's (and our own) Cultural Heritage
Gil J. Stein 

        Imagine a frenzied mob in Washington DC, looting the Smithsonian
Institution, then proceeding to the National Archives to steal the original
US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence,
while the District of Columbia police look on passively, and actually
refuse to intervene. As horrible as this hypothetical desecration of
America's most priceless historical artifacts may seem, it pales by
comparison with the looting of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum while
American soldiers stood by and allowed it to happen.
        The magnitude of this loss is difficult to exaggerate. During two
days of massive looting, as many as 170,000 artifacts were stolen from the
display cases and storage vaults of the Iraqi National Museum - the main
repository for the archaeological treasures of ancient Mesopotamia. The
land between the Tigris and Euphrates saw the development of the world's
first cities, states, and empires, the first evidence for the emergence of
kingship, the first law codes, and perhaps most important of all - the
earliest invention of writing, more than 5000 years ago. The civilizations
of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria exercised an enormous influence on
the world of the bible and form the foundation of western civilization. The
artifacts, inscribed clay tablets, and works of art that document the rise
of the world's first civilization are both figuratively and literally
priceless. The looting of the Iraqi National Museum is a crime against
world culture on a par with the Crusader sack of Constantinople. The
demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan was an act
of barbarism that shocked the world. However the looting of the Iraqi
National Museum is incomparably worse, because it represents the
destruction of the cultural patrimony of an entire nation, and of western
civilization as well. This loss is all the more tragic because it was
        When it became clear that a second Gulf war was inevitable, a small
group of American researchers specializing in the archaeology of Iraq made
extraordinary efforts to protect the antiquities of Iraq. Spearheaded by
McGuire Gibson from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, they
provided Pentagon and State Department officials with a detailed list of
the 5000 most important archaeological sites in Iraq (the country has an
estimated one million ancient settlements from its 10,000 year history)
together with maps and detailed grid coordinates, so that military planners
could avoid targeting these culturally significant locations. At the top of
the list was the National Museum in Baghdad as the single most important
archaeological resource in Iraq. The archaeologists explicitly warned the
Pentagon and State Department officials about the risk of looting once the
Iraqi army collapsed. To forestall this, the archaeologists urged to
military to deploy Special Forces teams to secure the museum in the initial
occupation of Baghdad. Gibson and his colleagues  were assured by Pentagon
officials that every effort would be made to protect the Iraqi antiquities.

        This effort was at least partially successful. Ironically, the
Museum survived the "shock and awe" bombing campaign remaining almost
entirely intact only to succumb to a two day orgy of looting AFTER the
initial occupation of the city by US forces. The museum curatorial staff
tried desperately to protect the building and its collections, but were
simply overwhelmed. Iraqi mobs carried out the looting, but it was the US
armed forces who allowed this crime to happen. US troops ignored explicit
advance warnings about the risk of looting,. Museum  officials
unsuccessfully pleaded multiple times over the course of the two days for
US troops to stop the looting,. The looters were allowed to pass through
military checkpoints with wheelbarrows laden with stolen antiquities. One
museum official bitterly told reporters that just one US tank and a handful
of soldiers could have prevented the looting. She was quite literally
correct in this statement. In the only US effort to halt the pillage, a
single tank parked in front of the museum and soldiers fired into the air.
The crowd of looters immediately dispersed. But the troops refused to take
a permanent position inside the museum grounds and left the area after only
half an hour. Needless to say, the looters immediately returned to finish
their work of devastation. It is highly significant  and sadly reflective
of American priorities that as of this writing, the ONLY Iraqi government
facility continuously protected by the US troops has been the Oil Ministry.
Sparing US soldiers from unnecessary risks is extremely important, but the
protection of the Museum would have involved minimal dangers for our
troops. It is also important to be clear that safeguarding the National
Museum is not just a matter of protecting a few old statues. It is in fact,
a matter of extraordinary political significance for the US government's
mission to liberate Iraq from Saddam's tyranny, and its goal of building an
integrated secular democratic state.  The people of Iraq are highly
literate and have a deep understanding of their country's archaeological
heritage. This historical consciousness is one of the most important
factors in defining a national identity that unites Iraq's different
religious and ethnic groups. This national identity based on a shared
cultural tradition is one of the strongest counterweights to the twin
dangers of religious fundamentalism and ethnic balkanization. Even Saddam
understood these sentiments and tried to define himself in his political
propaganda as a great ruler in the tradition of Hammurabi and
Nebuchadnezzar (this is why he gave these names to his Republican guards
divisions). The antiquities of Iraq thus constitute not only the visible
evidence of its importance as an ancient great civilization, but also the
symbolic charter for Iraq's future as a nation state. By allowing the
National Museum to be looted and devastated, we have needlessly destroyed
one of the most valuable emblems of Iraqi unity. In doing so, we run the
very real risk that Iraqis will view this act as a calculated American
attempt to undermine their nationhood.
This preventable tragedy is, and deserves to be a major source of shame and
embarrassment for the US government and the armed forces under its command.
The entire world has been impoverished by this loss. The damage is done,
but if the US acts immediately, we may be able to salvage at least a part
of the looted artifacts from the National Museum. There are several things
that we can and must do:

a) We must work closely with the Iraqi Antiquities department to recover as
many as possible of the plundered artifacts. The civil and military
authorities should offer an amnesty and rewards or an actual buyback of the
stolen treasures with no questions asked. This would be in keeping with the
Iraqi Antiquities department's long standing policy of purchasing
antiquities found by local farmers or others as a way to prevent the
materials from being smuggled out of the country and sold on the
international art market.

b) the military must seal the borders of Iraq and do everything possible to
apprehend anyone attempting to smuggle antiquities out of the country.
American archaeologists have already begun providing the Pentagon with
illustrated guides so that border guards or other coalition soldiers can
recognize the different kinds of antiquities as smuggled contraband if they
find any of these items in border, airport, or house-to-house searches.

c) Photographs of the looted antiquities should be posted on the internet
so that they can be immediately identified if and when they surface in the
international art market. American archaeologists working in consultation
with UNESCO have already started to circulate these digital "wanted

d) UNESCO and the US should send assessment teams of archaeologists and
conservators to inventory the museum and determine what has been taken and
what still remains. An international conservation effort must be mounted in
order to repair the extensive damage to those artifacts that were damaged
during the two days of looting.

e) We must vigorously enforce existing national and international laws and
agreements that prevent the importation of antiquities of undocumented
provenience into the United States. It is disturbing and unconscionable
that American art dealers, working through innocuously named cover
organizations have already begun to lobby the White House for a relaxation
of these laws. Congress MUST act to maintain and strengthen these laws in
order to prevent a flood of smuggled stolen Iraqi antiquities from entering
the US art market. Most importantly, the US government must impose an
immediate ban on the export of antiquities from Iraq.

f) Finally, he US and the international community must be willing to
provide a rapid infusion of the funds necessary to permit a buyback of the
stolen antiquities along with the restoration of the museum and of those
museum holdings that survived in damaged form.

Inaction and, possibly, poor communication in the US military allowed this
unprecedented cultural tragedy to occur. It is not only our moral
obligation as a nation to do whatever we can to repair the damage; it is
also in our national interest and in the interest of regional peace to do

Gil J. Stein is one of the directors of the University of Chicago Oriental
Institute. For the last 83 years, the Oriental Institute has been one of
the leading sponsors of archaeological research and excavations in Iraq. 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net