This past week, as Saddam Hussein’s 24 years of rule over Iraq came to an apparent end, 7,000 years of human history vaporized along with them. The citizens of Baghdad, armed with clubs, guns and sticks, stormed the National Museum of Iraq and smashed or stole 170,000 artifacts, some dating back virtually to the Garden of Eden. In perhaps the worst instance of cultural destruction ever seen in the Middle East, two days of pillaging ended with the disappearance of some of humanity’s very first works of art: precious gold filaments and jewelry from Sumeria; ceramics from the time of the Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar; harps, cuneiform tablets, sculptured heads, tapestries and friezes; even, ironically enough, the ancient tablets of the Code of Hammurabi, one of the first works of law known to civilization. Curators stood by weeping as American soldiers, flouting the 1954 Hague conventions, stood by and blithely witnessed the catastrophe.
However tragic, this measure of cultural ruin was not unforeseeable. Months ago, archaeologists and historians were pounding at the doors of Congress and the United Nations, warning of the potential material consequences of an invasion of Iraq. The Archaeological Institute of America even issued an official warning, expressing concern about the safety of digging sites and museums scattered across the country. But these voices were barely heard, despite the extensive looting and loss of artifacts that had followed the Gulf War in 1991. So caught up had the world become in the complex minute-by-minute transformations of Middle Eastern politics, the fact was somehow misplaced that Iraq — a swath of land embracing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, two of the fountains of the world — had once upon a time given birth to human culture, and that the artifacts of that birth needed preserving.
Or did they? American officials, of course, have always argued that Iraq’s humanitarian crisis far surpasses the dangers to its archaeological treasures. Any potential cultural destruction would be worth the price, since a single Iraqi life is worth more than an entire museum of cuneiform and ivory. This is a noble view, but, in action on the streets of Baghdad, it reveals itself to be phony and simplistic. “Protection” does not have to be a zero-sum game in which lives win and works of art lose; indeed, by acting to protect the museum, American soldiers would have spared several casualties to the violent trampling through its galleries. One U.S. officer claimed that the military was ill-equipped to put a stop to any of the massive looting in Baghdad — even though the American investment in securing the museum would have been ridiculously minimal. As the director of the museum pointed out, not without bitterness, “If they had just one tank and two soldiers, nothing like this would have happened.”
In this respect, the infuriating inertia of the American forces suggests not a benevolent, all-consuming regard for the lives and liberation of Baghdad’s citizens, but something far more insidious and frightening — a concerted interest in destruction. When the U.S. troops dismantled the security apparatus that protected Iraq’s museums, it had an absolute responsibility to establish a new one — to ensure that cultural treasures would be safe from the inevitable disorder, panic and opportunism prevailing in the aftermath of a government’s collapse. Why would the troops instead have permitted full-scale demolition to proceed virtually unabated?
The answer, I think, is that the American attitude toward Iraq as a whole is not that of a nation’s compassionate liberators, but of its invaders and destroyers. Since time immemorial, this kind of attitude has always found its most acute expression in the pillaging of artistic riches. From the Persian invasion of Athens, to the Roman devastation of Carthage, to Tamerlane’s ravaging of Delhi, to the levelling of Teotihuacan, to the rape of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, to the sack of Rome in the 16th century, to the British gutting of Beijing’s Summer Palace, to Russia’s theft of Trojan gold from Germany during the 1940s, to the Afghan government’s destruction of Buddhist statues two years ago, sentiments of aggression and barbarism have always found their finest expression in the looting and theft of precious symbols of civilization. These acts, alongside which the murder of Iraq’s national museum will surely take its place, are nothing less than acts of war.
In this sense, the American presence in Iraq, and its corresponding attitude toward the country’s treasures, suggests not profound compassion for the plight of Saddam’s subjects, but rather permeating feelings of violence, aggression and fury; not the resolution of a humanitarian crisis, but the purposeful and violent obliteration of a country and its civilization.
Indeed, our very choice to jeopardize Iraq’s cultural artifacts for the ostensible sake of its citizens is a poisonous and hypocritical one. Perhaps it is true that lives matter more than objects, that we cannot privilege a single artifact over the life and freedom of a human being. But in the end, it is impossible to value human life without first valuing its artifacts. The work of art is the bearer of our cultural memory; it is the only trace we keep of the fact that we have lived at all. Long before Sigmund Freud compared the ruins of Rome to the layers of the human consciousness, the work of art came to stand as a lasting storehouse for the ephemeral contents of human lives, a place where we might recover the meaning of our culture and ourselves through time. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the treasures of the museum make “a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions.” Last week, American forces, supervising the destruction of the objects in which this stability first became manifest, proved her tragically wrong.
Susannah Rutherglen is a senior in Trumbull College.