AMERICANS AT THE GATES
NOTE: This essay/open letter was written some years ago and although the number of artifacts stolen or destroyed is not accurate (they were originally overstated), I have not corrected the numbers because virtually from the day Sadam’s power was broken, archaeological sites all over Iraq have been subjected to looting 24/7. This has been going on for YEARS. This is documented in a disturbing book called STEALING HISTORY by Roger Atwood. While living in Turkey I recall reading about a SINGLE truck intercepted at the Turkish border that yielded some 7,000 artifacts plundered directly from sites–so they have never been documented, studied, or catalogued and now that they have been removed from their original resting places, that is virtually impossible in many cases. We’ll never know how many hundreds of truckloads went through undetected.
When Assurbanipal ascended to the Assyrian throne in the 7th century BCE, he ruled an empire that encompassed all of what lay between northern Egypt and what was then Mesopotamia (but has since become known as Iraq). The Assyrians are remembered as a race of merciless warriors who treated vanquished kings not with respect but by confining them to a cage and subjecting them to public torture followed by execution. Populations were routinely enslaved and captives had their eyes put out to prevent them from rebelling. One Babylonian scribe wrote that the Assyrian king “had evil intentions, he thought out crimes … he had no mercy for the inhabitants …”
And yet, for all of his barbarity, Assurbanipal prided himself on his ability to read in several languages and equally proudly proclaimed himself a patron of the arts. His House of Tablets, amassed by sending his scribes throughout the empire to copy the archives of the peoples whom he had conquered, was the greatest library the world had ever seen. Assurbanipal believed that Assyrian hegemony would only be complete if, in addition to military superiority, the Assyrians also controlled the accumulated wisdom of the past.
Fourteen years after his death, the Assyrian Empire fell to an allied army of Medes and Babylonians. Nineveh, the capital, was sacked and the marvelous library was destroyed along with Assurbanipal’s palace. The clay tablets, however, did not burn and those that were not lost or shattered were left to silently recount the narrative of the last great ruler of the Assyrians.
Undoubtedly, a vast number of these tablets were housed in the National Library that was burned to the ground only weeks ago in Baghdad while a unit of American Marines, a mere 50 meters away according to AP reports, watched. The museum reportedly housed more than 80,000 cuneiform tablets, many of which still awaited translation. As if the children and families and thousands of young soldiers killed during the war were not tragedy enough for Iraq to bear, the Bush Administration added the loss of what ranks among the world’s greatest historical treasures.
The National Museum was looted of roughly 50,000 irreplaceable artifacts dating from the dawn of human civilization, while hundreds of thousands of documents from the National Library and the National Archives were consigned to flames. In a New York Times article, Eleanor Robson, a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, said, “You’d have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale.” In an on-line article, historian Jens Hansen likens this “erasure of Iraqi, Arab, and world heritage” to “the destruction of La Bibliotheque Nationale and the Louvre in a single day.” He adds, “I do not think any American can fully understand the emotional shock of it. Not only are thousands of antiquities gone, but so too are all the manuscripts and archival documents on which early modern and modern Iraqi history writing could have been based.” In Hansen’s opinion, “Most devastating in all of this is the realization that all it took for the Americans to stop the plunder was to place one tank at the front entrance and a platoon of soldiers around each building. Even after pleas by a journalist to stop the on-going carnage, US military command in Baghdad refused to act.” He concludes, “The failure to protect an occupied country’s national heritage is a war crime under the Geneva Convention.”
The Bush administration has been able to explain away a headless infant—still in pajamas—removed from the rubble of a bombed building, whole families killed in their cars as they tried to flee the war, a boy with stumps for arms and a torso scorched black; this we are told is “collateral damage.” Or, when pressed further, through cost-benefit analysis: Well, Saddam killed one or two hundred thousand Iraqis and we are only killing a few thousand civilians, and even those purely by accident. (Tens of thousands of dead soldiers, no matter that they may have been conscripts or men who believed they were fighting not for Saddam but for their homeland, don’t count.)
Most Americans have been willing to believe—indeed, their consciences demand—that these civilian deaths were accidental. I, too, pray this is the case. However, I have no doubt that the Bush administration fully intended to obliterate Iraq’s cultural heritage and that, indeed, this constitutes a war crime in the terms laid out by the Geneva Convention. It is not simply that the US military failed to post a tank or two at the libraries and museums in fallen cities, it is that commanders were instructed not to post them. The military, I believe, was given clear instructions to allow the decimation of Iraq’s past.
Hansen cites a colleague, Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history, at the University of Michigan, who wrote the following: “The US forces were perfectly capable of guarding the Oil Ministry buildings, just by stationing a tank outside them. At one point, for two hours, looting of the Museum was deterred in a similar manner, but then the tank was inexplicably called back.”
Why exactly was that tank pulled back? No one seems to know. However, what we do know is that the US government was warned well in advance of what would happen if the museums and libraries were not protected.
Martin Sullivan, who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property committee, and two other cultural advisors, Gary Vikan and Richard S. Lanier, resigned to protest the plunder of Iraq’s antiquities, pointing out that the U.S. military had more than ample warning of what would happen to Iraq’s historical property. According to a report by Reuters, “antiquities experts have said they were given assurances months ago from U.S. military planners that Iraq’s historic artifacts and sites would be protected by occupying forces.”
Hansen points out that “it is improbable that the looting of the museum was the work of an ignorant mob. Apparently, computer indexes of the museum’s inventory were deleted during the looting. Now this is not the work of an irate mob but suggests that a plan was underlying the crime. Without an index it will be impossible to trace the origins of artifacts as they appear at auctions and in private collections. Moreover, the high-security building’s vaults were opened not by explosions but, from what we hear, by a key. Again, I have a strong suspicion that the network of wealthy art dealers has made contacts in Baghdad long before the city was evacuated by the Iraqi army and its leaders. But why the burning of Ottoman documents, worthless to art collectors and antiquity dealers? Why destroy the raw material of Iraq’s social history? Why burn 16th-century correspondences between the Baghdad governors with the Sublime Porte in Istanbul, 18th-century taxation statistics and 19th-century Arabic newspapers? Only years of Ottoman language training and historical research would be able to bring the vitality of five hundred years of history. This week, half a millennium of world history has been willfully destroyed!”
Rumsfeld’s response was “It is unfortunate that there was looting and damage done to the museum and we have offered rewards.” Nothing could be less disingenuous.
Charles Tripp from the School of African and Oriental Studies in London is quoted by Hansen as saying, “This is really a terrible thing for Iraq. One of the problems [for Iraq] has been establishing an identity, a place in history and in the future. If you lose those documents you are subject to remolding of history which will be extremely dangerous.”
Oddly, the Pentagon heeded the persistent pleas of archaeologists to include these sites on their off-target list but, according to Hansen, the US government admits it “gave no directives to protect the buildings in question and a Pentagon spokesman was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “We leave such decisions to commanders on the scene.”
Does it make any sense to preserve these sites from air strikes only to allow them to be pillaged and razed? It makes sense only when you understand that the Bush administration fully intended to eradicate Iraqi cultural and historical heritage while at the same time preserving the image of a culturally sensitive America. American bombs won’t be responsible, they decided, the Iraqi people will. It was a clever move—thereby exempting Bush from its formulation—that allows the Bush administration to get on with the “remolding of history.”
The United States Agency for International Development is already taking bids for a contract worth as much as $65 million, which calls for an overhaul of Iraq’s school system, including, of course, new textbooks. The idea, it seems, is to expunge all traces of Saddam Hussein from public memory and to make it clear that life after Hussein is much better than life before or during. Which may well be true, but isn’t it up to the Iraqi people to decide what goes in the textbooks they give to their children?
Not in the estimation of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz (deputy defense secretary), who all belong to the Project for a New American Century. Never heard of it? In 1997, they were among a group of conservatives who drafted a letter to then-President Bill Clinton demanding a “comprehensive political and military strategy for bringing down Saddam and his regime.” Of the 40 signatures on that letter, 10 belong to members of the current Bush Administration.
According to Mary Louise writing for PRISONPLANET.com, “In September 2000, the PNAC updated and refined Cheney’s original version into a new report entitled: ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources for a New Century’ calling for unprecedented hikes in military spending, American military bases in Central Asia and Middle East, toppling of non-complying regimes, abrogation of international treaties, control of the world’s energy sources, militarization of outer space, total control of cyberspace, and the willingness to use nuclear weapons to achieve “American” goals. This plan by the … neo-con think tank, PNAC, shows Bush’s cabinet intended to take military control whether or not Saddam Hussein was in power and says the U.S. for decades has sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security, revealing that a premeditated attack on Iraq to secure a regime change was planned even before Bush took power in January, 2001. The lengthy blueprint for U.S. global domination can be accessed at http://cryptome.org/rad.htm.”
This is not some far-fetched conspiracy theory. The PNAC has recently been mentioned in dozens of articles, and they don’t seem to mind. Why should they? They have their own website.
A world dominated by the US and its interests has been already been dubbed the Pax Americana. It reeks of the 19th-century “Manifest Destiny” policy, which asserted that it was the divinely appointed mission of European Americans to expand westward across the continent and supplant the indigenous—and pagan—population. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was its most infamous credo. And it was wonderfully successful. Between 93 and 98 percent of the Native Americans were eradicated in North America. In an early example of biological warfare, small-pox infected blankets were handed out by the US government to various tribes who, deprived of their lands and livelihoods, were on the verge of freezing to death. The Indians had no resistance to small pox which had been brought to the New World by European settlers. Entire tribes disappeared. This, of course, is in addition to the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children at the hands of the US Army. The Native Americans who survived saw their culture systematically destroyed. Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools where they faced severe punishment if they wore tribal clothing or spoke their own languages or practiced their own religions.
Now it seems we are facing Manifest Destiny again. Hasn’t Bush been quoted as saying, “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance,” but by “the hand of a just and faithful God”? Hasn’t he said, “I believe God wants me to run for president”? Hasn’t he also said, “we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them”? It is this “just and faithful” God, apparently, that has given George W. Bush the green light to lead the US into any number of “just” wars. This time, it is not Native Americans who will suffer, but any culture that stands in the way of US hegemony. Here are some quotes from PNAC’s own website.
• We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration’s success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.
• But we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership or the costs that are associated with its exercise.
• If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership
Iraq’s former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, who left Iraq in 1969 after Hussein assumed power, has spoken out against handing out contracts without the approval of an elected Iraqi government. “No one has the right to commit Iraq to obligations and costs,” he stated. “Only an Iraqi government can do that. A parliament should also endorse the agreements.” He was referring to a contract, worth nearly $700 million, to restore Iraq’s infrastructure which was awarded to Bechtel Corp by the U.S. government.
Halliburton, Cheney’s old company, was reportedly awarded the very first contract, fighting oil fires, even before the war was over. Cheney, who worked there for only eight years, has a $20 million pension from Halliburton. There you have “our fundamental interests.”
Let me state unequivocally that I love my country. I love the land and its people, east coast and west coast, north, south and middle. I have profound respect for what a young nation has been able to accomplish in little over 200 years. And while American democracy has its flaws, the United States of America is one of the freest societies on Earth. It is precisely because I love my country that I feel as if this war with its unnecessary tragedies has left me without a homeland.
For the last three years, I have lived in Istanbul, Turkey. I watched helplessly as the US pushed ahead with a war that 94% of the Turkish people opposed. (It was, in fact, Birol Chetinkaya, a Turkish colleague at Istanbul Technical University, who first suggested to me that the sacking of Iraq’s past was deliberate.) I wrote e-mails to friends, families and officials, urging them to support a peaceful solution. I received hate mail in return, generally spearheaded by accusations I was unpatriotic. I began to waver in my opinion. I began to wonder: what if it’s true? What if Saddam really is up to something as awful as planting a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon in New York? My wavering ended when the first bombs fell. The images of Baghdad burning, all over Turkish television, left me thoroughly sickened.
Now that the smoke has cleared, it is obvious it was not only Saddam who had spun a web of lies, but the administration running my country as well. Without the slightest qualms, Bush and his inner circle used plagiarism, forgery, and any other form of misinformation within reach to sway the American people. Why? Simply put, because the truth would not have worked. It is not only Saddam, but also the Bush Administration that “thought out crimes.” Indeed, why else has this administration so strenuously refused to allow Americans to be subjected to proceedings at The Hague? Yes, Saddam is evil. His name will be written down beside those of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. While I am not claiming that Bush belongs among this group, he is certainly flirting with the dark side of the Force. I now feel ashamed for having been taken in by the Bush camp’s rhetoric—and deeply betrayed.
There is, however, something that can be done: George W. Bush and his accomplices have to go. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he can be voted out of office in November of 2004 when elections will be held in the United States. What the world must do in the meantime is to deal as little as possible with an administration that, as Michael Moore has demonstrated, was never legally elected in the first place. The Bush Administration should be pressured by the international community to leave office. It should be made known to the American people that it would be in their interest and in the interest of global relations to elect a new president. With a change of leadership, the US can begin to mend the damage it has done to its credibility and its image as a liberal nation that supports freedom both home and abroad.
In the 7th century BCE, after smashing a rebellion in Elam, Assurbanipal desecrated the tombs of the Elamite kings and carried off their remains to Assyria. “I left them no bones to venerate,” he boasted. “The souls of their ancestors shall find no place to rest.” Susa, the capital of Elam, became little more than a haunt for dispossessed spirits. Members of the PNAC should bear in mind that while a succession of Assyrian kings managed to found and rule an empire, their brutal policies ensured that their own great city, Nineveh, ended up as a haven for nesting crows and roving jackals.