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The rape of Mesopotamia

Museums versus oil wells at the ‘end of history’

It should come as no surprise that world history’s most powerful military power couldn’t spare a tank or two soliders to guard what is perhaps the world’s most valuable storehouse of history, says Paul Street.

‘A COUNTRY’s identity, its value and civilisation resides in its history,’ says Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammed, an Iraqi archaeologist. ‘If a country’s civilisation is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush,’ Muhammed asks New York Times reporter John Burns.

‘Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation’ (‘Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure,’ New York Times, 13 April 2003, A1).

An interesting comparison with the Nazis

The White House is deeply offended (officially at least) by those who note the chilling parallel between Nazi foreign policy and the Bush-Wolfowitz doctrine of ‘pre-emptive’ (really preventive) war currently being enacted in Iraq. Remembering that all versions of racist imperialism are not the same, then, let us note one key difference between the way the Bush gang is proceeding and how Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich would have conquered Baghdad.

The Nazis, we can be sure, would have made special provision to safeguard, and then of course appropriate, the  monumental  treasures  of  Mesopotamia and ancient Sumerian civilisation. No, not out of any special concern or respect for other peoples’ history: beyond the normal looting instincts of invaders, the Nazis were eager to identify themselves with selected aspects  of  past  civilisations and empires and therefore made a special point of cataloguing and preserving the treasures of occupied territories.

As Lynn Nichols notes in her award-winning book 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’. By the late 1930s, ‘Ancestral Heritage’ was ‘financing exotic projects abroad’, including elaborate, scientifically respectable digs in South America, ‘determined to prove that the Germanism of the occupied territories reached to earliest prehistory’. In the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s Polish Blitzkrieg, also sold (like ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’) as a ‘pre-emptive campaign’, Nazi Special Forces prepared special lists of art works to be found and preserved in a newly Germanised western Poland. ‘A certain amount of damage and looting are inevitable in the heat of war,’ notes Nichols, but in this invasion the Germans acted on their ‘singularly detailed knowledge of the location of works of art’, safeguarding artifacts for careful confiscation and preservation.

In a perverse and powerful way, history - both their own and that of conquered nations - mattered to the masters of European fascism. It would have been unthinkable for them to let the historical artifacts and cultural riches of Iraq slip away into the hands of anonymous looters.

‘History is bunk’

Things are different with the new bosses of Baghdad, employed by a one-time C student history major who couldn’t tell the difference between a Mesopotamian fossil and a Mexican burrito. They represent an insufferably narcissistic nation (still primarily obsessed with what a military campaign that killed millions of Vietnamese did to its own national psyche) whose ‘leaders’ have long painted out their country as the specially chosen, ‘exceptional’, and practically timeless answer to the grating past. America, we have all been asked to believe, is the permanently modern City on a Hill (John Winthrop). It ‘stands taller and sees farther’ (Madeleine Albright) than the rest of the hopelessly ‘old’ world. A more recent twist on America’s ever-evasive, a-historical sense of itself and the world sees the ‘single sustainable model’ of societal evolution represented by the US - supposedly ‘liberal’ mass consumer capitalism and ‘representative democracy’ - as the ‘End of History’. It is the glorious terminal point of serious political contestation over the nature and meaning of collective human existence. ‘History,’ according to the iconic American mass-production automobile capitalist and virulent anti-Semite Henry Ford, ‘is bunk.’

For these and other reasons, it is not surprising that world history’s most powerful military force couldn’t spare so much as a single tank or two soldiers to guard the National Museum of Iraq during the ‘war’ for Baghdad.

Such a relatively tiny presence might have prevented the disappearance of more than 50,000 artifacts from what the Chicago Tribune calls ‘the storehouse of civilisation’s cradle’. And it’s not like the White House and Pentagon didn’t know what was in that storehouse: leading experts gave them elaborate lists of key artifact sites, placing special emphasis on the National Museum.

‘Mesopotamia,’ says Gil Stein, director of the University of Chicago’s prestigious Oriental Institute, ‘is the world’s first civilisation. It’s the first place to develop cities, the first place where writing was invented.

‘And the artifacts from the excavations from there are the patrimony for our entire civilisation and entirely irreplaceable’ (Chicago Tribune,13 April 2003, p.1).

‘Whatever,’ say Bush and Rumsfeld. Their imperial arsenal includes helicopters (‘Apache’, ‘Blackhawk’ and ‘Comanche’) named after tribes from North America’s own obliterated ancient civilisations and its genocidal past. Who really gives a damn, they ask, when you get down to it, about a bunch of ‘artey-facts’ and fossils and such? That stuff only matters, they think, to historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and other assorted ‘liberal’ ‘eggheads’ who wouldn’t even know how to shoot a sword-wielding Arab like Harrison Ford did in Indiana Jones. For heaven’s sake, as Rumsfeld loves to say, it’s just too darn bad if a bunch of ‘old timey stuff’ (to quote Homer Simpson) gets lost on the road to paving over Mesopotamia.

After all, we’ve got a modern American and Ford-like job to do: benevolently granting those poor Iraqis the mass-consumer items, pseudo-representative semi-democracy (plutocracy), and soul-deadening mass culture (Baywatch Baghdad is surely in its planning stages) we know they crave.

A disturbing charge

According to one story appearing in publications around the world, US armed forces actually encouraged the ransacking. According to Khaled Bayomi, a Middle Eastern political researcher who witnessed the looting of the National Museum, American troops inspired the plunder for a very interesting reason. ‘The lack of jubilant scenes’ of grateful Iraqis greeting American conquerors, claims Bayomi, meant that US forces ‘needed pictures of Iraqis who in different ways demonstrated hatred for Saddam’s regime.’ It’s hard to believe that such encouragement (if that’s what took place) did not occur without high-level approval (See ‘US Encouraged Ransacking’ at www.informationclearing house.info/article2842.ht).

The oil wells are safe

On 14 April, the American Empire’s nice cop Colin Powell felt compelled during a press conference to acknowledge the tragedy of the National Museum. He pledged American assistance in the effort to recover the lost items (no small job). Global outrage over the rape of Mesopotamia has reached the front page of his nation’s leading newspapers, making it into Powell’s own daily internal briefings.

But whatever the truth (or falsity) of the charge that Americans cynically encouraged the looting of the museum and the sincerity (or cynicism) of Powell’s statement, it should be  noted  that  the  oil  wells  of  Iraq have been consistently, well and massively guarded by British and American forces. But 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 ecocidal automobiles to and from glorious citadels of mass consumption. Henry Ford would certainly approve. u

Paul Street (pstreet@cul-chicago.org) is a writer and former historian in Chicago, Illinois. The above article first appeared on ZNet <www.zmag.org>.

Box Article:

US forces fail Iraqi treasures again

Sanjay Suri

US forces looked the other way while Iraqi museums were being looted; now they are looking the other way again as many of these looted treasures are taken out of Iraq, says Donny George, Director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

‘The Americans are controlling the border check-points but they are not controlling who is going out or what they are taking with them,’ George told a packed press conference at the British Museum in London on 29 April.

George, who drove out of Iraq into Jordan, said there were no controls enforced by US troops.

‘On the other side in Jordan they are checking everyone thoroughly, and they have caught a dozen people trying to smuggle looted treasures from Iraq’s museums,’ he said.

He added: ‘I am very sorry to say that almost all of them have been journalists.’

At the moment it is only media people who are moving freely in and out of Iraq, George said. ‘But the US control is almost zero, and today anyone can take anything and go out of Iraq,’ he said. ‘This is a tragedy. We are appealing to the US forces to stop this bleeding of antiques that is going on.’

George, who was at the National Museum in Baghdad just before the looting began, said much of the looting could have been prevented if only the US forces had moved a tank about 50 metres from where it had been positioned.

‘We could see that the looters were outside,’ George said. ‘Appeals were made to the tank crew to move up but they said they had no orders.’

George’s graphic account of what followed raises serious questions about the US role. ‘We saw tanks coming at us from both sides on Tuesday, April 8,’ he said. ‘Members of the militia jumped into our compound and heavy fighting began. In the circumstances we all had to leave the compound.’

The fighting was followed by looting, which continued right until Sunday [14 April]. The violence in Baghdad all these days meant that George and his staff could not return to the museum. ‘On Sunday [14 April] we went to the US officers at Palestine Hotel [to ask them] to do what they could to stop the looting,’ he said. ‘But it was not until Wednesday [17 April] that they positioned four tanks to guard the museum.’

That was after a week of the looters having a free run of the museum, George said. It was a week also after the first appeal to the US, and three days after a formal appeal to the US administration at their offices in Palestine Hotel.

Much of that looting through the week was clearly pre-planned, George said. ‘There were two kinds of looters,’ he said. ‘Some came in just like they went into other buildings to loot what they could. But some knew what there was in the museums, and they knew what they were looking for.’

George produced a glass cutter to show the kind of equipment some looters came with. ‘We found four of these,’ he said. ‘Some had come prepared with equipment to cut through the glass cases.’ There were some important fake statues in the museum that were never touched, he said.

‘Some of the most important masterpieces were taken,’ he said. Among these he listed the following: The Warka Vase, a limestone vase decorated with reliefs from 3100 BC; gold rosettes and copper cup dated 2500 BC; and an inscribed statue of King Entemena of Lagash, 2400 BC.

Of two figures of the reign of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, one was looted and one returned - in three pieces.

But the museum curators still do not know what is missing, George said. The looters got into the store-rooms that housed about 170,000 precious objects. Only when these are examined will they know what is missing. That process can take six months at the very least, he said.

Some of the objects looted are being brought back after an appeal made through local imams, George said. Daily appeals are being broadcast also on the local radio stations.

George dismissed a suggestion by a journalist from the US that the looting could have been an ‘inside job’ by museum staff and by Saddam Hussein’s thugs. ‘I know how Saddam Hussein cared for antiquities,’ he said. ‘In one case some thieves entered a museum and cut off the head of an object. Saddam had their heads cut off as punishment.’

George said he was not praising Saddam Hussein for that action, but he said it indicated that Saddam Hussein’s men were not likely to be behind the looting and destruction of the museums. - IPS

 


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