The Rape of Mesopotamia
Museums versus Oil Wells At the "End of History"
by Paul Street
April 15, 2003
"A country's identity, its value and civilization resides in its history," says Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammed, an Iraqi archaeologist. "If a country's civilization 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).
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 "preemptive" (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 civilization. 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 civilizations 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 "preemptive campaign," Nazi Special Forces prepared special lists of art works to be found and preserved in a newly Germanized 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 unthinkable for them to let the historical artifacts and cultural riches of Iraq slip away into the hands of anonymous looters.
Things are different with the new bosses of Baghdad, employed by a onetime 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 our 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" (Madeline 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 fifty thousand artifacts from what the Chicago Tribune calls "the storehouse of civilization'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 civilization. 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 civilization 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 civilizations 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, its 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.
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.informationclearinghouse.info/article2842.htm).
Today, 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.
Paul Street is a historian, and author of “Color Bind," a chapter in Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor (Routledge Press, 2003), edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm)