[Note for TomDispatch readers: This is the first of a “best of TomDispatch” series I’ll be posting in the week leading up to Labor Day, each with a new introduction by the author. Few in the United States give much thought any longer to the looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage, which continues to this day, under American occupation. And yet it has been a cataclysmic event in its own right. As I wrote long ago of the initial moments of destruction after American troops entered Baghdad in April 2003: “Words disappeared instantly. They simply blinked off the screen of Iraqi history, many of them forever. First, there was the looting of the National Museum. That took care of some of the earliest words on clay, including, possibly, cuneiform tablets with missing parts of the epic of Gilgamesh. Soon after, the great libraries and archives of the capital went up in flames and books, letters, government documents, ancient Korans, religious manuscripts, stretching back centuries — all those things not pressed into clay, or etched on stone, or engraved on metal, just words on that most precious and perishable of all commonplaces, paper — vanished forever. What we’re talking about, of course, is the flesh of history. And it was no less a victim of the American invasion — of the Bush administration’s lack of attention to, its lack of any sense of the value of what Iraq held (other than oil) — than the Iraqi people. All of this has been, in that grim phrase created by the Pentagon, ‘collateral damage.'”
Back in July 2005 at this site, Chalmers Johnson wrote a summary piece on that cataclysm of destruction of history, of the past, and — here’s the saddest story – it is no less readable, relevant, or powerful today than it was more than three years ago. This piece, by the way — along with many other TomDispatch pieces that have stood the test of time — has just been republished in a little alternate history of these last years, The World According to TomDispatch, America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), which I hope you’ll consider ordering. Johnson, author of the now-classic Blowback Trilogy, has written a new introduction to his 2005 piece, looking back on the destruction we enabled — or wrought. Tom]
The Past Destroyed: Five Years Later
On April 11, 12, 13, and 14, 2003, the United States Army and United States Marine Corps disgraced themselves and the country they represent in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital city. Having invaded Iraq and accepted the status of a military occupying power, they sat in their tanks and Humvees, watching as unarmed civilians looted the Iraqi National Museum and burned down the Iraqi National Library and Archives as well as the Library of Korans of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Their behavior was in violation of their orders, international law, and the civilized values of the United States. Far from apologizing for these atrocities or attempting to make amends, the United States government has in the past five years added insult to injury.
Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense and the official responsible for the actions of the troops, repeatedly attempted to trivialize what had occurred with inane public statements like “democracy is messy” and “stuff happens.”
On December 2, 2004, President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, to General Tommy Franks, the overall military commander in Iraq at that time, for his meritorious service to the country. (He gave the same award to L. Paul Bremer III, the highest ranking civilian official in Iraq, and to George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which had provided false information about Saddam Hussein and Iraq to Congress and the people.)
In the five years since the initial looting and pillaging of the Iraqi capital, thieves have stolen at least 32,000 items from some 12,000 archaeological sites across Iraq with no interference whatsoever from the occupying power. No funds have been appropriated by the American or Iraqi governments to protect the most valuable and vulnerable historical sites on Earth, even though experience has shown that just a daily helicopter overflight usually scares off looters. In 2006, the World Monuments Fund took the unprecedented step of putting the entire country of Iraq on its list of the most endangered sites. All of this occurred on George W. Bush’s watch and impugned any moral authority he might have claimed.