Tom Engelhardt: Robbing the Cradle of Civilization





Tom Engelhardt, at tomdispatch.com (7-7-05):

[Mr. Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture and co-editor of History Wars, the Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past.]

Another successful landmark has been reached in our occupation of Iraq: The World Monuments Fund has just placed the country on its list of the Earth's 100 most endangered sites. ("Widespread looting, military occupation, artillery fire, vandalism, and other acts of violence are devastating Iraq, long considered the cradle of human civilization.") This is the first time that the Fund has ever put a whole nation on its list and so represents a singular accomplishment for the Bush administration, which knew not -- and cared less -- what it wrought.

The destruction began as Baghdad fell. 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."

Worse yet, the looting of antiquity, words and objects, not only never ended but seems to have accelerated. From well organized gangs of grave robbers to American engineers building bases to American soldiers taking souvenirs, the ancient inheritance not just of Iraqis but of all of us has simply headed south. According to Reuters, more than 1,000 Iraqi objects of antiquity have been confiscated at American airports; priceless cylinder seals are evidently selling on-line at eBay for a few hundred dollars apiece; and this represents just the tiniest fraction of what's gone. The process is not only unending, but in the chaos that is America's Iraq beyond counting or assessing accurately.


This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.


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