6,000 Years of History Gone

News Abroad

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.

We had "ground zero." In Baghdad, writes Robert Fisk of the British Independent, they now have the "Year Zero." Several days ago, the great National Museum of Antiquities was looted of everything and completely trashed. We now know there were warnings aplenty to this administration of such a possibility -- but perhaps the warnings were ignored, as one reader has suggested to me, because they came from those who were assumed a priori to be against the administration's policies and so "the enemy." Or perhaps scholars talking about art…. Well, need I say more?

And so the record of history, at least 6,000 years of it, back to some of the first written words, the earliest sculptures, the first glorious jewelry, is wiped out -- or "privatized" for what wasn't trashed and isn't melted down may indeed end up in private collections in the West someday. All this, it would seem to me, might be warning enough. Donald Rumsfeld had to get up at more than one of his news conferences and deny we were responsible. Here's what Maureen Dowd said in her New York Timescolumn ("History Up in Smoke" ):

Rummy blew off the repeated requests of scholars and archaeologists that the soldiers must protect Iraqi history in the museum as zealously as they protected Iraqi wealth in the oil wells.

The secretary of defense made it clear yesterday that he was not too worried about a few old pots in the big scheme of things. He said it was "a stretch" to attribute the looting of the museum to 'a defect' in the war plan.

"We've seen looting in this country," he said at the Pentagon briefing. "We've seen riots at soccer games in various countries around the world. . . . To the extent it happens in a war zone, it's difficult to stop."

The government should have taken 20 seconds, when it was awarding the Halliburton contract, to protect the art, the books and the hospital supplies.

Now, several days later, come the books, the archives, the letters, the documents, the Korans, the religious manuscripts, 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. People have said to me, why concentrate on this when such terrible things are happening to actual flesh, to living human beings. Perhaps it's a weakness of the trade. Maybe an oil exec would weep for burning oil wells, for the "patrimony" of a nation going up in oily smoke, but I'm just a book editor, and those pages with precious scribblings seem to me quite human, quite alive, all we have but memory and objects of art (or everyday use) from all the living flesh that went before us. This -- the few random and insignificant words Fisk quotes below -- bring tears to my eyes. I simply don't understand. I have no idea why Iraqis have leveled their own patrimony, their own history, all that can be known of their ancestors. I don't know what passions, angers, profits, desires, blind rages moved those who did these deeds.

But the people I wonder about are my own. They knew. They were warned. They now occupy a conquered land. There, today, in Mosul, American troops shot and killed Iraqi protestors in a situation still murky but undoubtedly the start of a confused and bitter experience. Then I think, in no particular order, of Laura Bush, the reading First Lady and wonder how she can ever pick up a book again.

I think, for some reason, of a Vermeer woman or various Rembrandt portraits at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I never pass them without sensing those eyes staring into mine across so many unfathomable decades, such an unbearable expanse of time, and without feeling some connection, however illusory, something that gives me a little shiver of I don't know what. I think of the illuminated manuscripts or the first Guttenberg Bible, still partially hand-illuminated, that you can see at the Morgan Library (formerly the Morgan Mansion) in my town. I have no doubt that in those flames at the Koranic library in Baghdad are illuminated manuscripts beyond measure -- since that beautiful tradition was kept alive in the Arab world long after it died out in Europe. (Though it's worth remembering that, even in Europe, the illuminated manuscript lasted another 125 years as a kind of high-end collectible after Guttenberg invented the printing press -- things never end as fast as we imagine, unless of course they're simply turned to ashes.)

This is the human record we're talking about, all we have left, for better or worse. For me, here and now in, of all places, a motel room in El Paso, Texas, I can hardly think of a sadder story. Even an empire eager to dominate the world might, after the looting of Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities, have gathered its thoughts and posted guards at the great repositories of memory that are part and parcel of Iraq. Even the Iraqis, as the scholar Said Arjomand indicates below, did better when they looted Kuwait.

But not our fundamentalists. Books, archives, statues, earrings… no, I should say, their books, their archives, their statues, their earrings, they mean less than nothing to these men. This is a measure of the way they value the conquered (or rather liberated), a kind of racism -- I can't think of another word for it, though it hardly suffices -- an inherent contempt for history, for the history of others, which in this case is the history of us. Honestly, I don't know whether to read in protest, or simply to stop reading altogether. That makes no sense, I know, but it's the strange urge I have.


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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More Comments:

Gunilla GUNNARN - 1/21/2004

The Saga of Karl Gustav HAMMAR&Torbjörn JOHANSEN&John S. TORELL ; "The True Christians always struggle against the Zionism, also Jewish Fascism" d.v.s. "Melllan Livets ord och satanens marknadsanpassade verserna"..(Svekish language version)

** - Ärkebiskop K. G. Hammar motsätter sig det pågående
Holocaust, d.v.s den sanna masskaern, "Palestinian Genocide"... - Det är
bra men varför de andra kristna hökar lämnar honom ensam I denna
mänsklighetskampen? - De är upptagna med homosexuella satsnoingar...
- Vem soim satsar? - AIPAC&ADL&eXpo och liknande... - Inte bara
homosexuella även masmediala krafter satsar om feminina sextokiga som blir apor
I mediala krafters tassar exempelvis Ma Oftedal... - Vad säger
opinionsbildande krafter om modiga K-G Hammar's agerande? - Vänster festar
sina gamla gyllene tider som vanligt... Höger kråkor kräks ilskan mot
mänskligheten exempelvis Högerledaren Modereta skurkarnas chefen Bo Lundgren är
sur på ärkebiskop KG Hammar och underskrivit något som judar publicerar om och
om igen i DN, Expresssen... - Kråkornas skriet ändrar inget men denna
perioden har de tilfället att skita i kyrkans rena delar också!... -
- Har du sett all dessa namninsamlinmg och upprop rubrikerna? - Visst!...
Kristna världen är inte dumma skojarnas paradiset, såhär reagerar de medbvetna
mot Uffe Ekman och andra fascister...
- Hur kan man orka att försöka manipulera kristna troendet... Helt vannsinnigt
den svenska kapitalisten tokige Uffe satsar för... Men är det sant funnits vissa
dåraktiga vill underminera kristna världens historiska värderingar genom att
försöka konstutiera s. k. "Christ&Zion cooperation"?
- Sant!... Det är som största fara i SvekJa Kingdom, gänget heter, "Livets
ord"... - Vad säger Påven då? - Han är som två månaders baby-nivbån
bad man inseminerar signerar han och en fot på begravningen redan...
- Gjorde han något fel efter gängets provokationerna då? - Jo!... Flera
gånger... Påve Jean Paul's krav att moské stoppas, uppges i den 7 October
1999... - Visst!..Vatikan har ställt Z.O.Gang inför ett dramatiskt
ultimatum: Om inte palestinska muslimer

Orson Olson - 5/22/2003

Feckless American invaders are responsible for the looting of tens of thousands of antiquities in Iraq--right?

Not so! The (London) Telegraph, ("Media blamed for exaggerating loss of antiquities," By Alex Spillius in Baghdad, Filed: 22/05/2003) has the goods:

"Officials at the National Museum of Iraq have blamed shoddy reporting amid the 'fog of war' for creating the impression that the majority of the institution's 170,000 items were looted in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad.

"A carefully prepared storage plan, used in the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war, ensured that tens of thousands of pieces were saved, they said. They now believe that the number of items taken was in the low thousands, and possibly hundreds.

"Cpt John Durkin [centre] looks at recovered antiquities, with staff from the Iraqi National Museum. However, the stolen artefacts include 33 priceless pieces of world renown, which they fear will disappear for ever into private collections.

"Donny George, research director, said: 'There was a mistake. Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost.'"

Phil Cavalier - 4/19/2003

At a recent press conference, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said: "But certainly the targeting people, (the military) were well aware of where it, (the Baghdad Museum), was and they certainly avoided targeting it. Whatever damage that was done was done from the ground." Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, quickly added that Rumsfeld did receive advance warnings about archeological sites around Baghdad and that these warnings were passed on to the military's Central Command with responsibility for the war. "I think it was the American Archeological Association -- I believe that was the title -- wrote the secretary with some concerns," Myers said. "We tried to avoid hitting those sites ... to my knowledge we didn't hit any of them."

Meyers memory was right on target. In January scholars gave Defense Department officials the names of archeological sites they hoped to spare. ”[The military] had a list of 150,” says McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “We gave them over 4,000 more—but that only covers the 10 to 15 percent of the country we’ve studied.” The main concern of the AAA was that these sites could be bombed and valuable new materials would be destroyed. As Meyers says “we didn’t hit any of them”. The Defense Department bent over backwards to accommodate the Association concerns, and put together a database of over 4,000 targets to avoid bombing. As for looting, the scholars did not offer any plan, or at least they have never revealed the details of such a plan, as they did with the bombing targets. Some Monday morning quarterbacks are saying they were talking about looting but no evidence has been presented.

Why was the American Archeological Association primarily concerned with the unexcavated archeological sites being bombed? As one scholar put it, “except out of professional solidarity, Western scholars care less about museum thefts than about the plundering of unexcavated sites. Objects in museums have already been photographed and studied, and if they were properly excavated, their archeological context is known. “Archeologists don’t want the objects themselves,” explains Russell, “but the stories they represent. When you yank a clay tablet or a cylinder seal out of the ground, you lose everything but the pretty object itself.”

The bombing theme was again highlighted in an April 6 article in a Knight Ridder newspapers. “Just beneath the war's battlefields lies a honeycomb of archaeological sites that tell a regional history that stretches from prehistoric man of around 500,000 B.C. through 3500 B.C., when the land of Mesopotamia was cultivating its status as the cradle of civilization, and beyond. Scholars estimate that the country has some 500,000 archaeological sites, only 10,000 of which are fully known and cataloged”. Further on in the article this is added, "I hope the military has been instructed on how to avoid damage this time around," Potts said. "But in the heat of battle, we all know what the priorities are going to be, and it won't be any of these precious monuments. It will be to win the war." Again the emphasis is on bombing not looting.

In a MSNBC article on March 24th is written: “This time the Iraqis seem better prepared for postwar chaos. The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was heavily sandbagged last week and closed to the public while workers frantically packed its immense treasure into metal trunks. Rare documents and books, including gold-leaf copies of the Qur’an printed on silk paper, were being packed away at Baghdad’s Abdul Qader Al-Kailini mosque. “Four thousand museum pieces were stolen in 1991,” says Jaber al-Tikriti, the Iraq Museum’s director of antiquities. “This time we have a plan.”

The military did its job perfectly but Engelhardt thinks the scholars plan was not that good, or was it? He will be surprise by the true facts, not by Maureen Dowd's contoured information. It may help if one did some research. In the old days it used to take two items to make a trend. In today's world Mr. Engelhardt only needs one unfounded bit of information to bring fourth his crocodile tears.

Click here to go back to the article.

Richard Gassa*n - 4/19/2003

E.T. Strobridge, a bit oddly, writes:

"First let me say Mr. Englehardt, you dont know whether the antiquities you refer to are "completely trashed" or not. The National Museum of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq but I would guess that their priorities are different than yours hence they also did nothing to stop what has happened."

No. You see, under international law, we had the responsibility of protecting the national resources of Iraq. When we removed the structure of law and order, we assumed - and still assume - responsibility for creating law and order.

If you have any questions on this point, look to Mr. Rumsfeld's statments regarding another vital resource of Iraq, its oil wells and the oil ministry. We took great pains to make sure these were protected.

As for the rest of your comments...
"I can only wonder why those of you who decry the loss of something you happen to be interested in dont do something about it..."

This is just bizarre. You see, I served in the U.S. military - did four years - and I'm now a taxpayer and a citizen. As such, I expect my leaders to behave responsibly, to do the things that a responsible leadership would do.

What you don't seem to realize is that when we allowed these things to happen, it IS our fault. WE, as Americans, share responsibility for things that happen in Iraq on our watch. You, as a conservative, should agree that the people who are responsible for things should take the blame when things go wrong, even if those things are the kind of things that bleeding heart liberals like me care about.

Derek Catsam - 4/19/2003

Well, they were invited to bid in what is at best an unseemly process, and it appears that they will be involved in some rather noncompetitive post-war contracts.

George Stroebel - 4/19/2003

Bechtel will let contracts to sub contractors and Haliburton will be the receipent of many of them.

Herodotus - 4/18/2003

Particularly because Haliburton wasn't given any contract.

E.T. Strobridge - 4/18/2003

First let me say Mr. Englehardt, you dont know whether the antiquities you refer to are "completely trashed" or not. The National Museum of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq but I would guess that their priorities are different than yours hence they also did nothing to stop what has happened.

I can only wonder why those of you who decry the loss of something you happen to be interested in dont do something about it rather than bellyache that another mans son or daughters lives weren't put on the line put to defend something you and your kind never seem to do anything about, except to complain. Might I suggest you head up a scholarly brigade, call yourselves something like " The defenders of ancient relics for all of mankind" and volunteer your troops to your country to help in the defense of freedom and what is right for ourselves and others who cannot help themselves. I would imagine that our President would certainly consider an "artifacts brigade", well trained to operate alongside our sons and daughters defending freedom to fight for what you believe in. How about some special training so your brigade could go in with our special ops forces and defend to the death the things you believe in. Remember Mr. Englehardt, freedom is not free. It requires those of us who will stand up and be counted as you feel you should be by sitting on the sidelines. Saving antiquities is one thing, saving the lives and future of a people are quite another, especially when lives are at risk.

I cannot quarrel with your belief in the protection of the worlds antiquities, only that all you appear to be doing is blameing someone else for not doing what you will not do. Do something positive Mr. Englehardt it will make you feel better.

glenn mesaros - 4/18/2003



[Source: {Hitler's Secret Conversations, 1941-1944}]
OCCUPATION OF IRAQ. What Adolf Hitler said at dinner on April 11,
1942, about his plans for the colonization of the "Eastern
Territories" (Poland, Soviet Union, etc.) amounts to a blueprint
for the Chickenhawks' conduct today in Iraq. Hitler was in an
expansive mood, as he waxed eloquent on the questions of economy,
democracy, education, culture, religion, communications,
administration, arms proliferation, and public health measures,
among other things. His genocidal occupation regime lorded over
nearly 1 million square miles of Soviet territory at that point,
i.e., an area equal to approximately one third of the Continental
United States, not including Alaska. Moreover, his Armed Forces
were about to launch a major new offensive that was designed to
seize the vast Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus, in order to
fuel Hitler's expanding, but economically vulnerable, war
On administrative and economic matters, Hitler said:
"In order to retain our domination over the people in the
territories we have conquered to the east of the Reich, we must
therefore meet, to the best of our ability, any and every desire
for individual liberty which they may express, and by so doing
deprive them of any form of State organization and consequently
keep them on as low a cultural level as possible.
"Our guiding principle must be that these people have but
one justification for existence -- to be of use to us
economically. We must concentrate on extracting from these
territories everything that it is possible to extract....
"The other great disadvantage of an organized society is,
from our point of view, that it would fuse them into a single
entity and would give them a cohesive power which they would use
against us. As an administrative organization, the most we can
concede to them is a form of communal administration, and that
only in so far as it may be necessary for the maintenance of the
labor potential ... of the individual."
The cultural genocide that is now being perpetrated in Iraq,
rings loudly as an echo of Hitler's educational/cultural policy:
"It will be the duty of our Commissars alone to supervise
and direct the economy of the captured territories. Above all,
we don't want a horde of schoolmasters to descend suddenly on
these territories and force education down the throats of the
subject races. To teach the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the
Kirghiz to read and write will be to our own disadvantage;
INTERESTS. (all emphases added) A loudspeaker (FOX,CNN, ed.) should be
in each village, to provide them with odd items of news and,
above all, to afford distraction. What possible use to them
would a knowledge of politics or economics be? THERE IS ALSO NO
villagers require is music, music and plenty of it. Cheerful
music is a great incentive to hard work; give them plenty of
opportunity to dance, and the villagers will be grateful to
"One thing which it is essential to organize in the Russian
territories is an efficient system of communications, which is
vital both to the rational exploitation of the country and to the
maintenance of control and order. The local inhabitants must be
taught our highway code, but beyond that I really do not see the
need for any further instruction....
"(Otherwise) our policy in the wide Russian spaces should be
to encourage any and every form of dissension and schism."
On the matter of arms proliferation, Hitler spoke like a
true Chickenhawk:
"The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to
allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all
conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms
have prepared their own downfall by so doing." (ssd)



The Minnesota Star Tribune, like all newspapers, makes its own headlines and
picture captions: Here is one on April 16 under a picture of Iraqi

"Thousands of Shiite muslims protested the presence of U.S. Troops in
Nasiriyah on Tuesday. Residents chanted, "Yes to Freedom. Yes to Islam. No
to America. No To Saddam". Such a demonstration was unthinkable a week ago
under Saddam's Sunni Muslim regime."