ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Musings12 Apr 2008

As if there weren’t enough reasons to oppose the absurd anti-human force that is war, I have lately been possessed by this thought.

We often hear that the Iraq war carries a high cost in “blood and treasure”, but we neglect its cost in history. The loss of life, as monstrous as it is, and the waste of resources, as foolish as it is, are short-term in their detriment to our species. Tanks running roughshod over the birthplace of civilization is not.

When we think of the great library of Alexandria, we lament the burning of its books, not the deaths of Alexandria’s citizens in the accompanying invasion. I wonder if someday, when the oil fires are long burned out and the desert dust has finally settled, our descendants will lament the looting of the Baghdad museum in the same way. Five years ago this week the US troops marching into Baghdad did nothing to stop the plunder of some of the world’s oldest artifacts. Although museum staff took precautions to remove and secure most of the collection before the war, as many as 15,000 artifacts were carried off or destroyed, and about half are still unaccounted for. More disturbingly, the plunder of artifacts from museums and archaeological sites in Iraq continues in the chaos today, beyond the power of anyone to stop [see this article]. I do not mean to trivialize the death and suffering of people in Iraq, but in 500 years George Bush’s name could well be most closely associated with this stupid loss of our history.

I happened on this passage in Alberto Manguel’s “History of Reading” that puts the looting in focus:

In 1984, two small clay tablets of vaguely rectangular shape were found in Tell Brak, Syria, dating from the fourth millennium BC. I saw them, the year before the Gulf War, in an unostentatious display case in the Archaeological Museum of Baghdad. They are simple, unimpressive objects, each bearing a few discrete markings: a small indentation near the top and some sort of stick-drawn animal in the center. One of the animals may be a goat, in which case the other is probably a sheep. The indentation, archaeologists say, represents the number ten. All our history begins with these modest tablets. They are — if war spared them — among the oldest examples of writing we know.

It is through the writing that the people of the past communicate with us today and with the future; writing endures. If the history of our species may be thought of as the life of a person, then these tablets represent our own first words to the wider world. If we lose them, we lose the roots of our memory, of our very identity.

An exhibit called “Catastrophe!” opens at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago this week, commemorating the looting in Baghdad five years on. I fear we’ll be commemorating it for a long time to come.

2 Responses to “The War on History”

  1. 16 Apr 2008 at 3:50 pm Katherine B.

    I remember hearing about damage to ancient ziggurats during the invasion. It is really sad, isn’t it?

  2. 16 Apr 2008 at 9:42 pm Ian

    When I first chanced on these Iraqi Archaeology Playing Cards I thought they were a joke. Turns out the US army really did issue these to their troops. While I’m glad they are aren’t ignoring the issue, I can’t help but think if playing cards are the best they have…

    The whole notion of preserving ancient artifacts is so at odds with fighting a war that that no amount of good intentions is going to prevent damage and loss.

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