The Louvre and the British Museum are monuments not only to the glory of Britain and France, but to the civilizations they despoiled in their reigns as great powers. Say this at least for the American empire: it must be the first in history to leave all the pillaging to the people it conquers.
Of course it was out of the question that an army forbidden to fly its own flag out of deference to Arab pride would have packed up the relics of ancient Mesopotamia and shipped them home to the Smithsonian. Yet that would have been a more uplifting sight than what actually took place in Baghdad late last week.
The looting of Iraq’s National Museum and National Library shocked me even more than the war’s human casualties. I was braced for the latter; but who could have predicted that thousands of Iraqis armed with axes, sledgehammers and guns would have used the post-invasion chaos to ransack the treasuries of their cultural patrimony?
Archeologists in the United States say they saw it coming, and that the Pentagon knew it too. “We warned them about looting at the very beginning,” Professor McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago told Reuters. “I was assured [the museum] would be secured.”
American commanders inevitably placed more importance on beating Saddam’s remaining troops, and taking on the insurgent Shiite militias, than on guarding books and artifacts. Museum official have claimed that “just one tank and two soldiers” would have been enough to save the collection, but I hesitate to second-guess the officer who decided these were needed elsewhere.
Still, it’s hard not to conclude that someone screwed up. The coalition has gone to unprecedented lengths to spare civilians, and done everything to send the message that it is fighting for the Iraqis, not against them — a message that this tragedy undermines. Already there have been reports of stolen items turning up for sale in (where else?) Paris.
Yet even more scandalous than the thought of millennia-old vases and carvings landing in the hands of rich foreign collectors are the images of local hordes setting fire to ancient manuscripts and chopping up ancient statuary too heavy to move.
It’s one thing for people to cart out photocopiers from the Ministry of the Interior or gold bidet fixtures from the tyrant’s palaces. In those cases, a Baghdad professor’s cynical words to the New York Times seem at least remotely plausible: “People are saying that the U.S. wanted this — that it allowed all this to happen because it wanted the symbolism of ordinary Iraqis attacking every last token of Saddam Hussein’s power.”
But the tokens of Saddam’s power were not 5,000-year-old sculptures and musical instruments, or clay tablets bearing the world’s first writing. They were gargantuan statues of the dictator himself; ubiquitous photos of him in belligerent poses; ghostwritten novels, memoirs and other “works” — totalitarian kitsch turned out in such bulk that future historians will have more than they need, no matter how much has been smashed or burned.
Saddam was shrewd to keep the National Museum frequently closed. He was smart enough to know that his propaganda could never compare with its jewels. He must have been jealous of the contents of those now-empty galleries, in which the heirs of Sumer might take pride that had nothing to do with him.
After watching a gangster treat their heritage as his personal property for three decades, it’s no surprise that a demoralized people themselves should treat it with the contempt of rapists. As a looter at one of Saddam’s palaces justified himself to a reporter: “Nobody likes to steal, and everyone would like to live in a wealthy country. But he never made us feel like we were part of the country.” Now they have less to feel part of.