The sacking of Baghdad

A hundred years from now, when nothing of what we are and little of what we see will remain, people will still talk about the looting of Iraq’s museums and ancient sites. Few will remember Saddam Hussein and few will remember George Bush (either one) or Tommy Franks. But they will remember the sacking of Baghdad of 2003, the way we remember the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, which was a monumental bit of «collateral damage» during the Fourth Crusade, and which actually turned out to be all that that crusade accomplished. The looting of Iraq’s treasures is a crime bigger than those who perpetrated it. It is the crime that will define them. It is unclear how many antiquities were stolen or destroyed, and how many of these are lost forever, despite initial claims of 170,000 looted artifacts. Experience has shown us that first estimates are usually wildly off the mark – either way. But whatever the outcome, the historical black mark will weigh on the United States. This is beside the fact that the Iraqis are free of Saddam Hussein. Not only was America responsible for what happened to the museums and the antiquities that were part of all humanity’s legacy, but, what’s worse, from reports of the past week, it is clear that American officials had been warned of the danger of looting once they entered Baghdad and that there was a power vacuum. Whether Iraqi looters were poor people out to get something they could exchange for some money, or professional antiquity thieves with shopping lists, all reports from Baghdad indicate that a minimum US military presence would have saved the treasures. On the other hand, reports and witnesses from before the war indicate that the Iraqi antiquity authorities themselves went to great lengths to try and save the contents of their museum, moving them to special vaults to protect them from the bombing. These vaults appear to have been unable to withstand the onslaught of individuals with crowbars and axes. Very simply, the Americans who went to Iraq to liberate its people are responsible for the destruction of irreplaceable items in its museums and libraries, while Iraqis who held office in Saddam Hussein’s regime were doing their best to save the antiquities. How does that tie up with the world view of those who see the world in terms of good and bad, black and white? Perhaps the catastrophe can be attributed to what the American troops say: They battled their way into a hostile city, primed to defeat its defenders and secure their own positions; they did not go into Baghdad to act as a police force. The first statement absolves the American combat troops, the second weighs heavily on those who planned the campaign. This responsibility is reflected in the statement of one of three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee who resigned on Thursday in protest at the looting of Baghdad’s national museum. «The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation’s inaction,» Martin E. Sullivan, the committee’s chairman, wrote in his letter of resignation. He wrote that American scholars had told the State Department about the location of Iraqi museums and historic sites, adding that the president «is burdened by a compelling moral obligation to plan for and try to prevent indiscriminate looting and destruction.» This was in striking contrast to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s angry accusations against the news media last Saturday for exaggerating the looting and the situation in Baghdad. «It’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,» he said. «They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here,» he added. Beyond its exasperation and paternalism, Rumsfeld’s comment is a paean not to democracy, as he claimed, but to ochlocracy. The freest of people in the world still need institutions, not anarchy. And if you are going to liberate them from a tyrant, as the United States most certainly did in destroying Saddam’s regime, you have to be just as focused on improving their lives, and certainly not allowing them to descend into a chaotic free-for-all in which not only the museums but also the hospitals were looted. Furthermore, in anarchy, the only organized groups will be those who are either remnants of the old regime, or, more ominously, those who belong to religious organizations. The United States now finds that it has thrown itself into a snakepit of religious and ethnic hatreds. The failure to protect the treasures and people of Baghdad does not augur well for whatever other planning the Americans may profess to have. If they are to preserve the secular nature of Iraq and allow its people to develop freely, with their national pride and aspirations intact, they will have to work a lot faster and be much more in tune with the Iraqis’ needs and sensibilities. It is not a good sign that, according to reports from Baghdad, the offices of the secret police, with their countless files of people who were jailed, tortured and executed, were looted and destroyed. This means that many tragedies will remain unsolved; there will not be a proper accounting of who was responsible for what crimes, allowing divisions and suspicion to remain in the new society that will gradually be built. This is the short-term and mid-term memory of the country that has to be protected. The ancient memory of the Sumerian, Assyrian and other treasures that were looted is now scattered or destroyed. Every effort has to be made to rescue and restore both the record of the people’s suffering and their antiquities. The crime has clearly been committed, but the opportunity to make amends – to the extent that this is possible and the items have not been lost forever – is still there. But as anti-American demonstrations by the newly liberated and newly assertive Iraqis become a daily occurrence, Rumsfeld’s comments appear prophetic. People who have tasted freedom from oppression will press for more freedom and will not tolerate even the most benevolent form of occupation. The Americans, in their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, may have performed a heroic rescue of an oppressed nation, but they will be shocked to find themselves being seen as a force of occupation – a foreign body and, at the same time, responsible for everything good or bad that happens in Iraq and even elsewhere in the region. The longer they stay in Iraq and the longer they try to go it alone, the more the Americans run the risk of having to face a liberation movement by Iraqis. In defending themselves long enough to make their political experiment in Iraq work, they will find, as George Orwell wrote in 1936 as the then British Empire appeared strong, that «when the white man turns tyrant it is his freedom that he destroys… He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.» Orwell wrote this in his essay «Shooting an Elephant,» a description of how, as a young police officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot an elephant that had killed a man because the crowd of Burmese that was following him expected him to do so. «And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all,» he wrote. «Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the lead actor of the piece; but I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.» Heavily armed and responsible for the change of regime in Iraq, America will find itself tested to the very core of its identity to get out of this situation safely. It is touching that the countries and organizations that can help share this difficult and dangerous burden, the European Union and the United Nations, are keen to do this. With the Americans handing out contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq, the Europeans’ interest may appear expedient, but an international responsibility for Iraq will defuse the tension that is certain to arise between the people of Iraq and the Americans. This would be to the benefit of all. Like the antiquities that have to be traced and retrieved, there is still time for prudent policy in Iraq. And it is fitting that the leaders of the United Nations and the European Union made their plea to the United States in Athens this week, amid the splendid ruins of the world’s first experiment of democracy, the ancestor of the same system that the Americans practice and are trying to transplant onto Iraq.