Nero in Baghdad

I am having trouble believing this, partly because it has been almost completely ignored in the U.S. press (with the exception below). But that which I do not wish to believe appears to be true: days after the destruction of Iraq’s Museum of Antiquities, the Nationali Library in Baghdad was burned to the ground, as U.S. troops against refused to intervene. Many reporters do not know, do not wish to distract from feel-good patriotic stories, or assumed the National Library is the same as the Museum of Antiquities.

We surely live in a time of barbarism. Let me share a few thoughts on the destruction of Iraqi heritage that occurred in the past few days. The best account so far is by John Burns, who was also one of the first journalists to break through cliches and denials in Bosnia back in 1992.

Here is a quote from the article:

“But even as some Iraqis sought to heal the city’s wounds, others, fired by anger and revenge, broke through to the little that was left of untouched government buildings after four days of continuous looting. Among other buildings afire or still smoldering in eastern Baghdad today were the city hall, the Agriculture Ministry and o so thoroughly burned that heat still radiated 50 paces from its front doors o the National Library. Not far from the National Museum of Iraq, which was looted on Thursday and Friday with the loss of almost all of its store of 170,000 artifacts, the library was considered another of the repositories of an Iraqi civilization dating back at least 7,000 years. By tonight, virtually nothing was left of the library and its tens of thousands of old manuscripts and books, and of archives like Iraqi newspapers tracing the country’s turbulent history from the era of Ottoman rule through to Mr. Hussein. Reading rooms and the stacks where the collections were stored were reduced to smoking vistas of blackened rubble. Across the street, a lone American tank roared out of the monumental gates of the Defense Ministry, untouched by the looters presumably because they knew that the ministry, at least, would be under close guard by American troops.”

Burns focuses on Baghdad. Throughout Iraq archives, libraries, and records are being destroyed. The Bush administration is guilty, at the very least, of criminal neglect of the responsibility, under the Geneva conventions, for the country it has occupied. Bush, Secretary of Defense Cheney, and General Tommy Franks have all claimed that they did not have the ability to intervene. Evidence suggests they knew what would happen, or should have known, and had the ability to stop it. The Bush administration made no effort to avoid another form of “collateral damage,” one that they could have avoided, at least in part, and one they surely knew would happen unless they took measures to prevent it. Here are some of the incriminating factors:

1) The looting in Basra the previous week gave the Bush administration clear warning of what would happen in Baghdad, if it didn’t act. The looting in Basra targeted the universities and other cultural institutions, as well as archive and records collection, and gave the Bush clear warning not only of looting, but of the targeting of key institutions of culture.

2) According to McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, both State and Defense received a list of the 150 most culturally significant sites and monuments in Iraq. Heading the list, the Baghdad Museum. They expressed their intentions to protect them.

3) The Bush administration was quite capable of protecting what it thought important. Every one of Iraq’s oil wells (over 1000) has been secured, as well as oil refineries and the Oil Ministry, Defense Ministry, and Interior Ministry. These graphic illustrations of the values and priorites of this administration will speak far more eloquently than the the PR campaigns they launch to win peoples hearts and minds. One thousand oil wells and not one library or museum.

4) For weeks the administration has been praising itself for its great organization and logistics. In fact, by all accounts, an enormous amount of equipment and personnel have been moved around the world, stationed and restationed. The U.S. government has a massive and highly effective logistical operation. There is no reason some effort could not have been made to protect Iraq’s greatest treasure, its cultural heritage. The administration promised it would try to preserve the oil, for Iraqis it said. It did preserve the oil, and allowed something truly irreplaceable to be destroyed.

5) Bush refused to even mention the looting in his Saturday radio address hailing his triumph, and has refused to even acknowledge that it exists.

6) Rumsfeld openly ridiculed concern over the looting. In response to a reporter’s question, he said (I believe this was on Friday), that the whole problem was exaggerated, that “untidiness” happens, that there was nothing he could do about it, and that “free people have a right to commit crimes.” Yes, these were his words. Then he stated that he saw the same vase being looted over and over and over again. Indeed, the media in the U.S. showed the looting of the kitsch of Saddam’s cronies, making the issue into a justified humiliation of a kleptocracy. The U.S. television pundits then began parading Rumsfeld’s “vase” remark and belittling anyone who thought the U.S. administration should take the problem seriously.

7) General Tommy Franks, even today, again, claimed that the problem was exaggerated. He was far more concerned with the fact that the exploits of his army were not being given due credit than with the growing crisis. It is not clear if the National Library was on fire yet as he was speaking. Military spokesmen and officers in the field have continually expressed contempt for “police work” or, as one called it, “babysitting,” thinking themselves above such activity. Though some officers were clearly doing their best and though it would be unfair to blame some stressed out soldier in a war for this catastrophe, there is a general flaw in the way the military disdains civil security, as if somehow it was not an inevitable concomitant of military conflict and, especially, of occupation.

8) In defending the administration’s lack of action to stop the looting, Rumsfeld cited a litany of past looting sprees, from Panama to LA. The fact that such looting has occurred does not mean it was some kind of “act of god” that could not be dealt with; the precedents make his reponsibility all the greater because they gave him greater warning.

9) To my knowledge no MP’s or specially designated police and no Iraqi dissidents or exiles were brought in to help establish basic order. No effort was made to use the same means to secure the Museum and Library that was used to secure oil facilities. It is not that the administration attempted to do anything and failed. It never tried.

10) Even after the National Museum was destroyed, the Bush administration and the military under General Franks apparently made no effort to protect the National Library.

In sum:

The U.S. owes Iraq reparations for the destruction of Iraqi heritage, and those reparations should not come from Iraqi oil but from U.S. funds. No amount of money can replace what is lost, but that, tragically, is the situation with other reparations obligations.

The Bush administration has violated the Geneva conventions.

For many, Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, Franks, Rice, and other members of the Security Council will go down in Iraqi history along with Saddam and Hulegu as barbarians that oversaw the destruction of Iraq. But it is Nero that is the best parallel for this administration. It is not clear whether Nero set the fire in Rome or not, but what is clear is that, according to the accounts we have, he didn’t think it a problem worth taking him away from his fiddle.

(As a gesture to let off steam, in sorrow over the destruction and in anger at the negligence that helped make it possible, I hereby christen George W. Bush the Nero of Baghdad).

MICHAEL SELLS is Emily Judson Baugh and John Marshall Gest Professor of Comparative Religions at Haverford College He can be reached at: msells@haverford.edu


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