The Rape of History

“This is what the Americans wanted. They wanted Iraq to lose its history.”

Donny George, Director for Research, Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities (quoted by Associated Press, April 16)

It doesn’t speak well of me, but I confess I did not cry looking at the photos of the kids with amputated limbs, the little boy with half his head blown off, the cities in flames. I grew up during the Vietnam War, and I’m used to seeing such atrocities in the print media. These results of U.S. imperialism make me angry, of course, and more determined than ever to resist, but they don’t evoke tears anymore. I’m too old, hardened and tired for that.

But the Museum. The Library. You kill these things and you kill what I do, what I’m all about. I’m an historian. I sit in archives in Japan in normal times and handle seventeenth century manuscripts, deciphering elegant official-style handwriting in cursive Chinese characters on durable mulberry paper. Maybe there is value in that sort of investigation. Or maybe it should all go up in flames, the texts and me and everything that makes sense to me.

My tears of rage are for the smashed cuneiform tablets, the Sumerian pottery, the priceless Qurans, and for the Iraqi people whose extraordinary cultural heritage has been viciously assaulted in these last few days. How many Americans tuning into CNN and Fox realize the magnitude of this outrage?

Rumsfeld smirks in response to reporters’ inquiries, opining that “riots” happen in all societies. But there is a difference between soccer hooliganism, righteous anti-racist uprisings, and cultural rape and murder. The last few days have seen crimes exceeding the Taliban pulverization of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The better analogy would be the destruction (by a Christian mob) of the Library in Alexandria in 415, or again by Arab invaders in 686. Civilization itself is under attack, and the assailants, whom the Iraqis properly compare to the Mongol invaders of the thirteenth century, wave the red-white-and-blue (until enraged crowds force them to temporarily pocket that bloody, globally hated emblem).

I don’t know much about the above-quoted Donny George. I imagine he’s a decent professional, expressing an informed opinion when he says, “This is what the Americans wanted.” The word on the street is that U.S. commanders, irked by the lack of the expected exuberant manifestations of appreciation from the “liberated” population, a shell-shocked population inclined to stony silence, and unwilling to go to the trouble of orchestrating more media events like the toppling of the 20 foot statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s main square (in which, Paula Zahn told us, U.S. forces “helped” Iraqis achieve that project, even though the square was emptied of Iraqis at the time), encouraged those so inclined to get out in the streets and act happy. And what makes thugs happier than looting and burning? Saddam had emptied the prisons some time back, and there were lots of thugs available to exult and smile and help Iraq lose its history.

Thugs don’t care about history. Knowing that the worst among them are in charge of this country, and smirking and grinning steering their troops down the road to Damascus (where there are more museums and libraries, sometimes with children innocently studying in them, like children should), I truly grieve.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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