On January 4th, President Trump tweeted that his military response to any Iranian military reactions to his assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani could include attacks on “52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” For an administration whose acts in the present routinely require Orwellian carpet-bombing campaigns on the past (consider Mike Pence’s lie this week that Iran was involved in the 9/11 attacks), the obliteration of our world’s links to the past is but a physical extension of the Trump administration’s daily ideological practices.
Within hours of Trump’s threat to attack cultural sites, various pundits, legal scholars, and archaeologists voiced concerns that such targeting of cultural heritage sites would constitute war crimes. I have little to add to such observations, other than to stress the correctness of these critiques, but I think it is worth considering where such a list of bombing targets came from.
I read a tweet by one of my favorite writers, Ron Rosenbaum, suggesting that any Pentagon archaeologists generating a list targeting Iranian cultural heritage sites should be identified by the House and tried in the Hague for war crimes. I would certainly favor this, but my guess is that whatever role anthropologists or archaeologists played in identifying archaeological sites that Trump claims are on his target list was likely less direct but equally disturbing than I think might be assumed.
First, we have no idea whether such a list targeting historical heritage sites even exists. On the one hand, Trump is our most unreliable national narrator. His specialty appears to be off the cuff improvisational even absurdist lies–his creation of the number 52 had an air of Senator Joseph McCarthy waving his list ever changing list of supposed communists working in the Federal Government. On the other hand, Trump is an unstable weak man with limited intellect, no concern for law, completely capable of ignoring advisors warning him that a given course of action would be a war crime. We don’t know if Trump is serious, but we do know he’s a serious threat.
Let us assume such a list exists. It wouldn’t be the first time that US military targeted cultural resources for bombing campaigns—during the Second World War, anthropologists and other American intellectuals worked for the Civilian Morale Division of the US Strategic Bombing Survey. This was why Dresden, a site of no military significance but great cultural meaning, was selected for a barbaric firebombing campaign. A few weeks ago I was in Nara, Japan—whose temple complex is on the must exquisite World Heritage Sites I have ever visited—weighed down by the knowledge that it had been shortlisted with Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a candidate for demonstrating the power of America’s secret weapon at the end of the war. Though these heritage targetings were prior to the US becoming a 1954 signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, it is not unthinkable that Trump would again commit such acts to stab at the heart of an enemy as part of his campaign to make America great again.
If a list of archaeological and cultural heritage sites to be targeted by US bombing strikes exists, my guess is that we know enough about how the Pentagon and intelligence agencies today recycle knowledge to speculate how such historic sites could be identified. I have met enough archaeologists working on Defense Department cultural resource projects to find it suspect that such archaeologists would intentionally help design a targeting list of archaeology sites. But we do know how information from the US military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training programs—designed to train US soldiers to withstand interrogation if captured—were repurposed after 9/11 to form a basis for US torture programs. Such repurposings are at the core of dual-use relationships, where knowledge is created for one use, and later put to completely difference uses. I have no firsthand knowledge of whether military archaeologists helped identify sites on Trump’s claimed cultural heritage target list, but my guess is that if they did, they likely produced a list of sites never to be targeted, that was later repurposed by others. There’s a long history of the military repurposing cultural knowledge for its own uses. A history that not only clarifies why there are dangers for anthropologists working for military and intelligence agencies, but also carries warnings for anyone writing on topics of interest to the military.
At present we don’t know if Persepolis and other priceless links to the past are in Trump’s bombing sights, much less whether anthropologists or archaeologists played a direct role in any such targeting. But we do know Trump is testing his abilities to wag the dog and create global distractions that divert attention from his impeachment and domestic incompetence, I see no reason to think he is incapable of committing war crimes to accomplish this goal.