Monday, April 14, 2003

The tragedies of war

Jay Manifold links to this article on the looting of Iraq's national museum, and laments the loss of so many great cultural treasures.I can only agree. This is the sort of thing that is most vulnerable in the few days after an invasion, sadly. (I suspect also that Saddam Hussein's "We are actually winning the war, so there is no need to prepare for any invasion" type rhetoric doesn't really help. One thing that happened in Europe was that with the inevitable coming in World War 2, many great art treasures (Rembrandt's Nightwatch for instance) were hidden for the course of the war. And many weren't.

Other treasures thought to be housed at the museum -- such as the Ram in the Thicket from Ur, a statue representing a deity from 2600 B.C. -- are no doubt gone, perhaps forever, he said.

"This is just one of the most tragic things that could happen for our being able to understand the past," Newby said. The looting, he said, "is destroying the history of the very people that are there."

Not just the people there. All of us. This is where writing and agriculture were invented. This is where the antecedents of our monotheistic religions came from (some of them, anyway). This is where civilization came from. From an archaeological point of view, it is the most important place in the world, in my opinion.

Koichiro Matsuura, head of the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO, on Saturday urged American officials to send troops to protect what was left of the museum's collection.

The governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece also voiced deep concern about the looting. Jordan urged the United Nations to take steps to protect Iraq's historic sites, a "national treasure for the Iraqi people and an invaluable heritage for the Arab and Islamic worlds."

No disrespect meant to the Arab and Islamic worlds, but a lot of this stuff long predates the Arab and Islamic worlds. It makes them look ephemeral and relatively insignificant. (It makes a lot of things look ephemeral and insignificant. That's why it is so important). These are the treasures of all of us, not just of the Arab and Islamic world.

Some blamed the U.S. military, though coalition forces said they had taken great pains to avoid damage to cultural and historic sites.

A museum employee, reduced to tears after finding her office and all administrative offices trashed by looters, said: "It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now." She refused to give her name.

The Americans knew that the museum was at risk and could have protected it, said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago who helped circulate a petition before the war, urging that care be taken to protect Iraqi antiquities.

"It was completely inexcusable and avoidable," she said.

I doubt that they could have completely protected it, but it does sound like more effort should have been made. Sadly, though, protecting a museum doesn't get you stories on CNN. It is more a case of simply this is what happens in wartime, and this is another reason why war is so terrible. It may sometimes be necessary. I have argued that this war was necessary and I believe this, but it is still terrible.

I do not know what kind of "collector" would buy a many thousand year old treasure that had been stolen in this way, but I suppose you will find people who indulge in any kind of depravity you can name.

Of course the museum employee in question could have given her name. Nothing untoward would happen to her now for saying what she thought. Some things have changed. And it was a terrible thing for the cradle of civilization to be cut off from the world the way it was due to the country being ruled by a homicidal dictator.

But this is still terrible.

Update: There is another article here from the Washington Post. (Link via Oxblog). It does appear that various people tried hard to warn the Pentagon that this might happen, and they may not have managed to get the message about the level of cultural importance in question through to the Pentagon. Still, I am sympathetic to the armed forces here. Chaos for a few days is inevitable in this sort of a situation. I would like to have seen more done, but I am aware that this was somewhere between very difficult and impossible.

Further Update: Jay has more. His opinion: "This is a screw-up for the ages". I am coming around to the view that he is right. Either the armed forces did not get the message about just how important this stuff is, or they failed to anticipate the looting. The list he quotes of some of the things that have gone is enough to bring you close to tears. More should have been done.

No comments:

Blog Archive