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Baghdad Burning

by John Sledge

Libraries do not fare very well in war. The latest confirmation of this melancholy fact occurred earlier this month when the Baghdad National Library and Archives was looted and burned. Thousands of books, manuscripts, letters and newspapers were stolen or destroyed. The looters soon moved on to the Koranic Library and robbed or torched its priceless religious holdings. These outrages, along with the prior pillage of the internationally renowned Museum of Archaeology, mark a catastrophic cultural loss not just for Iraq, but for the entire world.

Robert Fisk of the Manchester Guardian witnessed the National Library’s despoliation. “I saw the looters,” he reported. “One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a book of Islamic law from a boy of no more than 10.” Fisk wandered “amid the ashes of Iraqi history,” and picked up partially-burned, centuries-old documents. One Iraqi high-school teacher lamented, “Our national heritage is lost.” Instead of blaming his crazed fellow citizens, he raged at the Americans who allowed it to happen. “The modern Mongols, the new Mongols did that,” he cried. “The Americans did that. Their agents did that.”

The Mongols to whom the distraught teacher compared the Americans conquered Baghdad in the 13th century. At that time, Baghdad was a center of learning and culture with 36 public libraries. The Mongols eagerly sacked them, ripping the leather covers from books to resole their shoes, burning manuscripts, and dumping thousands of volumes into the Tigris River. According to contemporary accounts, the water ran black with the ink.

When the present Iraq war was in the planning stages, scholars anticipated similar scenes and begged Pentagon war planners to provide security for libraries, historic sites and museums as soon as practicable. However sympathetic the planners may have been, the commanders on the ground had other, more immediate concerns as their forces approached Baghdad, such as whether or not they might face chemical weapons or savage house-to-house fighting in the city. Happily, these fears proved unfounded, and after some scattered resistence, Saddam’s regime collapsed. The population, no longer fettered by fear, poured into the streets to topple statues and enthusiastically welcome the invaders. Unfortunately, other Iraqi citizens, desperately poor and exploited for decades, took advantage of the power vacuum to loot government buildings and offices and soon the museum and libraries. Despite the earlier warnings and pleas by scholars, American troops made no effort to protect these priceless repositories (though they did stand guard over the Oil Ministry).

The question is, why not? In the absence of any definitive answer so far, conspiracy theorists have had a field day. A panel of British archaeologists accused the Pentagon of acquiescing to the wishes of a mysterious cabal of international art collectors slavering to get their hands on important artifacts and manuscripts. Incredibly, some Iraqis accused the Americans of arranging for Kuwaitis to do the looting as compensation for the damage wrought by Saddam’s army in their country during the first Gulf War. Ridiculous as these theories might sound, they effectively play to the despair and revulsion felt by many Iraqis forced to witness the destruction of their proud heritage.

In this country, the left has seized upon the cultural vandalism as confirmation of the Bush administration’s insensitivity and philistinism. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Scheer described the looting as “a fit metaphor for current U.S. foreign policy, which causes more serious damage through carelessness than calculation.” He continued, “The notion that Iraq even has history –- let alone that 7,000 years ago this land was the cradle of civilization –- is not likely to occur to the neocolonialists running a brawny young nation barely more than 200 years old.” Stung by these accusations, Colin Powell declared that “the United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general... .”

While the allegations, denials and recriminations fly, one fact remains startlingly clear –- uncounted numbers of books, artifacts and other treasures in Baghdad have been stolen or senselessly destroyed. Despite technological advances, war remains what it has always been –- a brutal, destructive enterprise inimical to civilization and culture. The flames pouring from the Baghdad National Library were a painful reminder that this is so.