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6,000 Years of History Gone

We had "ground zero." In Baghdad, writes Robert Fisk of the British Independent, they now have the "Year Zero." Several days ago, the great National Museum of Antiquities was looted of everything and completely trashed. We now know there were warnings aplenty to this administration of such a possibility -- but perhaps the warnings were ignored, as one reader has suggested to me, because they came from those who were assumed a priori to be against the administration's policies and so "the enemy." Or perhaps scholars talking about art…. Well, need I say more?

And so the record of history, at least 6,000 years of it, back to some of the first written words, the earliest sculptures, the first glorious jewelry, is wiped out -- or "privatized" for what wasn't trashed and isn't melted down may indeed end up in private collections in the West someday. All this, it would seem to me, might be warning enough. Donald Rumsfeld had to get up at more than one of his news conferences and deny we were responsible. Here's what Maureen Dowd said in her New York Timescolumn ("History Up in Smoke" ):

Rummy blew off the repeated requests of scholars and archaeologists that the soldiers must protect Iraqi history in the museum as zealously as they protected Iraqi wealth in the oil wells.

The secretary of defense made it clear yesterday that he was not too worried about a few old pots in the big scheme of things. He said it was "a stretch" to attribute the looting of the museum to 'a defect' in the war plan.

"We've seen looting in this country," he said at the Pentagon briefing. "We've seen riots at soccer games in various countries around the world. . . . To the extent it happens in a war zone, it's difficult to stop."

The government should have taken 20 seconds, when it was awarding the Halliburton contract, to protect the art, the books and the hospital supplies.

Now, several days later, come the books, the archives, the letters, the documents, the Korans, the religious manuscripts, all those things not pressed into clay, or etched on stone, or engraved on metal, just words on that most precious and perishable of all commonplaces, paper. People have said to me, why concentrate on this when such terrible things are happening to actual flesh, to living human beings. Perhaps it's a weakness of the trade. Maybe an oil exec would weep for burning oil wells, for the "patrimony" of a nation going up in oily smoke, but I'm just a book editor, and those pages with precious scribblings seem to me quite human, quite alive, all we have but memory and objects of art (or everyday use) from all the living flesh that went before us. This -- the few random and insignificant words Fisk quotes below -- bring tears to my eyes. I simply don't understand. I have no idea why Iraqis have leveled their own patrimony, their own history, all that can be known of their ancestors. I don't know what passions, angers, profits, desires, blind rages moved those who did these deeds.

But the people I wonder about are my own. They knew. They were warned. They now occupy a conquered land. There, today, in Mosul, American troops shot and killed Iraqi protestors in a situation still murky but undoubtedly the start of a confused and bitter experience. Then I think, in no particular order, of Laura Bush, the reading First Lady and wonder how she can ever pick up a book again.

I think, for some reason, of a Vermeer woman or various Rembrandt portraits at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I never pass them without sensing those eyes staring into mine across so many unfathomable decades, such an unbearable expanse of time, and without feeling some connection, however illusory, something that gives me a little shiver of I don't know what. I think of the illuminated manuscripts or the first Guttenberg Bible, still partially hand-illuminated, that you can see at the Morgan Library (formerly the Morgan Mansion) in my town. I have no doubt that in those flames at the Koranic library in Baghdad are illuminated manuscripts beyond measure -- since that beautiful tradition was kept alive in the Arab world long after it died out in Europe. (Though it's worth remembering that, even in Europe, the illuminated manuscript lasted another 125 years as a kind of high-end collectible after Guttenberg invented the printing press -- things never end as fast as we imagine, unless of course they're simply turned to ashes.)

This is the human record we're talking about, all we have left, for better or worse. For me, here and now in, of all places, a motel room in El Paso, Texas, I can hardly think of a sadder story. Even an empire eager to dominate the world might, after the looting of Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities, have gathered its thoughts and posted guards at the great repositories of memory that are part and parcel of Iraq. Even the Iraqis, as the scholar Said Arjomand indicates below, did better when they looted Kuwait.

But not our fundamentalists. Books, archives, statues, earrings… no, I should say, their books, their archives, their statues, their earrings, they mean less than nothing to these men. This is a measure of the way they value the conquered (or rather liberated), a kind of racism -- I can't think of another word for it, though it hardly suffices -- an inherent contempt for history, for the history of others, which in this case is the history of us. Honestly, I don't know whether to read in protest, or simply to stop reading altogether. That makes no sense, I know, but it's the strange urge I have.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.