By Tom Slattery
Fast-forward 799 years. On April 13, 1204 AD, Crusaders broke into the Christian fortress city of Constantinople and sacked it. Much was carted off, and many of the documents and artifacts that would have helped scientists and historians to understand how we came to be what we are were lost forever.
Fifty-three years later, in a war against terrorism, specifically a campaign against the Islamic Society of Assassins, virtually the original terrorist group, the Mongol conqueror Hulagu asked the Caliph of Baghdad al-Mustasim to surrender the city. The caliph asked to negotiate. Hulagu, a man with perhaps a slight anger management problem, took offense and ordered his troops to kill each and every living person in Baghdad. The terribly hard work of killing between a half million and two million people using only swords took about a month and a half.
Historians generally look at such events objectively and even tend to be forgiving. Hulagu did, after all, have a problem with terrorists. And, after all, by now all of those people would be dead anyway.
But historians have agonizing difficulty forgiving what Hulagu also did in Baghdad. He had what was then one of the finest libraries in the world tossed into the Tigris River. Legend has it that the river ran black with dissolved ink. And again historians and scientists lost that which would surely have allowed us to understand what we are and how we came to be this way.
Over a thousand years earlier another great library had been destroyed. In 43 BC the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, burned down in a military confrontation between the Greek-descended rulers of Egypt and the Roman Empire. Guilty or not, Julius Caesar has been held responsible for this awful catastrophe ever since. Documents that would have cleared up many historical and archaeological mysteries went up in smoke.
It is highly unlikely that Big Julie walked into the library with whatever pre-match igniter that they used in those days and lit it. He is just the general in charge who might have acted to prevent such a tragedy.
Unforgiving historians, amateur or professional, have long historical memories. That happened over two thousand years ago, and there is still a lot of gnashing of teeth over it.
Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and related scholars and scientists deal in long memories. And as an amateur armchair one who dabbled so far as to publish an amateurish book, The Tragic End of the Bronze Age, I can claim an understanding of the process and the feelings of exasperation and exuberance inherent in research and discovery.
We deal in memories, in recovering memories, in efforts to find out how we became what we are. Unlike most sciences, we can do little in the way of duplicable experiment and must rely on that which has been found, analyzed, inspected, and continually re-analyzed as method and apparatus improves to squeeze a drop or two more of information here and there.
Documents and artifacts are painfully collected with great difficulty from dangerous caverns or from under mounds of dirt and by carefully digging and dusting with small trowels and tiny paint brushes. And sometimes a rare treasure indeed is unearthed and finds its way into a museum to awe and inspire all of us, all of us because the great museums and associated libraries in which these treasures are found belong to the whole of humanity and across all of the time-zones of historical periods.
Historians, archaeologists, museum curators, and librarians, paid ones, volunteers, amateurs, and professionals, become spokespersons for and guardians of these ancient treasured documents and artifacts and all the plodding ancient humanity that they represent. And we do not generally forgive those who are in any way responsible for the destruction of ancient documents, artifacts, or carefully assembled collections of them.
Memories are long. We do not--ever--forgive Caesar, who burned the great ancient library at Alexandria, Hulegu, who destroyed the great ancient library at Baghdad, and the leader of the Crusaders who sacked Constantinople. 2000 years later we do not forgive Caesar, and centuries later we do not forgive Hulegu and the Crusaders.
And that brings us to the present. There is a military chain of command that goes from President George Bush, through Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and then to General Tommy Franks, commander of all the troops sent to invade Iraq.
And whether they might now realize it or not, these three men will not be forgiven by history--all of human history forward to the end of history itself. Their negligence in providing security for everything in Baghdad except, significantly, the Ministry of Petroleum, will never be forgiven by historians, archaeologists, museum curators, and librarians, paid ones, volunteers, amateurs, professionals, library users, museum goers, and just about anyone else with any sense of presence in the ongoing rush of history.
We also know that the government of Saddam Hussein, whatever else its faults may have been, took careful care of these treasures. History will probably note that he was typical of dictators of the time and place but will have nothing against him for not protecting its property.
Thousands of years from now scholars will gnash their teeth and mutter curses at the Bush-Rumsfeld-Franks trio for allowing the looting and destruction of the artifacts dating from the beginnings of civilization and that thus literally belong to all of humankind. And the Bush-Rumsfeld-Franks trio are the three people responsible, fully responsible, and the only ones responsible.
We may not know for sure about Julius Caesar, Hulagu, or the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, but we know for sure about George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tommy Franks. We know who they are. We know the chain of command. And we know what happened.
These three men, who provided security for the Iraqi Ministry of Petroleum building, who knew of a need to protect these most precious artifacts, who were warned of the danger of looting and vandalism. (see the article in Archaeology Magazine published just before the invasion http://www.archaeology.org/magazine.php?page=online/features/iraq/index)
They negligently failed to protect some of the earliest, greatest, and most beautiful archeological treasures in one of the greatest museums in the world.
There will be no kind thoughts for the Bush-Rumsfeld-Franks trio across the vast millennia to come.
And over and above the loss of precious material from the distant past, there is an apparent absence of planning for cessation of war that seems to border on negligence. We have seen the images and heard the honest news reports of looters, ransackers, and vandals running wild. Even the sick in hospitals have been harmed by thieves taking vital medical equipment and drugs.
The loss of the many of the most archaeologically valuable and irreplaceable items on the face of the planet was apparently not a fluke. It was part of a larger pattern of negligence, the obvious negligence to create realistic plans in an administration that prefers religious and political dogma to intelligent thought and discussion.
George McGovern had his take on it in the April 21, 2003, issue of The Nation. "Thanks to the most crudely partisan decision in the history of the Supreme Court, the nation has been given a President of painfully limited wisdom and compassion and lacking any sense of the nation's true greatness."
Out of the environment that this created, we had, as UN Inspector Hans Blix claims in The Guardian , April 12, 2003, was based on "fabricating" evidence, a war, in short, that did not have to have commenced. And it would seem that in the process no military of civilian machinery of civil order was planned.
What did they think they were going to do? We Americans are now seen by all the world as having provided a worse government than was there before amid massive destruction and loss of life based on a fake pretext.
That is the immediate unforgivable as seen by the world. But I tell you as one of them, albeit an amateur one, that historians and scholars will never forgive the trio of Bush-Rumsfeld-Franks for the whole future of history and civilization. And even now, a few hours into accumulating this historical memory, I am already uttering curses and gnashing my teeth.
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