The aftermath of the war in Iraq has begun; the images of Iraqis looting hospitals and museums have begun to filter back to the United States where they’ve been inevitably spun. It’s been an amazingly bloodless campaign for the Americans, slightly less so for the Iraqis (but still much better than I had feared). The American military isn’t a police force, and thankfully it knows it’s not a police force; even if it were, it’s not at all clear that they had enough people to control a city of five million people. Like Teresa, I’m appalled by the almost overnight dismantling of Mesopotamia’s history. Paper is a fragile thing. One accidental spark, one intentional bonfire, and it’s gone. Fire makes short work of Alexandrian libraries and Mayan codices. Fire just bakes clay harder. Gold is easily melted. Even stone is valuable; the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, lost its white limestone caps almost within Cheops’ own lifetime (the other wonders didn’t fare so well, either). But clay isn’t valuable. It’s river mud. It’s worthless, except for the cuneiform it bears.
And that cuneiform is terribly valuable. I’d be the last to argue with that. The disappearance of film history pains me. The Passion of Joan of Arc, a masterpiece of silent film, survives in its original form only because one uncensored, unedited copy, the last in the world, was miraculously found in a supply closet in a mental hospital in Norway in 1981. It had apparently been brought over as a treat for the inmates and then forgotten for fifty years. All but three films by Theda Bara, the woman for whom the word "vamp" was coined, have been lost, along with more than half of all silent films ever made. Even recent films could disappear; Lawrence of Arabia was restored to its original length, there was a single working copy of the audio track remain, "rolled up in little rolls and put in metal cans which had literally rusted shut! They’d been sitting in a storeroom in England since 1962." George Lucas has apparently decreed that the original release of Star Wars, the one people grew up loving, will never be released as a DVD.
Movies are a century old. How much worse is it to lose knowledge that has survived millennia? Those tablets could have told us about early civilization, about the development of agriculture, about the Epic of Gilgamesh. Even a shopping list would be interesting; the Babylonians invented beer, after all. But I just can’t rouse myself about the looting of the museum the way Teresa and some of her readers have, although I understand the origin of her feelings very distinctly. The loss of the museum is a stupid, frustrating waste; it was preventable. People knew the artifacts were in danger. A single tank and a handful of soldiers could have prevented this, if the Army had any to spare. But I think (as I thought about the Afghan Buddhas) that the human toll — of Saddam Hussein’s rule, of the war, as the inevitable consequence of a societal breakdown that lets mobs storm hospitals — dwarfs the damage done to our collective memory.
Still. What a waste. We knew this was going to happen, but we didn’t have enough of force to police Baghdad and prevent it. Another batch of clay slips back to the earth from which it came.