Confronting the Contradictions

Confronting the Contradictions

Plans for a Postwar Iraq

For me the event that most clearly represents the fecklessness of our hijacked government took place after the fall of Baghdad: the looting of Iraq’s historic museum and burning of the national library in full view of American troops, who looked on and did nothing. The loss of life in war is terrible, yet the loss of a cultural legacy is arguably worse, for it negates the enormous amount of human energy devoted, over thousands of years, to the activities that make life meaningful-creating, preserving, remembering, passing on. We judge the loss of memory and consequent loss of self a calamity for the individual human being; how much more so, then, for a civilization?

This loss is doubly excruciating because it could so easily have been prevented. That the collapse of Saddam’s regime amid the chaos of war would create a dangerous vacuum of authority was utterly foreseeable, yet the American military evidently had no plan to fill that vacuum and maintain law and order. Archaeologists and museum experts had warned the Pentagon about the danger of looting and provided information about what needed to be guarded; nothing was done. The oil ministry was protected; the museum and the library-and for that matter the hospital-were not. And afterward, where was the president’s apology? Where were the calls for a congressional investigation? Where was our so-called opposition party-you know, the Democrats? Where was the media conglom-uh, the press? This should be a national scandal. Instead Donald Rumsfeld mumbled something rendered in family newspapers as “Stuff happens,” and judging from their tepid reaction, the political class and the political-journalism elite agreed. Cultural critics were upset, but who cares about them?

On the Internet claims have circulated that the Pentagon, in league with rich collectors, deliberately allowed the looting. It says something about the nature of the Bush regime that I find myself unable to dismiss such charges out of hand. But larceny or criminal negligence, it hardly matters. The unbearable truth is that we are being governed by barbarians who have no compunction about sacking the world in the name of American supremacy (just as they sack their own country on behalf of its plutocrats). These are people unwilling to assume the most elementary responsibilities of an occupying power, even as they rush to claim the spoils. Witness their gleeful urgency to turn military victory into economic plunder: the contracts brazenly awarded to corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton; the plans to privatize and sell off Iraqi industries and use Iraqi oil to pay for reconstruction; the lies told about all of the above. But their behavior is not simply a matter of capitalist triumphalism or “the oil, stupid.” It’s also thuggish reveling in the power of brute force, with a millenarian tinge: history and culture are only in the way.

As I write, the main beneficiari...