Cultural Cleansing in Iraq (2010)

I came across Cultural cleansing in Iraq (2010) in the course of a search for books dealing with archaeology at the Toronto Public Library.

As a result of my active involvement in efforts by area residents to ensure that the Colonel Samuel Smith homestead site remains in public hands, I’ve developed a strong interest in archaeology, as a discipline – and as a metaphor.

By metaphor, I’m thinking of the fact that an archaeological survey involves the application of a grid across a plot of land. Each artifact that is is dug up is identified in relation to where it’s located on the grid and where it’s located in relation to other artifacts positioned above, below, or to either side of it.

An artifact from such a survey has a different identity than a piece of pottery or arrowhead unearthed by a typical non-archaeologist. As well, artifacts uncovered in an archaeological survey are stored securely in order that they may be accessible to future generations. An artifact dug up under other circumstances could end up anywhere.

One can think of an imaginary grid that can be used to position all manner of information from the past – such as old photographs, tools, or pieces of equipment. If we know when a photo of a human subject was taken, and know the person’s name and back-story, we have something of value. If such information is lacking, the photo may have no meaning for us.

The subtitle of the book under review is: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered. The editors are:

Raymond W. Baker, College Professor of International Politics at Trinity College, USA, and an adjunct Professor of Politics at the American University in Cairo;

Shereen T. Ismael, Associate Professor of Social Work and MSW Field Coordinator in the School of Social Work, Carleton University; and

Tareq Y. Ismael, Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.

I began my study with a close reading of a passage on p. 209 which begins with a sentence that reads: “The systematic destruction and elimination of Iraq’s human capital has been nearly absolute and obviously deliberate.”

The reference to both destruction and elimination offers a useful level of specificity, referring as it does to a two-stage process. That is, there has been destruction, and the evidence or traces of what has previously existed has been removed.

The rest of the paragraph asserts that this two-stage process has been achieved through “a systematic and irreversible process of liquidating the strongest and the most resourceful members of Iraqi society.”

The preface to the book begins with an observation that no critic of the Bush administration would claim that the destruction of particular cultural objects or the assassination of specific scholars was the aim of those who planned and launched the war on Iraq. “Nevertheless,” the authors assert, “the destruction was willful.” This is a subtle, perhaps problematic, distinction.

A study of the contents pages highlights the book’s narratives which among other things include:

– The ideological imperatives for a ‘new’ Iraq

– The neo-conservative movement

– Death squads as foreign policy tool

– The Israeli example: State destruction in Palestine

– Crimes against culture: The former Yugoslavia

– Crimes against culture: Palestine

– Archaeology and the strategies of war

– Current status of the archaeological heritage of Iraq

– Killing the intellectual class: Academics as targets

– The authorship of killings of Iraqi academics

– The purging of minds

– Minorities in Iraq: The other victims

In chapter 3, which is devoted to Archaeology and the Strategies of War, Zainab Bahrani, who is the Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York, notes (p. 67) that:

“Since ancient Iraq is the land that archaeologists and ancient historians refer to as Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, the place of the rise of urbanism, the invention of writing and complex social structures, Iraq’s ancient past is therefore considered to be of great importance to the entire world.”

The chapter’s concluding paragraph refers (p. 80) to “the removal and suppression of archives [and] the erasing and reconfiguration of the historical terrain through the destruction of ancient monuments and historical sites.”

“These things,” the author asserts, “should not be dismissed as accidental collateral damage; they are direct acts of war and it is precisely through such destruction that empires have always re-mapped space.”

Chapter 8 is devoted to Death, Displacement, or Flight. I like the use of the serial comma before the ‘and’ in the chapter title. I believe the book’s subtitle would benefit from a similar use of the serial comma before the ‘and.’ That’s a minor stylistic point. A passage (p. 210) in the concluding paragraphs in this chapter, whose author is Dahr Jamail, who is described as an independent journalist who has been covering the Middle East for more than five years, aptly sums up the message of the book:

“It is no coincidence that the impossible prospect of Iraq rebuilding herself works in favor of the neo-liberal agenda of the United States. The raging catastrophe provides all the justification it needs for privatizing and outsourcing the country’s reconstruction, security, and management of its oil sector.”


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