After American troops failed to protect Iraqi museums from the full-scale looting and destruction that took place last week, British scholars are doing what they can to come to the rescue. The British Museum promised on Tuesday to send a taskforce of conservators and curators to Iraq to help historians there salvage what is left and document what is missing. When the museums in Baghdad and Mosul reopen, their Mesopotamian collections will probably include pieces lent or given by the British museum.
The offer is a statement of trust and solidarity within the scholarly world, but it is also an indication of how much has been destroyed. Only in times of tragedy does a community bind together to such an extent, and the real tragedy is that much of the loss could have been prevented.
Historians had been warning for months that the museums would be an easy target for looters after Saddam fell. Some museums had suffered even after the first Gulf War, which left the government's police system intact. When the predicted destruction came, however, the troops that weren't guarding the oil wells were too busy knocking down statues of Saddam Hussein to come to the rescue of the more ancient statues in the Iraq Museum.
During the two full days of looting, in which approximately 170,000 objects disappeared from the museum in Baghdad, museum officials begged the US army for protection. Some soldiers came over for half an hour "at lunchtime," according to the New York Times, fired some shots into the air to frighten the looters, and left again. Most of the looters were poor Iraqis, with no clear idea of what they were stealing. It would have taken very little to keep them away permanently, but the Americans couldn't be bothered.
In the American soldiers' reaction to the looting and the reaction of the British museum, there are two entirely different views of Iraq, and two different predictions for its future. In the American view, Iraq is the country of oil wells and Saddam Hussein. Having toppled Saddam Hussein, our duty is now to protect the oil wells so that we can bring democracy to Iraq and make a profit at the same time. We are concerned only with the future of Iraq, not the past, and we have no responsibility to protect its history.
The second viewpoint sees Iraq as a country with deep historical roots, a country with record of civilizations so ancient that Saddam's reign is just an eye blink in comparison. It sees the artifacts in the Iraq museum as both a part of Iraq's national identity and as treasures for the entire world. It sees Iraq as a country that has existed and been independent for a very long time, and will continue to be.
The second viewpoint is the correct one. Among the treasures that were lost, possibly forever, in last week's looting was the earliest existing piece of writing, and one of the earliest examples of mathematics. It is not just the history of Iraq that has suffered, but the history of humanity.
It is hard to know yet just what the U.S.'s long term plans for Iraq are. But if Iraq is to be an independent nation again, and not a colony of an imperialist U.S., then the British Museum will deserve some thanks for treating Iraq as an equal, and not as a conquered enemy.