View Full Version : The Stuff Of War

02-27-09, 06:59 AM
By Georgie Anne Geyer
Thu Feb 26, 6:27 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Given the decreasing chances for experiencing and expressing real joy in human affairs over the last couple of years, it's a relief to say that a wondrous event took place this week. It is not one most Americans would identify with, happening as it did halfway across the world, but they should, for it expresses in the most profound sense all the links every one of us has with our origins in the mists of history.

I speak of the reopening of the once-glorious Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, after its disgraceful looting following the American invasion of the country. Half the exhibition halls were still dark, musty, scabrous and largely closed, and as many as 7,000 pieces from Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and other precious periods were still missing out of as many as 15,000 stolen at the time. But the Iraqis gamely laid out a red carpet, and top officials in hushed lines appeared to see with wonder, once again, the stunning 2,700-year-old stone reliefs from the Assyrian King Sargon II at ancient Khorsabad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who seems to be finding his voice these days, gave an eloquent speech, saying at one point of the invasion and its aftermath: "It was a rugged wave and strong black wind that passed over Iraq, and one of the results was the destruction that hit this cultural icon. We have stopped this black wind, and we have resumed the process of reconstruction."

So far as we know, no one publicly quoted former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who oversaw the invasion and somehow neglected to protect the great museum. But one can bet that there were people in the crowd who remembered Rumsfeld's "eloquent" words when faced with the looting: "Stuff happens ... Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

He obviously did not realize, as Marine investigators looking into the looting found afterward, that trafficking of the precious stolen antiquities had then helped finance al-Qaida in Iraq, as well as various anti-American Shiite militias. Stuff really does happen.

As it also happens, I was honored to see this exquisite museum, founded in 1923, when I visited Iraq as a correspondent and it reopened after being closed during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to '88. I have also seen The Heritage in St. Petersburg, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Gold Museum in Bogota, the Hittite Museum in Ankara and the Oriental Museum in my own beloved Chicago.

All were wondrous, as I come to understand only as I have become more mature. But if I had to name one as the most memorable, I would have to name the Iraqi one -- the one that reopened this week, rising out of the dusty, contradictory, bitter-golden streets of Baghdad.

It was a small building, compared to the rest of the museums. Its treasures were not shown in modern style with well-thought-out (and often endlessly boring) space between them, but rather jammed together, much as Iraq's historic events seemed jammed together. But in the basement, one could rove silently and alone between the glorious Assyrian stone reliefs lining the walls, and in the darkness relive the days of Nineveh, whose walls still exist where the Assyrian kings hung their enemies while they themselves were feasting.

Iraq is an incredible graveyard of great empires. On one trip, I traveled from the ruins of the walls of Babylon (whose new bricks were grandiloquently imprinted with the name of Saddam Hussein before he was hung) to Ur, the original home of Abraham, father of three great religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Indeed, the country's pathways are so wondrous that one can wander out into the desert of the Northwest and come upon the ruins of a gorgeous Hellenistic city, Hatra, once the capital of the little-known but creative Parthians.

But stuff happens. Even in ancient days, useless wars and environmental destruction devastated culture after culture in the Tigris and Euphrates valley, until today Iraq is a mishmash of tribes with only these ruins -- and the museum -- as remnants reminding one of the past.

But after that stuff happened in 2003, American archeologists and the "tough" Marines, who have always ironically been more sensitive than the other services to cultural factors, worked to regain many of the pieces stolen from the museum. Iraqi customs agents at the airport stopped smugglers. UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, got actively into the fray, and the U.S. and Italy gave financial assistance to regain many of the lost treasures.

Our military services have long struggled with this question of culture in war and peace, just as it has struggled with irregular or guerrilla warfare against the American propensity for huge machinery. Understanding foreign cultures is not natural to most Americans, especially soldiers, although one of our greatest of them, Douglas MacArthur, developed a profound understanding of Japanese culture, which is what allowed him to effectively replace the emperor and form the modern Japan that has been one of America's greatest friends.

In truth, culture is not just something, even in warfare; culture is everything. Whether in Japan or Vietnam, whether in Haiti or Nicaragua, whether in Iran or Iraq. An understanding of it must be factored into every single military act, so that we can experience Japan again and not Vietnam, so that museums are not again violated and so that stuff will not happen again on our historic watch.