As a fellow geek, bibliophile and amateur student of history, I can certainly relate to Tim Bray’s dismay at the looting of libraries and museums that was allowed to go on unchecked in Iraq. When I read last week that the national library and archives in Baghdad were gutted by fire - entirely destroying handwritten documents from the 16th century and one of the oldest copies of the Koran, among many, many other things - my first thought was naturally the Library of Alexandria and the irrecoverable loss of so much learning, scholarship, art, cultural heritage - and, yes, memory.
I, like Tim Bray and many others, also find myself pondering the fact that an entire company of Marines was positioned to guard the Oil Ministry, while other ministries, hospitals and the aforementioned libraries and museums were left completely unprotected.
But most of all, I find myself filled with disgust at Donald Rumsfeld and his dismissive attitude towards the chaos in Iraq. To look at the loss of thousands of years’ worth of cultural artifacts, shrug and say, “Stuff happens” reveals a complete disdain for culture, learning and history and a deep lack of respect for the people to whom these things are important - and that’s not just archaeologists and scholars from around the world, but the Iraqi people themselves.
What’s particularly sad is that there is actually an international law in place to prevent the destruction of monuments, art and books during war. It’s known as the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Unfortunately, it’s not a convention that the United States has seen fit to ratify (it apparently has signed the convention, but I don’t know the legal repercussions of that).
Last time I checked, though, the United States was party to the Geneva Convention, which requires occupying forces to maintain order and prevent looting. Apparently no one let Rumsfeld in on this, though, as he seems to think that the ransacking of hospitals, destruction of shops and pillaging of museums and libraries is simply an acceptable manifestation of the “untidy” freedom to which we have introduced the Iraqis. Judging by the Iraqis’ own irritation at the chaos, however, I think somebody had better tidy up this untidy mess PDQ lest the Iraqi people start thinking this “freedom” thing ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.