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Thursday, May 01, 2003

Our Opinion

Donald Rumsfeld’s Taliban

War changes things, forever. But we can never anticipate how or why beforehand. That’s what the law of unintended consequences is all about. Just when you think you’ve figured everything out over your generals’ conference tables, something happens that wasn’t “in the mix,” that wasn’t part of contingency plans A-Z. You “win” a war, for example, and assume control of some enemy territory to which you lay claim, but, next thing you know, “something” goes wrong and, before you can say Kyrie eleison, a million of your own people are massacred or expelled from their ancestral homes, in which they had a presence for 3,000 years, and “triumph” (and a “Great Idea”) turns into disaster in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles due west, you haven’t even had time to lay back and catch your breath following your “unconditional victory” in the “war to end all wars” before you’re well on your way to the next continental — indeed, global — butchery. The latest version of hell on earth will multiply the previous mass murder by a factor of five and, in the process, lead to a Holocaust of “collateral damage” that will eliminate another ancient presence, this one of six million men, women, and children whose only mistake is to believe that they are actually citizens of the countries in which they have resided for thousands of years.

We think that’s the point that Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, was making when he began his “Notebook” column in the March issue with a quote from Leon Trotsky that read: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The Red Army’s founder knew from whence he spoke, naturally, which is why Mr. Lapham quoted his expert testimony. When it comes to a deep sense of history’s vagaries and mutabilities, of course, Mr. Lapham knows a few things himself, as he is arguably the last editor of a major publication left in this country who actually understands history. Under the circumstances, it’s no coincidence that he’s become one of the most vocal — and consistent and most principled — opponents to the Republic’s current self-immolation. Further on in his commentary, Mr. Lapham noted, based on a close textual reading of our current National Security Strategy, that “…if America does the fighting, other people will do the dying.”

And apparently, if they survive, the suffering — both physical and emotional. Before we focus on Iraq, however, we’d like to spend another moment on war’s consequences — this time, intended. After the war in Bosnia began in April 1992, Serbs quickly established the definition of “ethnic cleansing.” The “smoking gun” was a smoking building. It confirmed that the descendants of Prince Lazar were not set simply on eliminating Muslims from Bosnia, but on eradicating any trace of Muslim Bosnia from the world’s historical memory. It was only when we saw the pictures of the charred ruins of Sarajevo’s national library in August 1992 that we absolutely knew that the war in Bosnia was not at all a “mere” civil conflict but, rather, an attempt at civilizational extermination. (We were forewarned, of course, when, barely a month after hostilities began, the Oriental Institute — the specific archive of Bosnian Islam — went up in flames in May.) It is one thing to kill an “enemy” fighter; it is quite another to murder a civilian noncombatant; it is, finally, something entirely different still to attempt to obliterate any and all record of your enemy, and his people, and his culture. It is at that point that the organized homicide that is war descends into a crime that is even baser and more grotesque, and which, for the last 60 years, we have called genocide.

The Taliban’s destruction two years ago of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was quintessentially on the same moral order of eradication, for it bespoke the elimination, not simply of two physical artifacts, but of cultural memory itself: that, after all, is precisely the point to such a premeditated and wanton act. One can exterminate — or try to exterminate — an entire people, but what makes the absence following such a crime so palpable is the physical destruction of the communal evidence left behind by the victims in conscious testimony to their passing on earth. That is why there is something particularly obscene about the desecration of a cemetery. Murder is always a specific crime, linked to a specific criminal; future generations cannot be held responsible even for its most heinous instances. The deliberate destruction of a culture, of the memory of a people’s existence, however, is, in fact, an act calculated to implicate the future, as those born afterward are compelled to confront helplessly and daily — and therefore, unavoidably, to validate — the irremediable loss(es) in the middle of their lives. The burning of Sarajevo’s library will implicate Serb Christianity a century from now in the same way it does today because it is not an act of an individual or group against another individual or group, but of one culture against another. The desecration at Bamiyan will continue to condemn Afghan Islam long after everyone responsible for it is food for worms. It is these crimes, which are culturally rooted, which are remembered long after the specific violence of which they were an integral part is long forgotten.

The destruction of the National Museum of Iraq and of Baghdad’s central library will weigh upon the United States as its greatest — and singularly irreversible — crime against the people of Iraq, the Arab world, and, as with all such crimes, the world as a whole. On the day the story broke of the museum’s destruction, John Malcolm Russell, professor of archeology at the Massachusetts College of Art and one of this country’s leading specialists on Mesopotamia, was interviewed by Canadian public television. He was asked about the significance of this unprecedented act of historical erasure. A hundred years from now, Prof. Russell answered, the only thing people will remember of this war will be this moment of unique devastation. (We’d be remiss if we didn’t add that, as always, it was a foreign network that brought Prof. Russell before his fellow citizens that night, as our own “free” and “open” media have become so embedded in our government that they are effectively entombed in their silence and complicity.)

There is not much that anyone who has any pretensions to a civilized engagement with the world can say after witnessing the organized and methodical ruination in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago. Despite the intellectually transparent and morally offensive protestations of the Pentagon and the usual group of apologists of US contempt for the world, the facts are clear and indisputable: An occupying power is responsible for all police functions in the area it occupies. In the specific circumstances of Iraq, The New York Times and many others were warning months before the war began about the fragility of the country’s cultural infrastructure. The evidence now that organized gangs perpetrated the looting is the most damning accusation to date against the US. It confirms that it wasn’t “freedom’s untidiness” that led to the ensuing destruction but criminal collusion — certainly of omission if not of commission — on the part of the occupying forces, which, if they had been properly assigned, would have easily protected Baghdad’s now-devastated cultural institutions.

But, of course, the United States was too busy guarding the oil ministry and killing journalists. We have our “peacekeeping” priorities, after all. And speaking of journalists (again), it is indicative of the moral morass into which the entire culture has descended that this story died as quickly as it was born (except in Iraq and the Arab world, of course, where we suspect that people will be carrying it deep within them for years to come). When it was Chetniks or Taliban who were desecrating the world’s cultural patrimony, the story seemed to have infinite legs in the US media (and rightly so); now that we’re the ones responsible for an unprecedented cultural crime in a century of monstrous criminality, this story’s quickly become a paraplegic. Such, it seems, are the consequences of democracy’s embedment in empire.

One last point: Donald Rumsfeld’s unspeakable cynicism has now gone beyond the grotesque and entered the realm of pure immorality. We cannot even bring ourselves to comment on his remarks about what he calls “vases” but the rest of us call civilization. When nations, and societies, are led by such men, they are obviously damned. Suffice it to say that every time over the last two weeks that Mr. Rumsfeld belittled the monumental loss in Baghdad, he spawned 10,000 new terrorists. War is always the easier part of the equation that should add up to peace but, more often than not, just multiplies into more war. In the event, it’s only when the shooting stops that somebody invariably taps us on our collective shoulder and, as soon as (s)he’s gotten our attention, administers a swift, unexpected kick to the groin that drops us to the ground.

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