Wednesday, July 09, 2008

First Thoughts on the World Archaeological Congress Resolution

Before turning to the question of whether the resolution passed by the WAC is a good idea, it is important to look at how the press release issued by the Congress frames and justifies what it is arguing should be done now in relation to war plans being prepared for Iran. The release implies strongly that archaeologists who prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq "were asked to provide (or volunteered) information on sites 'to be spared'" should have refused to do so because such providing such information lent "cultural credibility and respectability to the military action."

Did that really happen? Did archaeologists who provided site coordinates to the Defense Intelligence Agency or its British counterpart lend credibility and respectability? Such information, we know, did enable the military to avoid destroying archaeological sites, buildings, and monuments, as they were compelled to do in order not to be charged with war crimes under provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention. I suppose one could believe that not being a war criminal is the same thing as being respectable, but most people would make a distinction between the two. Would members of WAC be in favor of jettisoning the 1954 Hague Convention so that the military would have no legal obligation to collect site coordinates and create "no-strike" lists?

That the military felt obligated to do this does not necessarily mean that it did not also want to do so to burnish its cultural credentials and respectability. So one should ask: Did the military gain a public-relations advantage from being seen to have been getting advice and expertise from archaeologists? The historical record, which is laid out in detail in a book I have just completed (Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, forthcoming April 2009 from the University of Chicago Press), shows the opposite. Far from loudly calling for help from the archaeological community, the Defense Intelligence Agency and its British counterpart kept their efforts to contact them quiet. And, given what happened to the museum, it is difficult to understand how anyone could think the military cared much about being seen by the world as a protector of culture

For archaeologists, on the other hand, engagement with the war planners made it possible for those involved to do what the WAC resolution insists they should do: emphasize "the detrimental consequences of such [military] actions for the people and the heritage of the area." They did so not just publicly but also directly and repeatedly to policymakers and planners.

Archaeologists who took the clean-hands approach advocated in the WAC resolution also attempted to influence public opinion, to be sure. They did garner some publicity. But they had no discernible effect on public opinion, either before or after the war. Those who worked with the military, on the other hand, were able to explain to the public, in the wake of the looting of the Iraq Museum, that they had directly warned officials in the Pentagon and the State Department (where their meeting was with Ryan Crocker, by the way) that the museum would almost certainly be a target of looters. Their testimony in the press had a very powerful negative impact on the credibility and respectability of the military action.

One more thing worth noting: Word that archaeologists in the US were meeting with Pentagon and State Department officials as well as targeters to make sure that the military knew the museum would be a target reached Donny George in Baghdad. George used this fact to try to persuade his superiors in the Iraqi cultural bureaucracy that it was time to begin packing up the museum and battening down its hatches. He would not have been able to make that argument had archaeologists merely boycotted the entire warplanning process.

1 comment:

Voz Earl said...

Great column--couldn't agree with you more.

Voz Earl