Iraqi officials are investigating reports that Islamic State militants destroyed Hatra, an archaeological site that dates to the 1st century B.C., only two days after the group bulldozed another site nearby, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. There is information that an archaeological site near Khorsabad is the latest to be desecrated. There no doubt will be more.
Destruction of historical sites is indefensible. Like an extinct species, once they are gone, they are gone forever. The casual destruction of the world’s shared heritage is too often a byproduct of war, as well as a symbol of its senselessness. Unfortunately, Islamic State’s wanton destruction reminded me of another example that I witnessed in Iraq while embedded with the U.S. Army in 2009.
On the edge of Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived, were several small hills, raised lumps on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells” — ancient villages. For thousands of years, people in Iraq, as throughout the Middle East, used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. The bricks lasted about 20 years before crumbling, at which point the people rebuilt on top of the old foundation. After a couple of rounds, the buildings sat on a small hill.
For our archaeological site, there had been so much erosion over the years, along with the digging the Army had done, that an area two football fields in size was covered with ancient pottery shards. They were just lying on the ground; you couldn’t help but find them. Where holes had been dug, you could see larger pieces — even most of a semi-intact large pot or two. There were walls and building foundations exposed.
The problem was the vacant, flat area attracted soldiers, who would sometimes drive the SUVs used to get around on base there, doing “donuts” and enjoying kicking up dust plumes. No one officially seemed to mind much — kids blowing off steam — until one reservist lieutenant colonel, a school teacher back home, took it upon himself to try and preserve what was left of the site. He set up poles with red streamers, both as a warning and as a way to make driving impossible, and the donuts stopped. A decent man with a noble adopted cause, though most soldiers saw him as a pain.
People said that when the U.S. Army first built the forward operating base and dug up truckloads of dirt, soldiers found ancient skulls and long bones. You could sometimes still spot old bones in the earthen barriers protecting the base. The Army used one ancient tell nearby for artillery practice, blowing off most of its top. As one soldier said, “If it’s old and already broken, why does it matter if we shoot at it?” That same area was turned over to the Iraqis, who use it today as a live-fire exercise zone. Forward Operating Base Hammer is still open for business, now as a depot for the M1A1 tanks the United States is selling to the Iraqis. I’m not sure of the status of what’s left of the on-base archaeological site.
Sadly, other sites were damaged during the U.S. occupation. Early in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. Marines built a helicopter pad on the ruins of Babylon. They filled sandbags with archaeological fragments, pulverized ancient pottery and bricks engraved with cuneiform characters and christened the place Camp Alpha.
The scale and intent were obviously different from what Islamic State is doing, but a loss is a loss, in big bites or small ones.
Thousands of tells are scattered all over Iraq. You could see them in the desert from the air, especially in late afternoon when the sun was low, as they were the only things that cast a significant shadow. Some of the pottery and bricks on our site were possibly Sumerian? Assyrian? Babylonian? None of us knew enough to know. But we wondered, had the dust we dug out of our ears been part of some ancient city wall?
At night, the tell area was dark, and you could imagine how the earliest inhabitants of what is Forward Operating Base Hammer must have seen the night sky. It was beautiful — awe inspiring — with stars flashing almost to the horizon. It was a reminder that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar, and a promise across time that someone might sit atop our own ruins one day and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.
Peter Van Buren, who served in the State Department for 24 years, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, a look at the waste and mismanagement of the Iraqi reconstruction. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.