By Patrick Boylan, professor emeritus of heritage policy and management at City University, and has trained US special forces in cultural protection. (THE GUARDIAN, 25/01/06):
Mark Fisher, the former arts minister, gives an excellent summary of the cultural heritage catastrophe in Iraq, but does not address why some of the world’s most important historic sites went unprotected during the war and largely remain so even today (Tomb Raiders, January 19)
In the preparations for the first Gulf war under Dick Cheney, then defence secretary, the Pentagon brought together detailed advice on the cultural heritage of Iraq and Kuwait from around 80 international experts and institutions. Several hundred specific sites, archaeological zones and monuments, and important historic buildings – including the National Museum in Baghdad and the Babylon and Ur archaeological zones – were identified for protection from direct acts of war such as air and ground attack, and from any postwar situation.
The protected sites were then identified on military maps used for both aerial targeting and the ground campaign. The system worked extremely well, with only one or two apparently genuine mishaps due to missiles going off target.A postwar evaluation of these measures was reported to Congress by the department of defence in January 1993, in response to a Congressional inquiry into the war’s environmental and heritage impact. In the concluding section of the report, the Pentagon gave an assurance that “similar steps will be taken by the United States in future conflicts”.
Two years later, the joint chiefs of staff unanimously recommended that the president and Congress ratify the key international treaty in this area – the 1954 Hague convention on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict – which had been signed by the US in 1954 but had then been left in abeyance, apparently due to pressure from the nuclear-weapons lobby. (Though submitted to the Senate for approval in 1998, the Hague convention still has not been tabled for debate.)
It is simply inconceivable that, during the planning of military action in 2002-3, the Pentagon did not turn up the detailed heritage-protection rules and maps applied so relatively successfully in the first Gulf war. Almost the first move of military planners in preparing for a possible conflict is to dust down records and maps, perhaps many decades old, and build on these. In this case, many of those responsible for developing and implementing the Desert Storm policy were still in the Pentagon. Someone or some group must have taken a positive decision to scrap the US’s established protection policies and ignore the January 1993 assurance to Congress given by the defence department, still under Dick Cheney at the time.
Who made that fatal decision? Who back in Washington refused to allow the Baghdad commander to move a tank 200 yards to protect the National Museum from looting – despite pleading by the museum and international experts – and who authorised the building of a gigantic military base in the middle of Babylon’s archaeological zone and allocated an adjacent area of the site to the Kellogg, Brown, Root subsidiary of Halliburton, Vice-President Cheney’s old firm?