Baudrillard and the looting of Baghdad

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Friday, September 05, 2003 at 1:35PM :

Furious Envy - Baudrillard and the looting of Baghdad
Stephen Smith
Electronic Iraq, 4 September 2003

Heavy suspicion remains that failure of the US to protect heritage sites, more than negligence, was a deliberate oversight designed as a kind of cultural 'shock and awe' that would devastate a sense of shared culture among Iraqis, leaving a blank page for the imprint of the US occupying force and the reconstruction to follow. If proven, this would be cultural genocide not witnessed during this civilization and indeed rarely experienced over the 7,000-year time span of these lost collections.

Among non-embedded journalists, there were doubts raised about the seemingly random nature of the looting. In Baghdad, Robert Fisk observed:
"But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology and the burning of the National Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed?" [1]

The confusion surrounding the fall of Baghdad makes it difficult to answer this question, especially when the line is unclear between spontaneous popular action and propaganda. However it is not only the interpretation of events that stands in the way of understanding. Much of the commentary, from either inside or outside Baghdad, has lacked a theoretical framework and cultural perspective.

Writing in Le Monde diplomatique in November 2002, French writer and critic
Jean Baudrillard gives us a theoretical model for understanding the chaos of Baghdad. In this article, "The Despair of Having Everything" [2], his main argument is that:
"The West's mission is to make the world's wealth of cultures interchangeable, and to subordinate them within the global order. Our culture, which is bereft of values, revenges itself upon the values of other cultures."

Baudrillard goes on to develop this theme.
"The rise of the globalised system has been powered by the furious envy of an indifferent, low-definition culture faced with the reality of high-definition cultures. Envy is what disenchanted systems that have lost their intensity feel in the presence of high-intensity cultures... This is a violent expression of repressed feeling about lives in captivity, about sheltered existence, about, in fact, having far too much of existence."

"Within the traditional order it was always possible to repay God, or nature, or another higher authority, by sacrifice. Today there is no one left to compensate, to whom we might repay our symbolic debt. This is the curse of our culture: although giving is not impossible, giving back is impossible, because sacrifice has had its importance and power taken away."

Baudrillard's concept of 'sacrifice' can be understood as the role of ritual and ceremony in infusing society with its values. It is an individual's participation in and exchange with his or her society and culture.

The importance Baudrillard attaches to the loss of capacity for 'giving back' can be equated, in a cultural sense, to unequal exchange. If all cultures are interchangeable and subordinated, there can no longer be cultural exchange. A capacity for 'giving back' across north and south, between the West and the rest of the world, ultimately provides humanity's sole common ground. This is precisely what is missing under globalisation.

To understand the hatred the rest of the world feels towards the West, Baudrillard's article says we must therefore reverse our perspective.
"This is not the hatred felt by people from whom we have taken everything and to whom we have given nothing back. Rather, it is the hatred felt by those to whom we have given everything and who can give nothing in return. Their hatred stems from humiliation, not from dispossession or exploitation."

"The worst thing that can happen to global power is not for it to be attacked or destroyed but for it to be humiliated. Global power was humiliated on September 11 because the terrorists inflicted an injury that could not be inflicted on them in return. Reprisals are only physical retaliations, whereas global power had suffered a symbolic defeat. War can only respond to the terrorists' physical aggression, not to the challenge they represent. Their defiance can only be addressed by vengefully humiliating the "others" (but surely not by crushing them with bombs)."

Baudrillard's concept of vengeful humiliation suggests that the US views the non-West as a universal other. In this respect an Iraqi is interchangeable with someone from al-Qaeda, who is interchangeable with any other Arab, Muslim, Asian etc. This has assumed the proportions of a cultural genocide in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. As an Iraqi archaeologist told The New York Times:
"A country's identity, its value and civilization resides in its history. If a country's civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation". [3]

To prove a strategy of deliberate oversight, we can measure the US response in Baghdad against three key indicators. Firstly, in the first days of occupation, what responsibilities were taken up by US forces in the city? Secondly, after the prolonged build-up of hostilities, did the US, as occupying power, owe a duty of care to Iraqi heritage? Finally, to what extent was Iraqi mass action manipulated for propaganda purposes, and at what cost to site protection?

On the first point, indications are that there was a clear difference in priority given to protection of economic as opposed to cultural sites. The safeguarding of the files and secrets within the Iraqi Oil Ministry reveals the priority and motives of the invading forces. Under round the clock surveillance and guarded by US tanks to block every entrance, the Oil Ministry was one of the very few public buildings to remain untouched by looters. [4]

The issue of duty of care has also been addressed in a very direct manner. Before war commenced, international scholars made urgent appeals to prevent the destruction from what is considered by many as the cradle of civilization.

On 28 March the Science and Technology News Service published The grave danger to the priceless heritage of Iraq by military action. It was signed by more than 100 distinguished American and European academics. A similar plea went out from the Blue Shield Organisation, representing four international bodies for libraries, museums, archives and monuments. [5]

McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, met with Department of Defence officials in January 2003:
I made the point the museum was the single most important archaeological location in the country, and they said we are aware of it and it would be heavily safeguarded and it won't be targeted. [6]

The US clearly had a duty of care to protect Iraq's heritage. This conclusion is supported by three White House cultural advisers who resigned in protest at the failure to prevent the looting of Iraq's National Museum. Martin Sullivan, Chairman of the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, stated: "The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction. In a pre-emptive war that's the kind of thing you should have planned for". A fellow committee member regretted "the administration's total lack of sensitivity and forethought regarding the Iraq invasion and loss of cultural treasures". [7]

In one of his dispatches for The Independent, Robert Fisk anguished:
"Why? How could they do this? Why, when the city was already burning, when anarchy had been let loose - and less than three months after US archaeologists and Pentagon officials met to discuss the country's treasures and put the Baghdad Archaeological Museum on a military data-base - did the Americans allow the mobs to destroy the priceless heritage of ancient Mesopotamia? And all this happened while US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was sneering at the press for claiming that anarchy had broken out in Baghdad." [8]

"Stuff happens," came the Rumsfeld reply. "It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things". He joked, "Television is merely running the same footage of the same man stealing a vase over and over," and added that he didn't think there were that many vases in Iraq. [9]

With this image of a stolen vase copied endlessly, how ironic that Rumsfeld unwittingly makes reference to Baudrillard's concept that the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is already reproduced. The hyperreal. [10]

While the staged Saddam statue toppling obsessed Fox News and the BBC, it was not of the same order of symbolism as the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Far from a joyous, spontaneous celebration, the people taking to the streets included a gangster element - antiquities smugglers and militants who incited further waves of looting by the poorest victims of the regime.

Organised crime had time to plan and execute these heists under cover of general looting. After countless dire warnings, the Pentagon should have anticipated chaos and prepared counter measures. Unfortunately, conduct under its own command saw instances of soldiers directly engaged in looting. TIME Magazine investigated how US troops trashed Baghdad's International Airport with damage running as high as $100 million. [11]

Allegations that American troops invited and provoked looting are made by a number of sources. Together they form a convincing testimony. On 11 April, Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter gave a description by human shield Khaled Bayomi of the part played by American soldiers in the wave of plundering:
"The soldiers shot two Sudanese guards who stood at their posts outside a local administration building. Then they blasted apart the doors to the building and from the tanks came eager calls in Arabic encouraging people to come close to them... Arab interpreters in the tanks told the people to go and take what they wanted in the building. The word spread quickly and the building was ransacked... The next morning the plundering spread to the Modern Museum, which lies a quarter mile farther north." [12]

Eyewitness reports also exist of looting at the National Museum. The Asia Times Online describes how curators started collecting disturbing evidence that this was a well organised operation:
"Archaeological files and computer disks simply disappeared. Glass-cutting tools were found on the museum's floor. Replicas that the curators had switched with the genuine article were still there, but the genuine artworks were stolen. The museum's vaults had been opened with special keys: an armed guard at the museum told Asia Times Online that American soldiers had not taken anything, but that they had opened the doors for "people from other nationalities" to loot. "The way they opened the locks, no Iraqi could do it."" [13]

Walter Sommerfeld, Professor for Ancient Oriental Studies, Head of Institute, University of Marburg, was in Baghdad in early May. His report (and English translation) is available on the Marburg website. [14] In considering eyewitness accounts of looting he comments that:
"The most surprising detail of the descriptions was that American soldiers made the lootings possible by breaking or shooting often well-secured gates open, shouting to by-standers "Go in, Ali Baba, it's yours!"

This stock phrase was repeated over and over again by witnesses; "Ali Baba" seems to be the American catch phrase for looting Iraqis. It was also commonly reported that Kuwaitis who accompanied the soldiers as translators and guides invited them to plunder."

In describing the looting of the National Museum, one of Sommerfeld's observers adds that American soldiers incited the crowd to help themselves with the words "this is your treasure, get in!"

Sommerfeld names three witnesses to the Museum looting. He gives their occupations and attributes quotes to each. For example, according to the guard of a neighbouring mosque:
"The Americans came back at 4.30 the next morning, and an officer ordered his troops to advance into the museum. Kuwaitis were there with the American troops... They took archaeological artefacts out of the museum and loaded them onto seven trucks of the U.S. military. The whole convoy drove away accompanied by armoured cars."

The BBC's Jonathan Duffy gives an account of the central role of American troops in the looting at Nasiriya's Technical Institute. [15] The Dean, Dr Khalid Majeed, said the Americans arrived in five vehicles, but refused to ward off looters. Instead the soldiers fired several dozen rounds at the college's south wall. The crowd, says Dr Majeed, saw this action as the 'green light' to looters. Duffy identifies two spectators who go on to describe the Americans waving and signalling for the crowd to move in:
"They started looting quickly and when one man came out with an air conditioner an American said to him 'Good, very good'."

Robert Fisk possesses a willingness to engage with locals and get close to the street action. Much weight can be given to his observations of a sinister arson campaign. Crucially, he agrees with Sommerfeld about a separation between looting and burning. First to Sommerfeld:

"The arsonists came afterwards, systematically dousing the looted buildings with gasoline... and lighting them ablaze. The difference in time between the looting and burning of a building was sometimes as much as four days."

Fisk sees more to the extent of noting the use by the arsonist gangs of blue and white buses to move around a citywide chain of institutional targets.
"The arsonists were an army. They were calculated and they knew where to go, they had maps, they were told where to go. Who told them where to go? ... This is a very, very important question that still needs to be reconciled and answered." [16]

Strangely, these gangs were apparently beyond the control of US forces that had so easily seen Republican Guard resistance melt away. Much evidence points to a planned attack on cultural sites. A full investigation must be held to determine US complicity. But for this to happen there would need to be strong international legislation and strict enforcement.

Article 9 of the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict [17] sets out obligations on states in control of occupied territories. They must prevent "any illicit export, removal or transfer of ownership of cultural property" (eg looting). Also prohibited are attempts to "destroy cultural, historical or scientific evidence" (eg arson). Neither the USA nor the UK are signatories to this Convention. Consequently they have not signed the Second Protocol.

The US Attorney General and Interpol [18] now accept that the most valuable objects from museums and galleries were not taken by casual looters but by organised criminal groups who knew precisely what they were looking for, and had a market to sell to. But as McGuire Gibson observes:
Many of the people who collect and exhibit this material are extraordinarily powerful people, with lots of connections in Washington, lots of connections in London, and various places. [19]

In 2001 a number of influential antiquities collectors and arts lawyers formed the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP). The ACCP opposes any US legal precedent that might prevent importing and handling of objects regarded as "stolen property" if banned for export under foreign legislation. The Council's William Pearlstein has labelled heritage protection laws in Iraq as "retentionist". [20] Another ACCP identity, John Merryman, Professor of Law at Stanford University, expresses a core interest of collectors and the art trade:
"The existence of a market preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected by providing them with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade, cultural objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and are therefore most likely to care for them". [21]

At the Baghdad museum the exact number of lost artefacts has been disputed and in fact may never be known. But recounting of objects in museum cases to prove some factor of exaggeration in reports of looting is to ignore the loss of the value of scholarship from what are often misrepresented as 'art objects'. Even if pieces are recovered unharmed, accession numbers may have been removed to make illegal sale easier, or else vital documentation may have disappeared. The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott makes this profound observation:
Once an object has been stolen from a museum, it begins a metamorphosis, losing its scholarly and archaeological context and becoming a mere commodity. [22]

The theft of museum pieces to become commodities tears them away from their cultural context. How well the plundering of Mesopotamia's treasures fits Baudrillard's classic analysis of the reparation of Pharaoh Rameses II as:
"an irreparable violence towards all secrets, the violence of a civilisation without secrets. The hatred by an entire civilisation for its own foundations." [23]

This desire to unmask Egypt's secrets is a link to the "furious envy" of global power when faced with the symbolic order of Iraqi (and world) heritage.

By all key indicators, there is convincing evidence to support the hypothesis of deliberate oversight by US forces in their failure to protect Iraqi treasures. This negligence appears to have occurred in combination with a more disturbing manipulation of events with little connection to outbursts among the people.

Not surprisingly, media outlets in the Middle East have also questioned whether the looting was purely a spontaneous reaction against the collapsed regime.
"In fact, it was the result of a well-studied policy concerning the future of the occupation to ensure its security and stability by preventing the Iraqi people from resisting it by preoccupying it with a state of chaos, unrest, and disturbance." [24]

According to Baudrillard's article, war combines a number of events:
"The primary aim of warfare is to normalise savagery and beat territories into alignment. Another objective is to diminish any zone of resistance, to colonize and tame any terrain, geographical or mental."

The cultural dimension of war in Iraq did not escape the gaze of Arab commentators.
"Of course it is not possible to separate one event from the other. The looting of museums is not less painful than the scenes of killing thousands of innocent people... Whoever wanted to wipe out the landmarks of civilization through the massing of all means of destruction.... was definitely targeting this civilization... The question is why this severity and barbarity? The answer lies in the fact that a land, which possesses this civilization, is capable of renewing its civilization." [25]

In the light of Baudrillard's theory, the Iraqi people during US led reconstruction would see a shadow cast across the Middle East. The darkness of imposed universal, western values. If as Baudrillard says, the world's wealth of cultures can be rendered interchangeable, this would certainly create an unequal exchange. Despite former glories, nations such as Iraq would have nothing to give back in return, except the symbolic challenge of terrorism.

Stephen Smith has worked in the area of policy advice for libraries and cultural institutions in Australia. He is currently working on public sector broadcasting issues.


[1] Robert Fisk, Library books, letters, and priceless documents are set ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad, The Independent, 15 April 2003

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The despair of having everything, translation posted on:
see also:

[3] John F. Burns, Pillagers strip Iraqi Museum of its treasure, The New York Times, April 13, 2003

[4] Oil Ministry the most secured building, The News International (Pakistan),
17 April 2003

[5] Nevine El-Aref, A heritage under siege, Al Ahram Weekly On-line (Cairo),
13 April 2003

[6] Where civilization began, Archaeology, Vol 56 No 4, July/August 2003

[7] US experts resign over Iraqi looting, BBC News World Edition, 18 April 2003

[8] Robert Fisk, A civilisation torn to pieces, The Independent, 13 April 2003

[9] Lawrence Smallman, Rumsfeld cracks jokes, but Iraqis aren't laughing,, 13 April 2003

[10] Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, Semiotext(e), New York, 1983, p 146

[11] Simon Robinson, Grounding planes the wrong way, TIME Magazine,
6 July 2003

[12] Ole Rothenborg, US troops encouraged ransacking, Dagens Nyheter, translation: Joe Valasek,, 12 May 2003
Ole Rothenborg, USA uppmanade till rofferi, Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm),
11 April 2003

[13] Pepe Escobar, The lions of Babylon, Asia Times Online, 26 April 2003

[14] Walter Sommerfeld, The systematic destruction of Iraqi culture, translation: Christian Hess, University of Marburg website

[15] Jonathan Duffy, US troops 'encouraged' Iraqi looters, BBC News Online,
6 May 2003

[16] Robert Fisk and Amy Goodman, An anti-colonial war against the Americans may have already begun: an interview with Robert Fisk on Democracy Now,
Znet Iraq, 22 April 2003,

[17] UNESCO, Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, The Hague, 26 March 1999

[18] Prepared remarks of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, INTERPOL Meeting on Cultural Property Looting in Iraq, 6 May 2003, Lyon, France

[19] Where civilization began, Archaeology, Vol 56 No 4, July/August 2003

[20] Zainab Bahrani, Looting and conquest, The Nation, 14 May 2003

[21] John Henry Merryman, The free international movement of cultural property, New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, Vol 31 No 1, p 10

[22] Philip Kennicott, The vanishing past, Washington Post, 18 April 2003

[23] Baudrillard, Simulations, p 21

[24] Muhammad Khayr al-Jamali, The background for the policy of destruction and ruination, Al-Thawrah (Damascus), 15 April 2003
Online version in TIDES Middle East Report No. 58

[25] Hamid Hawran, Why target the symbols of civilization?, Al-Ba'th (Damascus), 14 April 2003
Online version in TIDES Middle East Report No. 57

-- Sadie
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