Events in Iran and Iraq over the last week have been unsettling, even frightening, for the inhabitants and for many of us in the rest of the world who have been watching helplessly: assassinations, missile strikes in response, and the prospect of all-out war. One of the most unsettling events were a set of threats made by President Donald Trump against Iranian cultural sites. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Trump himself later retreated from these threats, but not before setting off days of loud condemnation throughout the world — on social media, and in the letters and official statements of scholarly organizations and experts that study the region.
Let’s be clear: Targeting Iranian cultural heritage for attack is horrific because it would inevitably kill many people, and because it would damage and destroy places central to the lives of Iranians. But you wouldn’t realize this from the letters and statements written in response. We read instead that targeting Iranian cultural sites would be a war crime, which is inarguably true. And we read, again and again, that Iranian cultural heritage is really world heritage. “Cultural heritage does not belong to one nation or to one country,” we are told. Iranian heritage is really “our common heritage” according to one statement by the Getty Trust, “our global heritage” in a statement by the American Alliance of Museums; the National Trust for Historic Preservation insists it “belongs to all of us.” To us, not (just) them.
Almost none of these widely shared letters and statements and articles have emphasized or condemned the fact that attacking these sites would kill human beings. This is a replay of Syria, where for years we heard about how the ancient ruins of Palmyra are part of our heritage in the US and Europe (not that they are Syrian), but certainly not about the modern town of 50,000 people there. It is nothing less than a failure of the heritage and museum communities, this removing of Iranians from the story of their own monuments.
In many of these statements and articles we also read that Trump’s threats represent a break from previous US policy, that before his presidency the US was a global leader in protecting cultural heritage. But they ignore why the US took this stance in the past. Powerful modern states have used the love for and protection of ancient remains as an excuse for invasion and occupation of foreign countries at least since the time of Napoleon in Egypt. The present day is no different. French protection of heritage in North Africa is openly recognized as a way to get local populations to accept French troops in their countries. Advisory and training manuals for the US military and NATO recognize the same value in cultural heritage. In September 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry used the opening of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition as a backdrop for effectively announcing the US bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria, which began just hours later — in the name of protecting cultural heritage. Posturing as a heritage savior is nothing to celebrate. It is a weapon of war.
That this posturing is a war tactic is clear from how selectively we actually see it used. The US has invaded and bombed several countries in West Asia over the last 20 years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In the process it has destroyed many historic monuments. After invading Iraq, the American military set up a base at ancient Babylon, damaging the site. More recently it devastated both historic and modern buildings in leading the coalition to take the city of Mosul in Iraq from ISIS. The US has spent years supporting the Saudi coalition as it inflicted massive destruction of cultural heritage in Yemen (while also causing a humanitarian catastrophe). This is not to mention the other crimes it has committed: aggressive war, torture, collective punishment, and more. Trump’s threats do not mark a reversal. What’s new about them is publicly stating the underlying intentions, rather than refusing to acknowledge them or attempting to cover them up. As usual, what stands out as unique is Trump’s crudity and vulgarity — that is, stylistic issues.
The problems with this approach to Trump’s threats are exemplified by art critic Philip Kennicott’s response in the Washington Post. According to Kennicott:
For decades, the United States has helped lead the evolution of the word [barbarism] to include the barbaric destruction of art, architecture, libraries and archives, and places of spiritual or historical significance. Our leadership has been imperfect and sometimes hypocritical. But when a lack of US leadership led to the looting of Baghdad’s antiquities museum during the 2003 Gulf War, the US response wasn’t to claim a basic right to destroy culture. We argued the “fog of war.” It was defensive, muddled and wrong, but not amoral.
What was the context of this looting of the Baghdad museum? Were months of lying to start a war that killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, destroyed a country, and helped to create today’s situation only “muddled” and “a lack of US leadership,” but a childish threat to target historic monuments is amoral? How have we forgotten our history so quickly?
Perhaps we should see these appeals to the global importance of Iranian heritage and to a nobler American past in a more positive light, as a well-meaning but misguided attempt to make people across the world feel that they have a stake in Iran’s cultural heritage. Or perhaps we should see them as cynical, assuming that American readers will only care about the monuments and their relation to the Bible, not flesh and blood (living) Iranians? More than anything, though, these appeals encapsulate what’s wrong with the liberal response to Trump in general: treating Trump as something entirely new and aberrational in a largely noble national history, when he is just an intensification — a caricature — of what has come before. The idea that if we can only get rid of him we will be able to go back to our normal lives and everything will be fine is tempting but badly mistaken.
How can we approach threats to heritage more thoughtfully? Iranians themselves have shown the way, tweeting photographs of cultural sites important to them with the hashtag #IranCulturalSites. CNN featured an opinion piece by Seema Golestaneh, an Iranian-American scholar of the region, emphasizing the human dimension of heritage. A letter from 80 historians and other scholars of Iran from around the world, published in the Guardian, emphasized solidarity with the people of Iran. Highlighting that heritage is important because of the people who live with it can be done effectively after all.
Now is a time for clarity. Targeting Iranian cultural heritage is first and foremost bad because of the devastating effects it would have on Iranians. We in the rest of the world may feel a real loss, but that is secondary. We should not fall back on clichés or abstractions about the universal value of cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is a living thing, at the heart of vibrant communities of flesh and blood human beings. It is vital to understand and express what is really at stake and what really matters here.