In 2006, a visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, accidentally became an artwork. Let’s call him Dude Descending a Staircase in honor of that merry prankster Marcel Duchamp. This particular visitor tripped over his feet as he was going down the museum stairs. As he fell, he knocked into three large Qing Dynasty vases that rested on their mounts in a recess.
All three vases fell to the ground and smashed into countless pieces.
In a current exhibit on violence and art in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima—“Damage Control” at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC—the German artist Thomas Demand has turned this act of destruction into a work of art. It is a single photograph of the fragments of the vase on the landing, with a hint of orderly English landscaping visible through the window. The work, Landing, is a recreation of the damage, a reminder that sometimes all that remains of Humpty Dumpty when he falls from the wall is the forensic reconstruction.
As I stood in front of this photograph, I thought about Colin Powell and Iraq. You might remember Powell’s famous quip about Pottery Barn. In his advice to President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Powell warned the president of the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. The United States would be responsible, Powell implied, for whatever wreckage the military incurred in its headlong dash to unseat Saddam Hussein.
Pottery Barn actually has no such a rule, and it was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who “made up the whole thing.” But Powell, who apologized to Pottery Barn, still embraces the message.
“We were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place,” he told David Samuels in The Atlantic. “And in the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order.”
We did none of those things, and Iraq, as a result, is broken. Nor has the United States made much effort to own it—that is, to own up to our responsibility for breaking the country. We gave up trying to sweep up the pieces. At this stage, all we do is take photographs of the damage, putting them in the newspaper accompanied by descriptions of the carnage. We mull over the consequences. We hope that our chickens don’t come home to roost.
The real Pottery Barn rule—the same rule that all retailers have—is to write off the broken merchandise as a loss. And that is what we have done to Iraq.
The latest violence in Iraq rivals the levels last seen during wartime. Last year, between 8,000 and 10,000 civilians were killed, the highest number since 2008. According to one recent study, half a million Iraqis have died from war-related causes since the 2003 US invasion, a figure that includes indirect casualties from the breakdown of the country’s social structure.