The sterile term “collateral damage” justifiably brings to mind the human tragedy of war. But the devastating and wanton damage inflicted on the ancient city of Babylon by US-led military forces gives another meaning to the term. In this case, we are witnessing violence against one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures. Babylon’s destruction, according to The Guardian, “must rank as one of the most reckless acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory.” When Camp Babylon was established by US-led international forces in April 2003, leading archeologists and international experts on ancient civilizations warned of potential peril and damage. It was “tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain,” according to a damning report issued in January by the British Museum.
The report, drafted by Dr. John Curtis–one of the world’s leading archeologists–documents that the military base, built and overseen by Kellog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, jeopardized what is often referred to as the “mother of all archeological sites.” Helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity. US military vehicles crushed 2,600 year old brick pavement, archeological fragments were scattered across the site, trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists. As several eminent archeologists have pointed out, while the looting of the Iraqi Museum in the first days of the war was horrifying, the destruction of ancient sites has even more dire consequences for those trying to piece together the history of civilization. Making matters worse, the base has created a tempting target for insurgent attacks in recent months. As Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai reports in the valuable Iraq Crisis Report (No. 117), “It was one of the seven wonders of the world, but ancient Babylon attracts more insurgents than tourists these days.”
“Turning Babylon into a military site was a fatal mistake,” the Iraqi culture Minister told Iraq Crisis Report. “It has witnessed much destruction and many terrorist attacks since it was occupied by Coalition Forces. We cannot determine the scale of destruction now. As a first step, we have completely closed the sites, before calling in international experts to evaluate the damage done to the [ancient] city and the compensation the ministry should ask Coalition forces to pay. We will run a campaign to save the city.”
That campaign is finding allies among a growing network of archeologists outraged by the unnecessary destruction of an irreplaceable site. John Curtis, author of the British Museum’s Report, has called for an international investigation by archeologists chosen by the Iraqis to survey and record all the damage done.
The overall situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly a human tragedy but that does not exempt the US authorities, who set up Camp Babylon, from the consequences of what The Guardian called an act of “cultural barbarism”–carried out in their name by a subsidiary of Halliburton. There must be a full investigation of the damage caused, and Halliburton should be made to offer whatever compensation is possible for the wanton destruction of the world’s cultural treasure.