U.S. Marines Occupy Babylon – A Colonel’s offer for an apology

Among those who study archaeology or are at least familiar with the rich history of Mesopotamia, there’s been much concern for the archaeological sites of Iraq during the so-called "war on terror" that is being waged there. Sites like Ur, Uruk, Nimrud, Babylon and many others that are lesser known, but perhaps equally (if not more) important, have been affected.
 
A U.S. Marine Colonel has offered to issue an apology (one immediately wonders why not simply give an apology instead of an offer for one??) for the partial destruction of Babylon, where Nebuchadnezzar II was supposed to have built the famous Hanging Gardens, one of the " Seven Wonders of the Ancient World." U.S. Forces occupied the site and bull-dozed a large portion to create a helicopter pad. Sandbags were filled with matrix containing or artifacts, presumably potsherds and the like.
 
According to the online edition of The Independent’s article, U.S. and Coalition forces directly disturbed the site as follows:
 

* US Marines from the First Expeditionary Force first set up camp in Babylon in April 2003

* Soldiers filled protective sandbags with sand containing ancient artefacts

* 2,600-year-old pavements were crushed by heavy military vehicles

* Landing helicopters caused structural damage to some of the city’s ancient buildings and sandblasted fragile bricks in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar

* Archaeologists say gravel brought in to build car parks and helipads has contaminated key sites

* US troops have also been accused of causing damage to the 5,000-year-old city of Kish by the Iraqi Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities

 
 
In his offer to apologize (technically not an actual apology?), the colonel was quoted as saying, "If it wasn’t for our presence, what would the state of those archaeological ruins be?" I’m not offering this post to be a criticism of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, nor is it to deride our U.S. Forces -I was a member of the U.S. military for over 12 years and have very fond memories of my time served. Rather, I’m interested in the future of military operations in regions that have rich archaeological histories and how the military forces of the world operate with cultural preservation in mind. I’m certainly not saying that a military force should not occupy a strategic location that happens to be an archaeological site or that an opposing force would be at fault for assaulting such an occupying force -it’s very likely that the reason the site has archaeological significance is because it had strategic value in the past as well. And if a military force was moved to not assault a site because it was occupied by another, would that not motivate further occupation of archaeological sites as a way of shielding themselves?
 
But the way a military force operates around and in archaeological sites can still be managed to minimize damage to cultural heritage. If we aren’t moved to preserve culture in a foreign land, doesn’t this only give further credence to the assertion of selfish motives? The argument has been posited in many forums that the American military action in Iraq is about oil rather than the people. What better way to demonstrate this than by going out of the way here and there to preserve that people’s cultural heritage?
 
I was a part of the U.S. led coalition that invaded Iraq in 1990 in response to its unjust invasion of Kuwait. Unfortunately, I was in the Cradle of Civilization without any clue about its true significance -my archaeological calling coming much later in my life. But I can recall the destruction we were capable of and that of the opposing forces. Looking back, I see some of the damages that were done: rocket fire damaged the ancient ziggarat of Ur (picture coming); Tell al-Lahm was affected by American bulldozers; the ancient city of Der (modern Tell Aqar) was occupied and modified by the Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq war which dug through the old temple, uncovered statues and obliterated contexts and provenience of artifacts and architecture.
 
A map of the sites threatened by military actions in Iraq shows the number of sites that are situated along the Tigris and Euphrates, a region that was populated for the same reasons it is today: agriculture and commerce. It may be that new levels will need to be added to the site plans of sites like Babylon and Uruk called the Coalition Levels.