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The “War on Terror” and the Military–Archaeology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonialism

Abstract

The archaeological response to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq is often portrayed as a crusade to rescue antiquities, destroyed either directly by the military action itself or indirectly by the looting of archaeological sites and museums. I argue in this paper that this narrative is awfully inadequate, and masks the ethical and political dimensions at the core of this historical episode. I contend that, in their often well-intended attempts to rescue antiquities, most archaeologists involved have projected a professionalized, apolitical and abstract response, devoid of the social and political context, and based on the fetishisation of a narrowly and problematically defined archaeological record. I argue further that the increasing collaboration of many archaeologists with the invading militaries and occupation authorities since 2003, assisted by the “cultural turn” especially within the US military, have laid the foundations for an emerging military-archaeology complex. I trace the contours of this phenomenon by examining various archaeological and museum discourses and practices. This new development (with historical resonances that go as far back as the 18th century, if not earlier) is linked directly with the ontology and epistemology of archaeology, and deserves further close scrutiny and analysis. The thesis advanced here does not advocate inaction and withdrawal in situations of warfare, but a critical engagement that safeguards the autonomy of the scholar; critiques the political agendas and power structures of contemporary warfare; deconstructs its discursive basis and its ideological overtones; and shows its catastrophic consequences for people and things alike, past and present.

Résumé

La réponse archéologique à l’invasion de 2003 et à l’occupation de l’Irak est souvent dépeinte comme une croisade pour sauver les antiquités détruitent soit directement par l’action militaire, soit indirectement par le pillage des sites archéologiques et des musées. Je démontre dans cet article que cette présentation des faits est totalement erronée et masque les dimensions éthiques et politiques au cœur de cet épisode historique. Je soutiens que dans leurs tentatives souvent bien intentionnées destinées à sauver des antiquités, la plupart des archéologues impliqués ont projeté une réponse professionnalisée, apolitique et abstraite, ignorante du contexte social et politique et basée sur la fétichisation d’un compte-rendu archéologique défini de façon étroit et problématique. Je démontre également que la collaboration qui s’est étendue à de nombreux archéologues en relation avec les forces militaires d’invasion depuis 2003, assisté par la mise en place d’un «tournant culturel» tout particulièrement dans l’armée américaine, a jeté les bases d’un complexe d’archéologie militaire émergent. Je définis les contours de ce phénomène en examinant différents discours et pratiques à la fois archéologiques et relatifs aux musées. Ce nouveau développement (avec des résonances historiques qui ont pris racine dès le 18e siècle, sinon plus tôt) est lié directement à l’ontologie et l’épistémologie archéologique et mérite une analyse et un examen plus minutieux. La thèse avancée ici ne préconise pas l’inaction et la rétractation dans les situations de guerre mais un engagement critique qui sauvegarde l’autonomie du spécialiste; des critiques sur les ordres du jour politiques et les structures du pouvoir de toute guerre contemporaine; la déconstruction de sa base discursive et de ses connotations idéologiques; et montre en dernier ressort ses conséquences catastrophiques, passées et présentes, à fois pour les habitants et les objets.

Resumen

La respuesta arqueológica a la invasión y ocupación de Irak se representa muchas veces como una cruzada para rescatar las antigüedades, que resultaron destruidas bien por la propia acción militar o indirectamente por el saqueo de los yacimientos arqueológicos o museos. En este trabajo argumento que esta argumentación es terriblemente inadecuada y oculta las dimensiones éticas y políticas subyacentes en este acontecimiento histórico. Afirmo que, en sus intentos bienintencionados de rescatar las antigüedades, la mayoría de los arqueólogos participantes han proyectado una respuesta abstracta, apolítica y profesionalizada, exenta del contexto social y político, y basada en convertir en fetiche un registro arqueológico estrecha y problemáticamente definido. También sostengo que la creciente colaboración de muchos arqueólogos con los militares invasores y las autoridades de ocupación desde el 2003, ayudados por el «giro cultural» experimentado principalmente en el seno del ejército estadounidense, han sentado las bases para la aparición de un complejo militar y arqueológico. Sigo el perfil de este fenómeno analizando varios discursos y prácticas arqueológicas y de los museos. Este nuevo desarrollo (con resonancias históricas que se remontan hasta el siglo 18, si no antes) está directamente relacionado con la ontología y epistemología de la arqueología y merece más escrutinio y análisis. La tesis avanzada aquí no aboga por la inacción o la retirada en situaciones de guerra, sino que se trata de un compromiso crítico que salvaguarda la autonomía del académico, critica los programas políticos y las estructuras de poder de la guerra moderna; desmantela su base argumental y sus tonos ideológicos y muestra sus catastróficas consecuencias, tanto para personas como para las cosas, del pasado y del presente.

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Acknowledgements

This article is a revised version of the keynote talk I delivered at the plenary session of 6th World Archaeological Congress on “Archaeologists and War” (Dublin 1st of July 2008). I am grateful to the organisers for the invitation, to my co-speakers and to the audience for the debate and the comments, to Anne Pyburn for the invitation to publish the text in “Archaeologies”, and to Zainab Bahrani, Reinhard Bernbeck, and Susan Pollock for comments and suggestions; Reinhard Bernbeck, Keith Brown and Zainab Bahrani also allowed me to see unpublished work for which I am grateful. None are to be held responsible for the views and ideas expressed here, and for any remaining mistakes.

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Hamilakis, Y. The “War on Terror” and the Military–Archaeology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonialism. Arch 5, 39–65 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11759-009-9095-y

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Keywords

  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • War
  • Iraq
  • Neo-colonialism