In 1945, towards the tail end of World War II, Nazi forces were in full retreat throughout Europe. In many places, its officers commanded – as a final act of savagery- that the beautiful cities they were abandoning be reduced to rubble. So too in Paris. Supposedly, however, one culturally minded general couldn’t bear the pain of destroying the city’s beautiful landmarks, choosing instead to disobey his orders and leaving allied force to find monuments such as the Eiffel Tower rigged to blow but still very much intact. While the true story is somewhat less altruistic, the idea that the city of light’s splendour could move its enemy to stay its hand has taken on mythical proportions.
Similarly, when American military commanders gathered to decide on the intended targets for its apocalyptic nuclear bombs, Kyoto was taken off the list at the very last minute. Though a lot of myths again surround the “pure” intentions behind this removal, it is generally recognised now that had it been attacked, its status as Japan’s Eternal Capital and its subsequent loss, would have left a scar on the Japanese psyche that would have made any subsequent establishment of peaceful relations an incredibly daunting task. Many deeply significant cultural sites elsewhere in the world were not nearly as fortunate.
Now jump to the present day, when in the wake of the US’s killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, #worldwarIII exploded online. While deeply alarming, predictions of global armed conflict rarely amount to more than a busy twitter-sphere afternoon and some snappy op-eds. However, the reliably unreliable tweetery of President Donald Trump did revive plans of retaliatory cultural destruction from their admittedly shallow grave when he suggested that the US might target 52 of Iran’s heritage sites. Although his administration swiftly pushed back on the idea of ordering what would amount to a war crime, Trump defiantly took to twitter once more to undo their spin, questioning why he should not target these places. The easy answer is of course that it is deeply illegal. But the true barbarity of such an act would run far deeper still.
In a time of fraying international cooperation, the idea that a nation’s cultural wealth is off-limits has remained relatively unscathed worldwide. There is an interesting contradiction at work here. Many people would agree that certain objects, buildings and are so deeply tied to a people’s identity that to strike at these things is to strike at the very heart of who they are and what sets them apart. But as the response to fires that ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and Brazil’s National Museum have shown, there also exists an almost communal sense of ownership over humanity’s treasures, valued by everyone everywhere.
This juxtaposition sometimes manifests itself negatively. When nations fight to regain items that are deeply significant to them from foreign collections, strong feelings of both reluctance and understanding are quick to follow. At its very best, however, it leads to international treaties such The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and, eventually, the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court where war crimes are now prosecuted.
Perhaps also recognising the depths of the feelings that form around these history-filled places and objects, those who have sought to destroy them knowingly targeted more than just their physical presence. The true (and far more sinister) aim of these acts is often to erase wholly the identities that have been formed through them. Unsurprisingly, violence targeting these sites often occurs in conflicts where accusations of genocide are levied at parties involved. Western readers will likely conjure up the examples cited earlier, among others. But often an act as simple as divorcing a population from its ancestral lands has proven equally effective, perhaps best exemplified by the notorious “Trail of Tears”; the forced removal of thousands of Cree and Cherokee people. The tactic has proven so pervasive throughout time, that the notion of cultural genocide has gained prominence. A term not to be used lightly, to be sure. The recent destruction of heritage sites in the Levant by Daesh and Afghanistan by the Taliban however, served little purpose other than to reshape the identity of the people it sought to control in its own mould without the obstacle of a different past. For any US president to contemplate mimicking some of their most bitter enemies, in the aftermath of the killing of a man who famously opposed both groups, will harm its credibility in the region.
Sadly, despite recent events, actual cooperation on heritage protection in conflict zones has proven a little shaky at best these days. The U.S. has always been somewhat allergic to the general concept if not the practical consequences of war crimes, particularly if it suspects one of its own could end up on the hot seat. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, under Trump, the US government went the extra mile and announced it would leave UNESCO too (again), citing organisational bias against its Israeli allies who also are no longer members. The move was welcomed by Netanyahu, but irony sure has died another death when a head of state whose people have mourned the loss of their temple continuously for nigh on two millennia cannot get behind wanting to stop it from happening to others.
For the history buffs: in an additional twist, that temple (the Second Temple in Jerusalem) was ordered built by the Persian king Cyrus the Great whose tomb, as you might have guessed, is now part of one of the Iranian UNESCO sites embroiled in this latest round of tweetstorm diplomacy.
Today, Iran has 22 cultural sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, an indication of the immense wealth of human history the country has been witness to. With an additional 50 sites placed on its tentative list, it is home to a dazzling diversity of landmarks, from the Armenian monasteries in its West Azerbaijan province to the remains of Persepolis, the mighty capital of the Achaemenid Empire brought low by Alexander the Great. Damaging any of them could upset the delicate patchwork of beliefs and ethnicities that make up Iran and leave its moderates with few avenues for diplomacy. If the United States wants to bring stability to a volatile region, it cannot hope to do so by inflicting scars that will far out-live its politics of the day.