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Destruction of statues has provided the two most important symbols of the American victory in Iraq. Pro-war folks got the image of the year when American soldiers helped an Iraqi crowd pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. There have been attempts to criticize this symbol, of course -- pointing out that wide-angled shots showed the crowd around the statue was fairly small, and pointing to large anti-occupation demonstrations that started almost as soon as victory was declared. Yet the Saddam statue remains a powerful symbol of Iraqis' joy at being liberated from Saddam's regime.

Several days later, anti-war folks began to play up the fact that statues (among other artifacts -- work with me here) had been destroyed and stolen from the Iraqi National Museum. There's been no shortage of commentary on the scope of the cultural tragedy wrought by the looters who cleaned out the Museum. Though it lacks the powerful visual imagery of the Saddam statue, it has become a symbol of the nihilistic chaos that has come to Iraq as Saddam was ousted, chaos the US was unable or unwilling to stop. Unfortunately, this symbol has more serious shortcomings than the Saddam statue. Foremost is that the tragedy is the loss of material objects. While I don't want to minimize the value of the items in the Museum, the fact is that people make more effective symbols. The focus on the Museum opens antiwar people to the charge of caring more about Iraq's antiquities than its people. That's not a good position to be in, considering that doves have been accused of not caring about the suffering of Iraqis under Saddam (who, nevertheless, was a good custodian of historical objects). I'm not making that criticism myself, as I know many people think this is such a tragedy because the Iraqi people are losing their history and because it's symbolic of the wider post-Saddam chaos. But it's worrying to watch this concern over the Museum snowball.


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