The Art of War

Soldier on Babylon, 2004. Source: CNN
Soldier on Babylon, 2004. Source: CNN

The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has spawned some seemingly improbable headlines, like “U.S. establishes base on Babylon” and “U.S. hands back Ur”. Upon reading such titles, I envisioned the army traveling back in time to attack the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar at his Hanging Gardens or helping God himself topple the Tower of Babel.

Though Babylon and Ur have been abandoned for millenia, and long ago fell into ruin, Western culture still reveres the biblical-era myths and stories set in these cities.

Of course, Babylon and Ur aren’t just notable for their antiquity or their place in Western mythology. These sites are located in the alluvial plains of Iraq, in the path of modern human migration out of Africa – this area has seen untold centuries of human movement and occupation. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), they are the likely birthplace of many human “firsts,” including agriculture, writing, and the wheel. Sites and artifacts in this region don’t just represent one culture, they represent major achievements of our species.

It seemed almost sacrilegious for the military to invade Babylon and Ur. Moreover, it seemed too dangerous for them to occupy and risk damaging these fragile places, which are still being excavated.

When U.S. military contractor KBR built a base on Babylon in 2003, they did indeed damage the site. Workers bulldozed tells, dug ditches, built embankments, and carved out roads; in doing so they hopelessly confused the archaeological context and damaged structural remnants and artifacts, which at Babylon are buried relatively close to the surface. Vibrations from helicopters caused the collapse of a temple, and heavy machinery cracked a 2,600 year-old brick road. Ur fared little better.

To Westerners, Babylon and Ur are perhaps the best-known of Iraq’s ancient cities, and the U.S. military’s heedless destruction there communicated an awful message: even here, nothing here is sacred. One imagines it communicated the same to Iraqis.

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Liberty From Plastic, and Other Things

Early one Sunday morning, I decided to get a coffee and take a walk down to the Wharf, before all the tourists showed up. I ended up on Pier 45, which is home to the submarine U.S.S. Pampanito and the liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien, both historic World War II-era vessels now open to the public.

Jeremiah O'Brien. Source: Chris Utter

I sat on the edge of the pier, dangling my feet over the side. Sipping my coffee, I watched the pelicans fly low across the water, always in groups of 5, or 7. I was comparing them favorably to seagulls when the Jeremiah O’Brien let out a loud blast of steam. I dropped my coffee and nearly fell off the pier.

I hadn’t realized that the old ship was still running. I walked over to to investigate, remembering when it used to be anchored at Fort Mason. At the time, I was in junior high and my friend’s stepfather worked as a mechanic on the ship. Handsome but alcoholic and angry, he didn’t seem to like his job, or much of anything. He was a volatile force that I did my best to avoid. I still couldn’t look at the Jeremiah O’Brien without thinking of him, and feeling slightly uneasy.

Near the gangway was a portable ticket booth, occupied by a white-haired man in overalls. “What’s going on?” I asked, pointing to the ship.

He smiled broadly. “Once a month, we fire up the engine, to keep it running smooth,” he said. He leaned toward the opening in the glass, “Would you like to go aboard?”

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