The “War on Terror” and the Military–Archaeology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonialism
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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.
Abstract also available in Spanish and French.
Additional tags: archaeology and politics; military-archaeology complex; critical engagement
RPA Codes & Standards
- Principle 3: Responsibility for acquiring and recording reliable information of the past in archaeological research
- Principle 5: Recognition of aspirations of employees, colleagues and helpers in all matters of employment
Keywords & Terms
- Armed Conflict and Violence
- Impact on Communities - Local, Descendant, etc.
- Looting, Collecting, and Illicit Trade of Cultural Property
- Management of Cultural Resources, Heritage, History
- Museum, Collection, Curation and Display Standards
- Public Interest, Collaboration, Education, and Outreach
- Respect for and Responsibility to Affected Groups