I may vote for some else, if this is the case.
Friday, April 29, 2016
It seems simple, but it is not. A person lives in the present, but sends out waves which ripple through time. And most people are forgotten except through distortions they send out into the world. They are forgotten, except by their descendents. The myth of dialectic, let us call it, or perhaps as Trotsky might put it the young eagle, which Lenin identifies himself with history. Though Marx and Engels go back to writing it. But omnipresent is the trade-off: Trotsky identifies history with himself, while Lenin identifies himself with history. A very subtle distinction. But each person does this a little bit, though he does not know what. But a few people scratch their pens, tap there typewriters, or express themselves at the keyboard, to make themselves a kind of history, even if it is not read. They are at least reaching there tendrils out in to the void.
But how different the stentorian voice they assume, the man or woman who writes anything for history, is not the same one who lives. Whether they make a character, or assume themselves in retrospect, neither of these is actually themselves. They may feign being a historical actor, but after they are dead, the voice is the only thing that is left to breathe life, even if it is a various figures struggling to live beyond the century that they were allotted. They wrestle with it while they are alive, sending emanations along that narrow pathway, which will change the language as Hammurabi did from Akkadian, to Assyrian , to Persian, to Greek, to Latin, to English. Where as he is best known for being a computer game, with bushels of wheat and a snickering smile.
The area between the two rivers in what is now Iraq was an ancient land even by the time the Greeks gave it the name "mesopotamia" – meso, for middle or between, potamia, for rivers, as we call the river that Washington sits on "Potomac", a collision between ancient American Indian and Greek. There were a series of cities, empires and cultures which rose and fell over the course of thousands of years, inventing, reinventing or coöpting many of the basic developments of civilization – writing, accounting, trigonometry, currency, administration and architecture.
This history, of Iraq in our time, is a reflection of the importance of the region which is now partially covered by Iraq. In our age it is oil, in another, water and arable land. The history of the region goes back to the dawn of written records, and its prehistory is spreads roots back to the dawn of human inhabitation. The lands and rivers were not what we think of as farms, but, instead, were, as with many early farming societies, a flood plain that had to be carefully managed. Waters brought in fresh soil, which allowed agricultural systems which could not afford to let land lie fallow, nor had the ability to engage in massive fertilization projects, nor break heavy soils with later metal plows to function over long periods of time. This was different from earlier agricultural systems which burned through land in an area and then moved on.
The complexity of managing the irrigation system and the need for a trading system to supply metals and woods used in the growing civilization would lead to trade, trade to symbolic representation, and this to that great dividing line: writing.
Around this cultural center grew up a series of religious festivals and ceremonies designed to track time, and to allow the assimilation of progressive waves of invaders and traders into the basic cultural matrix. At the center of this religious complex came to be the city of Babylon, and at the pinnacle of this, the festivals of new year and selection of kings that confered legitimacy.
This combination - control of the basic material substance of prosperity, a fragile matrix of production which could be destroyed and rebuilt, but which had to be managed - and a system of legitimacy which allowed the production and management of resources - made Babylon sit at the crucial point of the fertile crescent for an almost unimaginable period of time. One could drop all of modern history into the era of Babylon's centrality, and still have more than a millenium to either side. The intersection of writing, religion, mathematics and production is attested to in early texts.
It is far too complex to analogize the present conflict between the United States and various power factions in Iraq to any specific conflict, at the same time, it is almost impossible not to notice the parallels to many of the conflict periods in the past. One leaps out as being of particular interest to me, partially because it is of interest to people in the present: what we now call the "Neo-Assyrian" empire.
The empire is traditionally divided into a pre-imperial period, where Assyria began organizing into a single state, roughly in line with Kurdistan today. It is a natural state area, bounded by mountains, with a single agricultural system which is effective. Assyria's major cities were along the upper end of the Tigris river, including the city whose name will be forever associated with violent empire: Ninuwa, or Nineveh.
The simple list of kings and their dates is important for clarity, so often obscured:
Shulmanu-asharid 727-722 (Son of Tukulti)
Sharru-kinu 722-705 probably took the throne.
Sîn-ahhe-eriba 705-681 son of Sharru-kinu
Assur-aha-iddina 681-669 son of Sîn-ahhe-eriba
Ashurbanipal 669-627 Son of Assur aha iddina
Rivals in civil war:
Ashur-etil-ilani 627 623 Probably son of Ashurbanipal
Sinsharishkun 672-612 Proably son of Ashurbanipal
Ashur-uballit 612-609 Last king of Assyria
Many of these kings are known by other names to us, from biblical and other sources. They also had Sumerian names, but I have chosen, in general, to refer to them by their Akkadian names, since it is as Akkadians that they faced the need to reach outward and place their stamp on the world. By giving them old names, I hope we will see them in a new light. There are accents and diacriticals that do not reproduce well, for which, to pedants everywhere, I apologize.
Thus from foundation to collapse of this order, dominated by one short dynasty and one long dynasty, was 136 years, and the pinnacle under Ashurbanipal was very quickly followed by an implosion. If one is looking for a story of imperial collapse from cultural failure, Assyria has provided the model of millennia to do it. For myself I have thought of them as the second and third Neo-Assyrian dynasties, even though scholarship has avoided the use of clear systematic terms.
The empire breaks into three phases, the foundational phase of the first dynasty through Sharru-jinu's reign, the conquest phase which peaks under Ashurbanipal, and the civil war phase which begins even as conquest is occurring and then consumes the empire.
The first phase begins from a monarch known to us as Tiglath-Pileser, in 1115 BC, called the Second Assyrian Empire, it runs until Ashur-dan II establishes a new order which some scholarship calls the beginning of "Neo-Assyria" in 934 BC. Neo-Assyria can be divided into a first dynastic period, often called the second Assyrian empire, though this is not the conventional usage, and runs until it is overthrown by a general who styles himself Tiglath-Pileser III. As a someone who overthrew a long running dynasty, even one in its death throes, he was extremely concerned with unification of power, and legitimacy. By taking the name of the founder of the state, he was declaring, in effect, a reactionary revolution in internal affairs. He changed the taxation system and system of military levies. His name in Akkadian, the official language of his state was Tukulti-Apil-Esarra, and his reign begins in 745 BC. His refoundation is also often called the beginning of Neo-Assyria, so I will leave the argument of demarcation to those more ensconced in the texts and who have real expertise, as opposed to my own mere lay learning.
However for the purposes of the analogy, the story begins with an old weak dynasty overthrown by a new active king.
This period is of interest to the present, and as such much of the material present in the present is corrupted by present groups seeking legitimacy in themselves. You see, the Neo-Assyrian conquests of Judah are important in what Christians call "the old testament", and in the founding religious texts of Judaism. Hence, the conquests of Neo-Assyrian are taken as proof of various claims of legitimacy of many present stories of how the world is. Sources such as wikipedia are corrupted with various literalist narratives, and many of the free sites are explicitly fundamentalist Christianist in their orientation. This is interesting, and I will return to the point, but it clouds the narrative that Assyria itself was locked within.
The Neo-Assyrians had their own legitimacy problems, and constructed their own stories around dealing with those problems. Tukulti had three basic legitimacy problems. The first was internal – he had to level the power of various independent power centers, religious, economic and political – in order to keep power and organize armies for the conquest of the regions around Assyria proper – that is the area in the northern part of what is now Iraq. The dynasty he replaced was spectacular at hurling armies outwards, but not very good at holding areas they attacked. A map of the areas where campaigns took place, matched with the area of actual control tells a stark story of a people who were very good at invading and not very good at occupying or incorporating.
Tukulti's first problem is seen in taking an old regnal name, and in his actions to simultaneously centralize administration. This allowed him to come to power, but not retain it, he was, in turn, overthrown by the individual who would found the major dynasty that would rule over the brief, bright, brilliant and brutal tear through history that is Assyria in the modern mind.
It is important to realize that Assyria was one of many white hot imperial runs, that their brutality, while worse than many others, was not absurdly worse. They spent a great deal of time being the target of other military powers, including various waxing Hittite kingdoms and subordinate to southern kingdoms. Assyria, before it was an empire, was treated as a road by powers attempting to reach north from Babylon and the south, from what is now Iran, from the West, and from the North. The militarization of Assyrian culture is a response to this reality.
The dynastic legitimacy problem was not trivial – the Neo-Assyrian empire would be wracked by civil war, intra-dynasty conflict, assassination and rebellion – their strategies for dealing with this were successful enough to keep the core of the empire together, but only at the cost of being on the perpetual verge of collapse. In the end it would, probably, be civil war which imploded the military apparatus and allowed conquest by their former subject peoples and the Medes.
The second legitimacy problem is related to the first, it was the problem of Sumerian. In that time and place, Sumerian was the great ancient language, and much as waves of European states have looked to Rome as the legitimizer of their system – including the United States, but also including Germany, Russia, The Holy Roman Empire, France, Britian in its imperial mode, the Catholic Church, various Italian based states including Fascist Italy and so on – states of that time looked to Babylon and Sumerian the language as the sources of legitimacy for a cultural complex rooted in the southern region..
The south itself was not the original continuous religion, but, instead, a reconstruction of it, termed "Neo-Babylonian". This is important, because the Assyrians worshiped a single monotheistic sun god, Ashur, a god who influenced the Greek construction of Apollo. Neo-Babylonian mythology had reconstructed Marduk to be a pinnacle pantheon leader, in a mold which is far more hierarchical than the original mythology was in most of its incarnations. Thus Assyria wanted legitimacy from a southern cultural sphere which was, itself, in a legitimacy crisis mode, and which had come to its own way of dealing with the great breaks in continuity that it had suffered.
The third great legitimacy problem is a combination of these two: in order to run their military trading system, the Assyrians needed to have military influence and control to their east – over the Medes, and to their North and West, outward to Hittite, Phoenecian and Egyptian spheres – even though their cultural focus looked south. We have great volumes of the conflict between the religious adherents of northern Ashur type worship and various Babylonian factions, but little worry about the conflict between Ashur worship and northern and western peoples. When the Assyrians went to conquer and colonize these areas, they built cities named after Babylonian gods, populated with Assyrian nationals, and attempted to eradicate the local populations. There are bluntly depictive reliefs of mass impalements from the period.
Part of the reason that it is easy to write about the Assyrians as an example is the deep cultural resonance – both the Hellenes and the Hebrews took this empire as an example of vast over reach. The image of evil in our own culture has, as one of its roots, the stories from Assyria which early second literate age Hellenes wrote down, and which the Hebrews recorded. We know their names in other forms, because those names have become attached to stories in biblical and ancient Ionian and Doric stories.
And it is also true that the Neo-Assyrian empire offers one of the fastest cleanest cycles of foundation, growth and destruction in history. If one is telling a story of imperial over reach, the Assyrians, along with Modern Imperial Japan and a few other states, offer one of the clearest schematics of organized brutality and belief taking control over a large fraction of their world, and then falling, without being so clearly tied to the rise and fall of a man – the way Alexander, Hitler and Napoleon are imperialists of a man, and not a system.
The second part of this post will delve into the basic subject of how a cultural complex centered in Assyria – dominant over organization, military, monotheistic solar conquest and imperial trade systems – repeatedly failed to deal with both its own internal problems of legitimacy, and with their relationship with the ancient source of legitimacy, and a fundamentally different, polytheistic/henotheistic literate assimilationist complex that was the neo-Babylonian south-east. Assyrian geo-politics is complex because it is three dimensional – one axis along the river North-West to South-East, another along the trade engine of East-West from Medean regions to the Mediterranean, and a North-South axis from Anatolia, through Assyria and the Levant down to Egypt. Each axis made competing demands on the empire, and it was the failure to find a center which could manage this three dimensional geo-politics.
The heart of the story is a series of outward conquests on the East-West and North-South axises, against internal struggles which played out as North-West/South-East. So important is this last axis, that it is known to scholars in the field as "north/south" because of their focus on it for the development of text and language structures as well as the focus of cultural conflict. The Egypt-Levant/Assyria-Hittite axis is almost invisible, because the Assyrians wasted little time in attempting to coöpt it, instead, their purpose was to overwhelm and subjugate into their own system.
In the case of the Levant, they had greater success, but failed because history encountered them in the form of the Ionic and Doric peoples, who were far greater masters at absorbing cultural and religious matrixes. The Zeus cult - the Indo-European sky god, was able to envelope older sects of the fertility religions. That we often say this in the reverse, calling them fertility cults, when in fact they were branches of a single idea, while it was Zeus that represted the break with previous practice that defines a cult. The Greeks absorbed Ashur as Apollo, Marduk as Xronos, and other features of the neo-Babylonian and neo-Assyrian world so thoroughly, that even 50 years ago it was not an embarassment for one scholar to declare that Apollo was "the most Greek of Gods" even though he represented an amalgamation of Egyptian, neo-Assyrian, neo-Babylonian and Phoenecian metropolitian influences.
The story turns however, not on this fact, but on the Akkadian/Sumerian conflict, the Ashur/neo-Babylonian conflict, and the Assyrian/Babylonian conflicts, and how the Assyrians internalized and then were destroyed by, these conflicts between their cultural model, and the cultural model that they wanted to absorb, but could not find a means to do so.
"Within the confines of the land of [Assyria], he imposed an ordinance, lest any secret go out."
The narrative of Assyria is that it is the model for an evil empire, because it formed the matrix for such stories for the Judaic Kingdoms, and influenced the Greeks. In the present the Iraqi Christians use the reverse narrative – peddling apologia for the Assyrians as a way of asserting their foundational myth against Islamic culture.
These are important aspects to examine, because they fill in our present cultural imperatives.
Those who see Israel as the fulcrum of US policy, or who are ideologically hard Zionist, used the narratives of the evil empire, rooted deeply in Neo-Assyria, to justify attacking Saddam. Those who adopted a stance rooted in the humanist traditions were far less strident. Saddam himself clearly modeled his reign on the imperial powers of the past, and his attempts to conquer both the river valley and project power outwards were part of imperatives for the river basin power from time immemorial.
However, it is also important to think about the lessons of Neo-Assyria from the context of their own time and place. Judah was a minor speed bump on their road to Egypt, Greek a distant trading hinterland of no consequence, and Christianity and Islam were in the unimaginable future a millennium and more away. In their own context they had their own problems. But these problems are generally misunderstood, because their moment in history is only recently emerging in outline for what it was: the end of a "Dark Age".
The Problem of Neo-Antiquity
We are all familiar with the "Dark Ages" after the fall of the Roman Empire. Across the Eurasian world, waves of invaders pressured existing states, toppling the Roman Empire in the East, and ushering in an age of instability, decay and change. States across Eurasia came to a remarkably similar idea – the decentralized defensive system which we have come to call "feudalism". From centralized empires, to decentralized micro-states, and then a period of rapid conquest in the form of the Islamic empire and Charlemagne, followed by renewed fragmentation. The division between antiquity and medieval is clear enough across the Eurasian world that it remains in place. However, the Post-Antiquity Dark Age is not the only period of collapse of trade and civilization, there were several before, and one could argue mini-dark ages afterward.
In the ancient world, one of these ran roughly from 1100BC through 750 BC. It was seen in Greece, with the Dorian invasion and the loss of writing in Linear A. It corresponds to the "Third Intermediate Period" of Egypt beginning with the split of the nation into two parts, in the 21st dynasty, through the 24th dynasty, running roughly from 1070BC through 715BC. The Hittite Empire collapsed at the same time – roughly around 1160BC.
A similar moment occurs in the history of Babylon, then under the Kassite dynasties, when Babylon was invaded and sacked by Assyria in 1225 BC. The Kassite dynasty – which had restored literate administration, unified north and south Babylon and created a centralized administration, began to descend into decentralized tribalism. By the early 12th century, the Kassites were driven from power by another ancient people – the Elamites. But by 1100BC the short-lived, as it is often described, Elamite empire was over.
History of this period beginning in 1100BC is often listed as "fragmentary" or incomplete, and dominated by the collapse of trade. There have been several theories advanced, from the "Sea Peoples" to environmental factors. But explanations as to why this Dark Age began are less interesting than the proximate result: a dramatic shift in power and and structure of the ancient world In fact, it is appropriate I feel to call this division within antiquity almost as large as the later age that would divide ancient from Modern worlds. This period created a gap in history which later peoples would see as being a veil across the continuity of history. The Greeks, having collapsed into post-literacy, felt this the most strongly, but in separate fields the appellation "neo-" shows up across enough sources to mark a point where there is a general change in the texture of civilization. It extends beyond this area: one can argue that the Zhou overthrow of the Shang, and then the division of the Zhou represents a not directly related, but similar moment in Chinese history.
In short, this dark age separates meso-antiquity of the great river empires and a trading system in the Mediterranean and Meso-Eurasian area, from a neo-antiquity which would spawn the great empires such as Persia, Rome and the beginning of Imperial China. This shift is the problem of neo-antiquity.
The Light of Dark Ages
Study of Dark Ages is problematic. On one hand they are defined, very directly, as the collapse of centralized administration, the reduction in sources, the withering of trade and the end of long chains of continuity. On the other hand, the are often periods of intense vibrancy intellectually and present a diversity of state models. This dark age is no exception – Judea and Israel, Phoenicia and the Elamite Empire are all states that came to power because of the weakening of old central sources. The Greek city states developed their particular culture in the vacuum of Hittite power.
Such periods often produce new ideas, or new ways of applying old ones. What we think of today as currency developed a key focus on portability in this period – in fact, the Chinese character for money is based on a depiction of the cowrie shell that they used for money. It is the development of coinage – starting in a number of places circa 800BC - that helps mark the end the period, with the ability to have a widely useable medium of exchange.
The Assyrians, while brutal even by standards of the time, were the creators, not just of individual pieces of a tool kit, but of an entire complex of culture and organization. In the early part of this dark age they were to be a center of organization which thrust outward, they would be, in a sense, the first model empire for those that followed, having many of the key features which would later be associated in more developed and elaborated form with the Roman and Qin/Han Empire – two of the pinnacle states of that epoch.
One of the most important of these was the development of a war empire, and the bureaucracy to support it. It is this cultural complex – not merely its constituent parts, that made the Assyrians both successful enough to project power all over the Eastern Mediterranean and meso-Eurasian world, but also assured that their rule would be unstable and chaotic.
The beginning of this story can be found in the Tukulti-Ninurta Epic – which is about the conflict between an Assyrian monach in the 13th century BC and the king of Babylon. The epic, its sources of conflict, and its meanings are important to what follows, because it comes in at the beginning of the Assyrian cultural matrix.
First is the basis of the conflict, Babylon at this time is under the rule of the Kassite dynasties, which had held sway over it for four hundred years. The Kassites were not Babylonian to begin with, but had been incorporated into Babylon's culture. A large part of this is in the nature of local divinity religious systems. In some times and places, there are certain localities which are far more productive than all others, there are often particular skills and exact techniques to exploiting that locality – and often these are codified in the form of religious wisdom. Local divinities, those who oversee the particular place, often change name, are subsumed into other cults and sects, and have varying aspects. This is different from concept gods such as the Indo-European sky god known to the Greeks as Zeus, and who still lives on in our word "theology". The concept god, being a construction of language, retains his or her name strongly. The place god, loaded with the wisdom of a locality is more flexible.
The Assyrian epic stands on the cusp between the local god idea and the concept god idea. We are accustomed to thinking of conceptual aspects of divinity as being more sophisticated, and more advanced. But this is merely our perspective: the early herders had concept gods, gods which represented portable skill sets which could work over a wide region of movement. The city states of Sumer, Ur, Babylon – and Ashur and Nineveh – represented more localized deities, but their culture and religion was worlds more sophisticated than the concept gods of the tribes that surrounded them.
The local divinity also served to do important cultural work. In a place economics, invaders seeking the advantages of that place must come to terms with the local magic. Thus, while they may change god names – and often do – the invaders must sill come to terms with the local magic, and with the means it is stored, transmitted and maintained. This means learning the language of the priest-priestess caste, it means coming to a modus vivendi with even relatively small local cults, including the subsuming of those cults. This is a powerful force for assimilating invaders, even ones which are culturally quite different. Often the process involves accepting the concept god as pantheon chief, and then populating the cast of local divinities around him. In many cases it means having the local goddess become an important part of a resurrection myth involving the sky god.
The problem with the epic, aside from the fact that it simply isn't very good as poetry, is that the Assyrians have a problem. While on one hand they want to make a claim of legitimacy over Babylon against the Kassite dynasty, on the other hand, they had no real basis to assert their own claim. The reason can be found in the structure of local divinity systems. The Assyrians controlled Ashur and Ninuwa, as well as numerous other important holy cities, in many cases we do not actually know when the worship in these cities began, since it predates written records. While the Assyrian poet, and in the case of this epic I must use the term loosely, knew that the Kassites being outsiders was enough to disqualify them from being legitimate, there was nothing within the complex of local divinity that gave him the power to assert a strong claim.
This is why the poem recites to the god over and over again the perfidity of the Kassites, and creates around its key god a structure of oaths. The logic of the poet runs that the Kassites are evil, because they have warred with Assyria – even though Assyria wanted the poem to justify going to war with Babylon under the Kassites.
That the poem's matrix is on a collision course with itself can be seen from how the Assyrians actually dealt with Babylon – they destroyed it utterly. The power of local divinity can only be broken by the destruction of the holy site itself. The modern apologists for the Assyrians have, with no more competence than any band of fanatics, of course find the rhetorical out – but this is because they have the benefit of living in an era where the answer is obvious. That answer is to create a compelling covenant between the God and his people, one that requires that the people act, not as the protectors of local knowledge, but as the defenders of a cultural concept.
Local Divinity and the Neo-Antiquity Problem
The basic assertion of these essays is that the United States has acted like Neo-Assyria in the Iraq War, and that the problems of the cultural matrix of Assyria are duplicated today. The problem of the Tukulti-Ninurta Epic is that on one hand it argues for a "Mandate of Heavan" historical consciousness, which asserts that the gods want history to go in a particular way, and that there is a destiny which is perverted by those who thwart this will. While divine kingship is older than the pyramids, and the assertion of divine favor present in the earliest records that can be called prose or poetry as opposed to book keeping, this historical consciousness stands distinct from local divinity worship.
Local divinity worship presupposes only two historical epochs – the "before", that time when there was no differentiation, that is no local difference, or that people were undifferentiated - and the "after" where there is a knowledge of place. This simple two part division can be elaborated to have an apocalyptic end with the gods fall, but does not need to. This stands in marked contrast to the sense of destiny portrayed in the epic. The problem is the poet cannot turn the corner from place worship, to the concept worship. He has the idea of oath taking and oath breaking as essential, but what oath can he use? It isn't as if the Assyrians were noted for keeping their word.
Coming as it does, at the beginning of the Assyrian imperial expansion, the poem proposes a sense of national destiny on one hand, but cannot get out of the worship of place on the other hand. This is why the Assyrians were forced to develop ethnic cleansing, and impale populations, or drive them out. Without place, what they are left with is a sense of racial superiority.
It is worth comparing this narrative with the edenic narrative in the Old Testament. Here the "before" of Adam and Eve is to be in paradise – without need for local knowledge. The eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and are driven out by their concept God. The story represents a religion that had acquired a sense of concept, and historical destiny, and married them to a sense of place. A concept God of wanderers had acquired a place in Jerusalem, but remained demanding that there be no localization of his cult. In fact, the story is almost a rejection of the fundamental tenet of local divinity.
The Assyrian poet cannot come up with a sophisticated covenant narrative which holds together the Isrealites in the bible – suffering, followed by a promised land. Babylon is the promised land for the Assyrians, but the cannot control it since it resists their cult of worship. The Assyrians knew early that control of trade was essential to their state ambitions. The poem mentions controlling trade and traders, and implies that the monarch took control of trade by force. The Assyrian empire was an attempt to create an end to end trading system, a project made ever more urgent by the progressive slide into decentralized semi-anarchy which was to occur around them as this ancient era Dark Age took hold.
It is from this that we see the genius of dark ages – that they are thrown onto the need to elaborate the cultural tool box. The later empires of neo-antiquity, while they drew froms and norms going far back, had developed a series of innovations which interlocked together. The first was a system of pantheons centered around concepts, rather than around localities. While divinities often had specific places which were their favored places, the god or goddess was where ever their roll was. This worked within another important change – the means by which bureaucracy, as we now call it, could be used to administer a standardized trading empire. Instead of trade between hotspots, which were culturally, politically and ethnically distinct, the empires of Neo-Antiquity to unity of heaven and unity on earth to be the same thing. The person of the emperor was not only divine, as had been true, but the will of expansion and historical narrative were as well. This was then the umbrella to implement a more specific body of technologies and ideas which allowed disparate parts of an empire to interface with each other – law, coinage, citizenship, standardization – all would be used to create a larger civic space. But this kind of empire was one that required particular cultural steps which would transform proto-concept gods of life style – as herding sky gods were, and place gods, and more often goddesses into a web that could encompass localization within a standardized universe.
The Assyrian epic is vaguely aware of this fact – oaths and trade live side by side. A god that could oversee oaths wants to be a god of a trading empire. The growth of the Assyrian power was a parallel push along the East-West axis of trade, the North-West South-East access of legitimacy, and along the North-South unification of the major centers of Hatti and Egyptian spheres. At the same time that the Assyrians are trying to build a trading empire based on the expansion by force, the Hebrews, Phoenecians and Hellenes were creating a different cultural matrix, one which was based on the expression, in writing, of a universe which could be apprehended through principles.
The Assyrians understood the importance of administration, and of adjudication – but these innovations were only the gate way to the creation of a standardized military. They created a military boot which was, as far as we know, unique to them. This allowed their armies to march farther, and, in some limited sense, use the technique of interior lines that Fredrick the Great would use millennia later. They had, for the time a very high "teeth to tail" – with as much of a third of their military being frontline combat troops. They had a standardized kit, and a staff organization which allowed them to move with great rapidity to frontiers of power. The Assyrian mobility would be equal in their time and place to the mobility of the Qin state, and only exceded by the Roman, Carthaginian and Greek city states which had combined naval operations. They would hold sway over what was, for their time, a vast territory.
Standardization of the military and its ability to project force, coupled with the understanding of the need for a trading based empire to support such a military, and a god complex which allowed both and enforced both, was the Neo-Assyrian cultural kit which they would build two successive empires upon.
America as Neo-Assyria
America in the present has the same problem as the Assyrians. Our status as a great power rests on a trading empire and the ability to standardize, but our religious cultural matrix has increasingly become one of place. It does not take much to elaborate this argument. Concept driven societies do not create "The Department of Homeland Security" because home is not a land. More over, the political science of support for reactionary politics and the localization of evangelical place cults is iron clad. In essence, the people of particular places, worship those places, and that is the God of the Republican Party, with its two "right poles" of dense support in the western edge of the great plains and in Appalachia.
The same conflict which tormented the Assyrians – how to claim the south with a local divinity cult – bedevils our own efforts to establish a stability in Iraq, these problems go back farther than the present.
As the military northern power, and as the power that represents the creation of a larger trade network by military force and standardization, the United States, no to put to fine a point on it, needs to represent a conceptually sophisticated universalist version of civic religion. In Iraq it has come face to face with two versions of Islam which are deeply emeshed in localization, and in the understanding of locality which allows them to exist in their place. The conceptual Allah still holds sway, but there are a host of local cults to the matyrs and saints of the Shia history which dominate practical politics. This is a common pattern for monotheism to backhandedly reinvent polytheism in the form of having local heros which represent the local knowledge.
Assyria, with its Ashur cult, attempted to do something similar to this, but ran into the problem that the Babylonians of their time were also attempting to find a way forward to neo-antiquity, and had hit upon a similar solution – the elevation of a god, in their case Marduk, to a powerful place in the pantheon. Thus equipped with a pantheon that had found a pyramid form of organization, the Babylonian state, in whatever hands, was able to push back, even to the point of dividing Assyrian brother against brother.
America's cult of locality is tied to evangelical and fundamentalist sects of Christianity here. It is dangerous to over flatten them, but the ability of immigration as an issue that is able to divide the ruling party shows that locality is an increasingly powerful factor in a religious and cultural complex. This complex dominates the thinking of the US military, its officer and enlisted corps, and as importantly, it is demonstrably capable of warping the thinking of the military in a variety of ways. By thinking about subjugation of Iraq as a matter of "my god is bigger than your god" it engages in the same behaviors – ethnic cleansing, destruction of central cities as holy sites, an obsessive focus on the creation of a temple city in Baghdad and – controversially, the opening to other locality cults – such as the Likud interpretations of Zionism, and the referenced but not thoroughly explored Assyrian apologists of today.
This last strand, as support for Iraqi Christians, and for the narrative that the Assyrian empire was "defending" a basin culture against mountain invaders, has not been often enough understood as part of the backdrop of pressure into Iraq, as a group that represents both an interest, and a form of zealotry which will support Iraq as a mission.
That we have moved from the construction of Iraq as part of the international order – which was referenced, however dishonestly, in the form of WMD in the apocalyptic context, and in the form of oil to run the globalized trade network that the US relies upon – to a localized view that the US must stay in the place called Iraq, and must have its own set of holy sites around which the US cult will be built. From building Democracy, to building temples to America.
The example of history does not bode well for this project, the Assyrians leveled Babylon, and when defeated, had Ninuwa leveled in return. They could never establish Ashur worship as predominant, they could not hold their empire because while they could invade and overthrow kingdoms such as Egypt and could pressure the Medes and repeatedly over run Babylon, without a cultural matrix that would incorporate, embrace and then overwhelm local cultural matrixes, they had to keep doing so.
The Assyrians and Americans both possessed the premier invasion forces of their eras, but without a conceptual religious and cultural framework, were forced to, over and over again, invade and subjugate, in order to support those military machines and their economic costs. The similarities of these machines – in terms of staff, cavalry – which the Assyrians used in large squadrons as shock waves – and the standardize infantry kit who was heavily armored against more lightly armored opponents – bears examination, thus the third part of this essay will look at the armies of Ashur, and the American sun king George Bush Jr.
I built a pillar over against his city-gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar and some upon the pillar on stakes I impaled, and others I fixed to stakes round about the pillar; many with the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the high officers, of the high royal officers who had rebelled. Ahiababa I took to Ninuwa, I flayed him, I spread his skin upon the wall of Ninuwa.
Annals of Ashur-Nasir-Pal
The Neo-Assyrian Empire offers lessons for our own age, because, on the one hand, the empire had a cultural complex which included mastery of a variety of tools which made them one of the fastest rising empires in history, and the most potent military force that the world had seen to that time. At the same time, there were inherent contradictions in that cultural complex which brought about the downfall of their empire. America's experience in Iraq in the present duplicates many of these contradictions. The first is the need to have internal legitimacy rooted in a place cult, even as there is an economic and political necessity to have a concept civic religion which allows embracing a world trading empire.
The second lesson has to do with the nature of the Assyrian military machine itself, and the basis upon which it rested.
Ishtar the first among the gods, the lady of confusion,
Who makes terrible battles –
Ye Great Gods, ye Rulers of heaven and earth,
Whose onward rush is battle and destruction.
Who have enlarged the kingdom
Of Tiglath-Pileser, the beloved prince…
And ye have decreed that his rule
Should be mighty, and that his priestly seed
Should have a place in Ekharsagkurkura
Address to the Gods, 12-17,24-27
Cylinder Inscription Ca 1100 BC
Tutankhamen is buried with a small iron dagger with a gold hilt. The production of iron from solid blooms began somewhere in the 3rd millennium BC. This involves heating the melt and pounding out impurities, quenching with water, and then pounding again to beat the metal and its trace elements into a strong lattice. Muscle power without a blast furnace can create areas of solid iron – called blooms – and then mix these with carbon from the fire by dint of sheer brute force. It is a bootstrapping process – an iron hammer makes pounding more iron much faster. An iron anvil faster still.
Beginning around 1300 BC, hotter furnaces – though still not blast furnaces, and the iron ores with the "right" impurities allows the Hatti – the Hittites as they are called – to rapidly expand their empire in the mountain regions of Anatolia. That this upset the delicate balance of power might well be a contributing factor to the "Dark Age" of 1150-750BC. It is certainly important in what happened with Neo-Assyria.
You see, the Neo-Assyrians faced a basic energy problem. Iron made cities and warriors far more productive, since even limited amounts of iron dramatically reduce working times in leather, wood, other metals, and human flesh. They improve tack and harness dramatically. People can carry more, work more and do more. But the invention of the iron plow lays centuries in the future – the Chinese have the first iron bit mouldboard plows in the Warring States period. The importance of this invention can't be stressed highly enough – the mouldboard plow, with its iron bit and ability to turn the soil over as it plows is still the commercial standard. Today, some 2500 years later.
This plow is so important to agriculture after its introduction, it revolutionizes farming where ever it appears – that the absence of it is something that many people have trouble accepting. Applying iron to tillage is so self-evident, that we forget the economics of the early iron age. The iron was productive in war – but not in peace. It is even an example the Rome Empire failed.
It is important to connect this to the main thesis of Vale to Babylon:
1. Assyria had three legitimacy problems that forced particular responses: internal, within a cultural sphere, and over the wider empire. This they manage by brutal means – take more of the wealth, rather than increasing it. Which worked – for a time.
2. The Assyrians had geo-political pressures based on economics and the collapse of the previous trading order. Which gave the a short time window before everyone possessed the same advantages.
3. The Assyrians had a cultural complex to thrust outwards, but the components were in contradiction with each other. The meant the had enough advantages – it they could harness them. But they were a warlike and not particularly subtle people.
In the second part of this essay one of the most important conflicts was looked at: namely that for internal political purposes, the Neo-Assyrian Empire had to keep a localized god cult religious system, but this same system made it impossible to use concept god based assimilation. Local god cults are very good for assimilating invaders, and keeping people's together, but are poor for assimilating those who are conquered. The tension between the kind of god cult necessary for holding the Assyrian core, and the kind of god cult needed to run a multi-ethnic trading empire, is seen in the beginning of Neo-Assyria, in the only epic that survives to us.
This tension was made worse as the onset of the Dark Ages that divides what I will call mesoäntiquity from neoäntiquity grew deeper, as the Assyrians could no longer be attached to the trading system run by the Hatti-Egyptian axis along the Eastern Mediterranean. This Dark Age now needs to be examined from the point of view of a crucial technology: Iron working, which, while in small forms had existed for hundreds of years in various locations, became a generally available process in the Hatti (Hittite) Empire.
There are scholars who argue, and I won't disagree, that ironworking accelerated internal political conflicts within the Hatti political space, and that the empire imploded, in part, under the pressures of militarization of iron, there are also arguments that the failure to have iron implements hindered the Egyptians. I am going to leave aside these arguments, because the fact of the Dark Ages at the end of Mesoäntiquity is more important than the reasons for the purposes of Neo-Assyria, and for the purposes of lessons in our age.
The first lesson to be drawn is that the United States is also an international trading empire, but that it is using a localized version of a god cult for its political legitimacy. As the power of this localized god cult grows, the ability of the US to project its culture outwards and integrate other nations, declines. The mentality of its military corps becomes hardened into thinking of conflicts in territorial terms, and in terms of body count, and not in terms of assimilation of other localized cults into a broader framework, which is the process that the Greeks used in their successful cooption of previous cults, and the techniques of which were to be retained by Christianity through the conversion of Europe to the Cross.
The second lesson, is about energy and technology.
The Black Gold of Neo-Antiquity
Iron had been worked for almost a thousand years by the time that the Hatti push matters into higher gear. Iron working comes in two types – cold iron, where iron is heated, but not enough to melt it, and then repeatedly pounded and quenched to form a matrix of iron an certain impurities – particularly carbon – to form stronger alloys. Steel is at the pinnacle of this process, but in antiquity sponge iron, that is iron produced at low temperatures, created a material which was harder than bronze, but also harder to work. Early iron production is found in Nigeria, India and in other areas, but it was the Hatti who, in the 1300's BC began systematic working of iron and production of iron implements.
Realize at this point that Iron traded at several times its weight in silver – the main monetary metal of exchange – and above its weight in gold, that is the main monetary metal of wealth storage. Some accounts fix the price as high as 40 times its weight in silver, a First Assyrian Empire text fixes its price at 8 times that of gold. Presently the theory is that iron came as a by product of copper production, but that the ancients were not reliably able to identify the "right" ores to be able to smelt iron in quantity.
Iron, like aluminum in the late 18th century, was an exotic metal that had exotic properties. It was still an age dominated by pottery but augmented by iron. The key shift is this: it is impurities that make iron more flexible, and give it a hardness edge over bronze. While Iron was valued simply because it was rare, it was not used in weaponry, and in the form of cold iron, it is softer, not harder, than bronze weaponry.
The iron of the time is not pig iron of later periods – that is formed into iron matrix with other materials by heat. It is a laborious process of working what would later be called "cold iron". Cold iron is brittle compared to bronze, but it is also hard. Iron, however, is superior to bronze for so many applications, that it is difficult to overstate what the introduction of Iron did to the productivity of cities. An iron age city has access to better rivets, better blades, better hammers. Iron is best used for cutting and joining as these pictures from the Iron Age show – clasps, needles, chains are as important as swords in the technology of the period. This dramatically expands the productivity of garment making, and creates more demand for textiles, wool and leather. This extended all the way up to the "tank" of that day and age: the chariot.
The Hatti discovered the pounding/quenching cycle which produces the first useful grades of worked iron. These kinds of iron/carbon mixture are not generally called steel, but they are 5 times as hard as base iron, and harder than cold worked bronze, which base iron is not. However, it is not clear that this produced the military revolution that some scholars advocate, however, the other extreme, that it offered no military advantage, over looks the most common kind of iron artifact in weaponry – the arrow head. Small, hard and able to pierce bronze and leather, the arrowhead is an advantage. But it is not yet enough of one to dramatically alter the balance of power.
Instead, it is the iron of tool working – clasps, needles and all of the "joining" and working uses of iron which gives an army the advantage of mobility. An army that moves better and faster is one which has the advantage on the battle field. It would take an entire book to document all the times that mobility advantage, not advantage in actual arms, was the decisive feature in war.
This ability to be better equipped was not lost on the Assyrians – their army featured a military boot, and a backpack, which were the first of their kind. An army that can travel with its own food can out march and out maneuver other armies. And when we look at the long history of Neo-Assyrian campaigns, this is indeed the pattern, one that would be the trademark of Fredrick the Great much later on – the use of interior lines, where armies could be moved across the interior of a compact country, and defeat in turn attacks from outside, or press the advantage on multiple fronts.
It is a high risk strategy, and one that plays into the sense of historical destiny which was present even in the epic at the outset of the Neo-Assyrian period. They believed, and they had the tools to enforce, the idea that their cultural core was superior, and the ability to move through it untrammeled was essential to their ability to campaign over a large space than any other empire to that point.
Looking at Jane Waldbaum's oft criticized, but still seminal study of the transition From Bronze to Iron, it is clear that the disruption of trade prevented the copper sourced from Cyprus, and the Tin which came from outside the region, from being available at the same time. Tin, in particular, is the bottleneck.
This is where the dark age collides with technology. The weakness of the bronze economy is that it requires copper and tin. Tin is harder to come by that common copper, and harder to extract from its ores. With the trading system collapsing – because, in part, iron was not yet providing a real advantage in battle – the ability to get both copper and tin together was dramatically reduced. The bronze age cultures did what many cultures have done – cannibalized older artifacts, in this case, remelting them into new ones. Part of what makes a dark age seem dark, is that it is busy erasing its own history to feed its present.
Iron however, needs only be matrixed with carbon. Carbon, suffice it to say, is as close as the nearest fire pit, if one can heat the iron up enough to get the process of "carburization" to happen. Thus the superiority of the best kinds of iron – which had been known about, but not understood how to reproduce – collided with the need for "metal self-sufficiency" to drive iron adoption forward. And once it is possible to produce the first tier of iron-carbon materials, bronze is no longer the metal of choice for hardness or durability.
That it is not in weapons, but in tools that Assyria experiences the iron age can be seen by comparing the acceptance of iron weapons, where cites in the Assyrian space lag behind, for example, Crete, and instead looking at tools: within a century of introduction, almost all tools in the Assyrian space are iron, not bronze, this is well ahead of the other states.
The iron age then, is a bastard child, a product of the need for replacement for bronze, and the greater capabilities of iron once it is carburized in quantity. This is a recipe for a dramatic contraction, at first, of affluence – because easy to make in quantity bronze is replaced by harder to make in quantity iron, and because the lack of bronze for equipping large armies leads to vulnerability to invasion, which further disrupts the trading, and the spiral downward continues.
Iron working then provides, at first, not the advantage of individual superiority, but the advantage of size. It is possible, once iron manufacture is going, to equip larger armies against bronze starved opponents. One reason for the rise of the Medes is that they had access to tin from outside of the region, and thus were able to mount armies with bronze even as the transition to iron occurred. However, other states were not.
The result is that iron creates the ability to make larger, more heavily equipped armies, with more horses. However, early it offers no significant man to man advantages except in the area of bows, and to exploit this requires horse drawn chariots, which were the way that bows were brought to grips with infantry. This in turn feeds a basic energy problem.
You see, a heavily armored fighter requires upwards of 10000 calories a day to put in the field. The Assyrian Army, the largest field deployable one in the world, had an enormous stomach. And thus was in a precarious position. On one hand, getting the east-west trading system going again allows bronze production – the old economy, and better iron production with iron from Anatolia. On the other hand, to feed this army requires access to the whole of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. In short, to build the East-West trading empire that the Assyrians know they need, they must control the resources of Babylon. Legitimacy of empire, and fuel for empire, are one and the same thing.
Hence the fascination with going south and east, even when other states pressed on all sides.
America in Babylon
The United States began its period as a trading empire in a similar manner to the Assyrians, first as the client state of another trading system, and then taking over when that trading system collapsed. This is not to compare the two experiences directly, as the United States lived in a different era and world. However, the mechanisms of power politics remain remarkably similar – client states, puppet governments, dislocation of populations and atrocities were tools of state power in Assyria's age, and our own.
As Assyria's fascination with Babylon was both based on cultural and economic needs, so is our own. Where the Assyrians need grain to supply their attrition first Iron Age army, and again to supply their second Iron Age army, the United States needs petroleum, found, in no small part, in the South East of the cradle of civilization.
The American experience in the 1950's corresponds to the early Assyrian attempts to simply install friendly governments. However, by the Neo-Assyrian period, direct rule, or rule through a puppet state, was the preferred mode for Neo-Assyria to deal with its relationship with Babylon. The fundamental contradiction of the Ashur cult – that it was not strong enough to dislodge the Neo-Babylonian Marduk cult, in no small part because the Assyrians were among the worst writers in the ancient world – and yet they could not stay away from Babylon.
The United States is in the grip of a localized version of Christianity which has many of the same problems in encompassing the region of Iraq. As the primary motivation for a large fraction of both the political elite and the officer class, imposition of this Homeland Jesus cult, as opposed to the more generalized civic and secular religion of democracy or the broader ecumenicism of empire – has lead to the need to obliterate religious centers of power because they would not submit.
The Assyrians faced the economic problem of needing to supply a vast army, and as with most attrition powers, they thought in terms of attrition – by direct sack and destruction. Over and over again in the Assyrian king chronicles we are treated to might lists of the great cities that Assyria had laid waste to.
The corresponding ethos in our own time is the cult of body count. The US military, as the Assyrians, thought of defeat of enemies in terms of collecting tribute, and in slaughtering the military age males who would make up the back bone of a potential counter force. In both cases this strategy has failed to produce the degree of subjugation that was desired. We have an obelisk dedicated to Tiglath-Pilser I that, while weathered heavily, still bears a line noting that the king did something to 1000 of the men of someplace, and took 4000 into slavery. We can guess that what happened to the first 1000 probably was not very nice. In the epic poem, the poet declares at a similar point that the king "committed no atrocity". And yet, the people taken are not mentioned again in the text.
The rest of the obelisk is a list of conquests and victories, most of which remain outside of Assyrian control. The obelisk makes it clear that the Assyrian kingdom's dance card was very full, one year has 6 battles listed in it, in different regions. The Assyrian army, like its modern American counterpart, had an enormous advantage in mobility – derived in no small part from the staff apparatus that both countries have – but could not keep areas defeated in the conquered zone. The obelisk often says "raided" and "fought" and hopes that we don't know the difference between that, and actual conquest.
The result of this is the next layer of failure is seen in the actions of such a military in occupation.
"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out."
General William Tecumseh Sherman 1820-1891
If one needs a philosopher of war, then it is General Sherman, the first general to reduce to pithy maxims the content of Von Clauswitz' treatise On War. War is cruelty, it is the attempt to break the will of a political class, and their followers. Within this spectrum there are various degrees of cruelty, and various degrees of the subjection of the civilian population to war. However, the wars which lead to the greatest barbarity are those which accept that there are limited resources of place, and thus, the liquidation of peoples seen as excess must take place.
In such wars, genocide seems a moral duty to those who are swept up in the frenzy.
Atrocity as Policy
This war differs from other wars, in this particular. We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.
America has degenerated into a cultural complex that would have been familiar to the ancient Neo-Assyrians. Let us state the bald fact that the only belief which holds our army in the field in Iraq is the lie that they are there to avenge 9/11, because Saddam was behind it. It is a conspiracy theory view of history, lacking in even the vaguest foundations of truth. The elites of America were persuaded to accept the invasion of Iraq on the equally misguided assertion that Saddam had some form of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and was within range of acquiring some deterrent status. This too is absurd: prior to the war, there was no credible evidence of anything resembling credible evidence of a WMD program or capability in Iraq which was capable of delivering any form of attack.
In short the threat to country was the excuse for a war which has other purposes. Those other purposes are the subject of much speculation. Some feel it was to get access to Iraq's oil, others felt it was to deny the world access to it to keep oil prices high. Some believe it was to relieve pressure from Israel. But out of all of the hypotheses available, none understand that there was not a reason for war, but a complex of reasons, and these, in turn, go back to the cultural complex of the United States in the present moment.
This is where analogies to Neo-Assyria fade away, our time is not theirs, however many parallels it might have that are illustrative. But there is sufficient parallel in the God-King cults of both nations to produce atrocity as a policy. Because while atrocities attend war the way fleas attend dogs, the policy of atrocity is the hallmark of an altogether different kind of conflict. It was, again, Sherman who pointed this out – the war between the Union and the South was a war of people's not merely a war of political interests. Hence it was necessary to deliver a shock to the culture which had seen war as an appropriate way of dealing with constitutional issues. "War is the remedy our enemies have chosen," He wrote "I say let us give them all they want."
However, his objective was not the slaughter of civilians, but the destruction of what can be called "strategic material" and depriving what remained of the rebellion of centers of civilian support. Sherman's tactics changed the face of warfare, because they removed the aspect of engagement from war itself. The idea of a "battle" in itself was becoming obsolete in the sense that Europeans had known it for almost 800 years – that is the engagement of forces that represented the embodiment of the will to fight, often lead by a monarch, or by his close surrogates. The last "battles" of this kind were less than a decade in the future – the Battle of the Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war being, truly, the last.
The next step from the war of material attrition, is the war of human attrition. Americans were, by 1861, well acquainted with wars which were intended to erase other nations from the map, they had done so to the Cherokee Nation, and would do so repeatedly in the conquest of the west. These wars were attended by slaughter of civilians and desecration of bodies which we associated with war mixed with genocide.
However, the two parts had not met. While individual bands of men might slaughter, and armies might use the technologies of railroad and telegraph to organize campaigns, the application of technology to slaughter was only beginning to occur. It awaited weapons of wholesale slaughter. The first of these was the incendiary shell, followed by the repeating, and later automatic weapon. But it is with the development of flight and chemical munitions that the marriage of technology and eradication was finally attained. If slaughtering large numbers of people is your aim, then poison and fire are the tools to accomplish it.
The allied strategic bombing of Japan is a case in point of the application of technology for the purpose of not merely defeating the war aims of the enemy and frustrating his manufacture – which is a dubious notion with strategic bombing to begin with – but instead the purpose is to eradicate large slabs of population, with the implicit threat of doing so to the remainder. It was Truman's cold declaration to the Japanese after two atomic attacks that they would face a "reign of destruction from the air".
The only point to using fire against cities made of wood and paper, is to kill as many of the inhabitants as possible.
The realization by Truman, prodded by members of the State Department, that the United States was fighting a place cult in Japan, though they did not use that particular term, embodied in a God-King, and upheld by symbols, shaped the last phases of the war. The shift from bombing military targets, to destroying civilian centers, was based on the recognition that defeating the armies of the Empire of Japan would not be enough if the civilians fought onward.
It takes very little time with the Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian corpus to understand that one of the most important transitions from Middle Assyrian empires, to the Neo-Assyrian empire, is the celebration of atrocity, both for the purposes of subjugation, and for the purposes of maintaining control over the core homeland of Assyria. The boilerplate of taking a city, flaying the leaders and then burning the "young men and maidens" is a refrain in the annals that the Assyrians kept. This is not what their enemies accuse of them of, this is what they recorded themselves as having done.
Let us, however, reach back to the 1950's, because American involvement in Iraq reaches back to that time, and the present problems do as well. Indeed, Saddam himself began his rise to power out of the blowback from American involvement in Iraq.
At that time America was involved in a conflict framed in ideological terms. Ideological wars permit a different brand of dehumanization and liquidation. Individuals, rather than groups that are identifiable by sight, are seen as the bearers of infection. It breeds paranoia, and feeds on mythologies of vampirism, demonic possession and betrayal. Because anyone – a seeming friend, or neighbor, or family member, could be possessed of the demon ideology without overt sign the paranoia and personalized destruction of ideological warfare – the dreaded door knock in the middle of the night – produces a hallmark strand of violation of human rights which is traceable back to ostracisms of ancient Athens.
In that time the United States feared any form of "communist" influence in states so much, that it was willing to take advantage of, and even create, political disorganization in order to gain a chance to liquidate them. These programs were modeled on the late World War II and post-World War II programs to assassinate key members of the Nazi party in Europe. These programs, seen as necessary and effective, were duplicated, and one of those places was in Iraq. Saddam began his career, as an assassin.
However he rose to power behind the cresting idea of pan-Arab nationalism, and part of a movement known as "Rebirth". Whatever the specifics of the movement, one can see how the attempt to revive a people who, at various times, had been at or near the peak of world civilization in wealth, learning and influence would have appeal. The rapid disintegration of this movement into a mere tool of strong man cults in Iraq and Syria exposes the fundamental weakness of the "Ba'ath" ideology. Saddam corrupted, if it was indeed all that difficult, a Pan-Arabist and conceptual movement into a tool of his personal reign.
That Saddam was a God-King is obvious from his monumental architecture and trappings of rule, trappings that were maintained almost until the bitter end. That he was also a local cult is something which is not as clearly appreciated. He ruled with the power of his local clan – "al-Tikriti" means from Tikrit, the city. And when given a clear chance to escape, he, instead, chose to hide in the environs of that area. His cadre of assassins, torturers, and other forms of state apparatus of repression were drawn from his clan. Baathism descended rapidly through sectarian chauvinism, down to clan localism in less than 20 years.
But Saddam was not, as a Marxist might say, in possession of the objective means of production of his own rule. He could not manufacture tanks, missiles, communication equipment or other important props to his power. Instead, he was kept supplied by the USSR and the United States as they jockeyed for power in the middle East.
It was the United States, in particular, that would help Iraq obtain chemical munitions which Saddam would use to eradicate the Kurds.
The Great King, The Mighty King, the King of America
The policy of atrocity is rooted in the desire to eradicate the will to resist, and then the existence itself of another population. It requires an elaboration in order to both justify its necessity, and to create the necessary rationalization and dehumanization of the target peoples. In short, people will destroy other people like animals, but only if they are first convinced that the target people are animals, and then convinced that these animals are rabid – diseased.
The creation of this substratum of unreality among the military and civilian class of a nation is part of the purpose of a place-cult. It relates the worthiness of people the triad of place, god and descent, and asserts that all are the same thing – that to threaten one is to threaten all of them.
Let us again be blunt: having saturated the American military with the propaganda that Saddam was behind 9/11, that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism and thus preventing future attacks, and that Saddam was in possession of the capability of producing mushroom clouds – it is inevitable that the American military would commit war crimes as a matter of policy.
Let me repeat that – if one primes ones military with genocidal propaganda, they will behave accordingly.
The disintegration of both Shia Islam and Baathism, now hybridized with Sunni Arab Chauvinism rooted in particular localities of Iraq, is not hard to document. The focusing on shrines – which bring in huge revenues, the use of bombings against civilians, the slaughtering of recruits, the use of kidnapping and torture by insurgents and Republic of Iraq military and security arms is all to easy to document. Bombing funerals, markets and other props of civil and religious society shows the eradicationist behavior which is now endemic among the combatants in Iraq, and their civilian supporters.
That the toppling of Saddam has led to this was entirely predictable. It was evident, from the experience of Yugoslavia and the Congo, that the only possible result of toppling a strong man without political stabilization would be de facto partition and sectarian warfare. This has been amply born out by events. However, what is important is that the United States has been drawn into this matrix, and is a participant in the sectarian atrocities.
That Americans have become entangled in this is for reasons different from Vietnam. In Vietnam the overwhelming reason for American troops committing atrocities was their inability to create safe haven, and a fear of a populace which had large numbers of people hostile to them, and willing to engage in assymetrical warfare. These kinds of abuses are seen in Iraq today, with recent headlines as a mere example.
However, what is not the result of simply having over-stressed and exposed troops is Abu Ghraib, and the torture and abuse which went on there. While the blame has fallen on low ranking individuals who happened to be caught, the interrogation strategies are the direct result of training and orders made by superiors, and the creation of a concentration camp with a torture wing was not the result of a two striper's commands. Instead, the existence of such a place – taken over from Saddam – is a clear indicator of a wholly different driving mechanism for atrocity in Iraq.
The pictures themselves tell the tale. This image, obtained by Salon.com dates from 2003 only months after the invasion and so called liberation of Iraq. It shows clearly that far from being the result of a unit which time and command forgot degenerating in discipline, that, instead, Abu Ghraib was planned, consistent and by procedure. Someone conceived of our rendition of Abu Ghraib, some one planned it, some one ordered it, some one broke it down into steps for enlisted personnel to follow.
The Neo-Assyrians would thread a rope through a person's jaw, and pull them around like a dog. like this photograph here. But what of the greater atrocities? The leveling of whole cities? For slaughter of surrendering combatants and probable civilians Some 2000 bodies were identified in Fallujah. There is no realistic model of the rebellion in Iraq which allows all 2000, or even close to all 2000 to be combatants. Several of the pictures out of Fallujah are of babies and adults who have been burned, and, in one case left, as Iliad might say to the dogs and all of the birds.
In short Fallujah follows the model, not of a liberated city, nor even of an army of occupation, but of a concerted effort to destroy the civilian population's will to resist. The cold pictures are backed by polling and other survey data, and by the cryptic "lost in action in Al-Anbar" province. This province – which stretches to the Jordan border – is the focal point for military resistence to the United States, because this is the smuggling channel for petroleum which was evolved during the long sanctions period. It is here that the life line for the insurgents money flows, and it is here that they have begun to create their own place cult of Islam. Of the various rebel groups, many use the provinces name specifically. It is in and from mosques that they base operations, requiring that the US treat mosques as a target.
For those needing hard visible proof that the war between the United States and Iraq has devolved towards the situation which Neo-Assyria faced with Babylon – a kind of quasi symbiotic twilight conflict, where the military power, desperate for energy to feed its armies, has become an instrument of disintegration.
But the bulk of the atrocities are carried out by local individuals against each other. According to various estimates some 150,000 Iraqis have died in the last 3 years outside of combat operations, added to this another 50,000 killed in combat operations of various kinds – which includes civilian deaths. In a population of 20 Million, this is equivalent to 6 million deaths in the United States. There has been, and continues, a holocaust in Iraq.
The reason of course is that the real wealth of Iraq is not above the land, but under it. Only one group may control the place which is Iraq, which means all groups must create, not merely military or economic, or even social and political, rationalizations. They must create a cult of place. For the United States 911 is the beginning of all 21st century cults of place.
America is still a Septembrist nation, washing aside all other meanings of the word. The attack on American place, and its shock to the individual small people is to be the subject of a reverent film. This connection – of how the attack on the World Trade Center was not an act, but it struck at the times of individual friendship and family, and was thus the most unholy of acts – is used as justification for our actions in 911. Thus are armies have been told, over and over and over again, that they are the fist of a god, a god whose vengeance is against an army of darkness –vast, looming, pervasive.
America is still a Septembrist nation, washing aside all other meanings of the word. The attack on American place, and its shock to the individual small people is to be the subject of a reverent film. This connection – of how the attack on the World Trade Center was not an act, but it struck at the times of individual friendship and family, and was thus the most unholy of acts – is used as justification for our actions in 911. Thus are armies have been told, over and over and over again, that they are the fist of a god, a god whose vengeance is against an army of darkness –vast, looming, pervasive.
As the Assyrians cried to Shamash when they felt oaths had been broken, our law too is degenerating down into a mere conveyance of power from place to place in its progress through the realm, in order to hold the homeland together. To be dishonourable, and to be opposed to our place cults will are one and the same. The genocidal bigotry which was the Neo-Assyrian trade mark is returning now – with far right wing films looking back tenderly on the age when to be black and in the wrong place, was a hanging offense. Freedom in their vernacular means Lynch Law.
We have learned that War is Hell from so many quotations, and this war, as any war, has seen a share of irreducible misery. The alternative to war is often enslavement by those who make war upon you. There is no sympathy from this pen for those who urge enslavement on others out of some misguided sense of moral purity. However, an analysis shows that the suffering in Iraq is not for the objective of some liberation, it is not in line with America's old concept cult of international liberation, self-determination and enrichment of human destiny, but is, instead, a policy where atrocity is woven into official orders, and the rationalization for atrocity is pumped into the propaganda which the troops are fed.
America, in World War II, and again in Korea, faced place cult dynamics in Japan, Germany and in the PRC armies that joined in the conflict. America faced them again in Vietnam. In each case our best response was to attempt to annihilate the social organization which created the place cult itself. However, in each case America's efforts were supported by the belief in a concept cult of civic society and Democracy. That America rose as far and as fast as it did is a proof of the power of that civic cult. The reason the United States is ineffectual in Iraq, even though we are "undefeated in the field" as one German book post World War I declared – is not because of some stab in the back or failure of our place cult, which is the belief that all place cults come to when beaten, but that the place cult of our time is incompatible with both our military means and our ends.
It is leading to a more important failure, more important than military failure. That failure is the collapsing of American cultural production.
What allows America to act as it does is both a cultural unity, and an economic system which that cultural unity supports and feeds from. It is the image to the rest of the world that we place in the minds of billions which is before, and behind, any exposure to specific actions. The Neo-Assyrians never had this cultural superiority. Instead, it was Egypt and Babylon that others mimicked in that day and age. American cultural superiority flags, simply because we are no longer able to speak the language of progress which the rest of the world hopes to share, but instead, we speak the language of protecting our place on the pinnacle, which is increasingly alienating to other nations.
Nations that will begin to seek other models in their struggle upwards.