Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Dr. Shawn Malley
“… an irreparable violence towards all secrets, the violence of a civilization without secrets.” The desire to unmask Egypt’s secrets is a link to the “furious envy” of a global power faced with the symbolic order of Iraqi (and world) heritage that do not easily fit into the New Global Order (Smith, 2006).
This article addresses the politics of simulation and hyperreality in Baudrillard’s writings on the latest Gulf War. Specifically, I provide a Baudrillardian reading of a cultural artifact dealing with archaeology and media in the wake of the invasion of Iraq: Tripp Reed’s Manticore (2007), a “B” science-fiction horror film about a group of U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, who, charged with protecting the Baghdad Museum against looters, end up battling a monster animated from the archaeological record, the titular Manticore. I argue the film’s engagement with the occupation and looting enacts a classic Baudrillardian “reversal” of the political events it portrays. Inverting destruction of heritage into protection of that very heritage, it is an important popular cultural performance of the mission objectives – to win hearts and minds and complicity with the occupation (at least for mover-goers back home).
With Operation Iraqi Freedom officially over and the coalition forces settling into Operation Enduring Freedom, the University of Colorado Press released in 2007 a revised edition of Brian Fagan’s 1979 classic history of Mesopotamian archaeology, Return to Babylon: Travelers, Archaeologists, and Monuments in Mesopotamia. In the preface, the author relates that the publication is timely because “recent archaeological catastrophes in Iraq have kindled renewed interest in the long history of Mesopotamian archaeology”. Fagan’s justifications for the revised edition reveal much about the assumptions under which the book was published in the wake of the Second Gulf War. First, he defends the book’s episodic format on the grounds that his is a “narrative of discovery, not of intellectual trends, which are of less interest to general audiences”. The second justification takes the form of a qualified apology, that Austen Henry Layard and Émile Botta, the first Europeans to begin large-scale excavation in Mesopotamia in the mid nineteenth century, “were appalling excavators by today’s standards, but they placed the Assyrians firmly on the stage of world history.” Continuing the dramatic metaphor, Fagan, thirdly, ends his prefatory remarks by declaring, “This adventure story is replete with interesting characters, at present with a tragic ending but surely with hope for the future. The stage is set. Let the play begin!” (Fagan, 2007: ix, xi, xii).
That Fagan displaces the motives of his revision – the destruction of antiquities in wartime – into an “adventure story” begs an important question: in the context of the invasion, can we assume that archaeology is an inherently noble and humanizing activity? Contrary to his disclosure, “intellectual trends” would be conspicuous by their absence in any “narrative of discovery”. Indeed, their absence is itself an ideological commitment that ignores the history of our contentious engagements with the people of Iraq and the political conditions under which excavations have taken place and have been renewed under the occupation. Fagan’s plaintive remark in the concluding chapter that looters are “selling Iraq’s birthright and the cultural heritage of all humankind, which we all should collectively hold in trust for generations as yet unborn” (ibid.:342), further buries the complex and troubled history of East-West relations under the comfortable humanist notion that we in the West accept – and have inherited – ancient Mesopotamia as the cradle of civilization. Fagan implies that as the foundation of Western culture, Mesopotamia is a world heritage site that we must be “trusted” to protect not only from our own bombs but, and perhaps more urgently, from the ignorance and greed of the Iraqi people/looters.
In their 2004 volume A Companion to Social Archaeology,Lynn Meskell and Robert Preucel observe that the Gulf Wars “underscore the intensely political nature of the archaeological enterprise”. These wars complete rather than compete with the history of archaeological activity by Westerners, for they reaffirm the entrenched view of the region as a precious repository of a world heritage “that requires control and management by Western experts and their respective governments” (Meskell and Preucel, 2004:315). Indeed, sensitive questions about archaeologists’ complicity with this paradigm of stewardship and its service of nationalist and imperialist agendas have never before been so widely circulated and theorized (see, for example: Starzmann et. al., 2008; Kane, 2003).1 In Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq (2007), Magnus Bernhardsson in fact characterizes the history of Mesopotamian archaeology in military terms, claiming that the “battle over Iraq’s historical artifacts was ultimately a struggle over Western involvement in the Middle East” (Bernhardsson, 2005:14), a tradition of archaeological imperialism that dates back to the European struggle for political influence in the failing Ottoman Empire (See Wendy M. K. Shaw, 2003).2
The infamous three-day looting and vandalism of the Iraq National Museum in April 2003 is a case in point.3 This incident was especially troubling for the archaeological community, who had urged the US Department of Defense prior to the war to protect antiquities in the major museums and archaeological sites (Bernhardsson, 2005:3).4 The military quickly mobilized to reverse this failure: a tank was parked in the entrance of the museum and a military task force was struck to hunt down stolen artifacts and bring the looters to justice. Its leader, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, even wrote a book about it. Entitled The Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures (2005), this action-packed, detective style account of his team’s investigations into the looting of the National Museum perpetuates all the stereotypes that accord the need for Western intervention in Iraq (Bogdanos, 2005). It is at once an elaborate apology and a paternalistic, military jargon-laden narrative of treasure hunting and meting out justice to untrustworthy Orientals. We are even treated to pictures of the buff Colonel mixing it up in the boxing ring. Archaeology is manly; the mission, humanitarian. In the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and serious questions being raised about the legality and need for the invasion in the first place, archeology is a potent counter-measure in the propaganda war on terror. Authoring a successful adventure story of its own, the military has become the vigilant guardian of these precious treasures from forces hostile to civilization.
Today the monuments of Mesopotamia are clearly war casualties, just as archaeological sites continue to be sites of military, political, and ideological occupation by the West. In his article “‘Furious Envy’: Baudrillard and the Looting of Baghdad,” Stephen Smith goes so far as to claim that the questionable motives of the US military not to safeguard the National Museum and other archaeological sites amount to a political campaign as strategic as the bombing of military installations. Deferring to Baudrillard’s 2006 essay on the inevitable rise of terrorism as a response to globalization, “Our Society’s Judgment and Punishment,” Smith asks the question “to what extent did deliberate oversight by the US, as a possible manifestation of the ‘furious envy’ Baudrillard speaks of, typify the conduct of the war?” (Smith, 2006:3). By “furious envy” Baudrillard refers to the envy of the West as a “low-definition mono-culture, confronted by high-definition cultures” [i.e. the capitalist West, which “lost its own values long ago,” and Arab cultures that resist this homogenization (Baudrillard, 2006:3)]. For Baudrillard, a particular logic of inversion governs the global flattening required to render the world safe for democratic capitalism. This hinges upon his concept of “humiliation.” He argues that terrorism does not arise from the hatred of “a people from whom everything has been taken,” but, rather, the hatred born out of the humiliation of being forced to receive the “gifts” of the West and give nothing back in return. The uni-directional nature of Western globalization has created the very conditions for the terrorist attacks on 9/11, an “act of humiliation responding to another humiliation,” a symbolic rather than physical assault on the Twin Towers with our own technology.
For Smith, Baudrillard provides a theoretical model with which to understand the bombing of Baghdad and the looting of the National Museum as another order of symbolic action in a war that is fundamentally about trying to secure power over the Middle East through the unreturnable gift of global capitalism. In Smith’s view, Baudrillard helps us to overlay the destruction of material culture during the invasion as an attack on Iraqi cultural identity.5 He contends that there:
is a strong suspicion that the American failure to protect Iraqi heritage sites was more than mere negligence, but a deliberate oversight – perhaps a kind of cultural “shock and awe” – designed to devastate a sense of shared culture among Iraqis, leaving a blank page for the imprint of the US occupying forces and the reconstruction to follow (Smith, 2006:1).
The archaeological record of Iraq – cordoned off from Western archaeologists since Operation Desert Storm as a repository of Ba’thist nationalism – is a potentially dangerous “singularity,” a symbolic world held outside of globalism’s reach for over a decade. [For an extensive examination of the Ba’th party’s use of archaeology see Amatzia Baram (1991)]. As such, it is a prime target for Western reprisals.
Destruction and reconstruction have nonetheless exchanged places in Iraq as the painful memories of Operation Iraqi Freedom fade into the epoch of the “New Dawn,” proclaimed by the Obama administration in 2010. Indeed, archaeology and the military have made a pact in Iraq, what archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis calls the “Archaeology-Military Complex” (Hamilakis, 2009:39-65). The army has liberated ancient Mesopotamia from the mad dictator, clearing the ground for the West’s return to the cradle of civilization. The case of Colonel Bogdanos is but one instance of the ways archaeologists are – by necessity, by desire – working with the occupying forces. Operating under the ethical paradigm of recovery and protection of archaeological objects that have been historically and institutionally fetishized within “a narrowly and problematically defined archaeological record” (ibid.:39), many archaeologists are, in Hamilakis’s view, willfully ignorant of the ideological nature of, and uses for, their disciplinary practices in the context of the invasion. If, as Baudrillard asserts, the 9/11 attacks were a “gift” that America could not refuse – a symbolic act that dramatically underscores the crisis nature of globalism – the Iraqi looters did not take what was not theirs, but ours under the hegemonic circulation of global-historical culture. Was the West humiliated, in the Baudrillardian sense, by the archaeological community, for the failure of global police to protect civilization itself? If so, archaeologists were duly compensated, returning with the armed forces to put antiquity back together again [For insiders’ perspectives on the military intervention into archaeology see Laurie Rush (2010)].
While the Archaeology-Military complex offers Iraqis the opportunity to help rebuild the past and repair the broken timeline of progress, a larger question frames the archaeo-military romance of reconciliation. Is co-opting the archaeological record enough to assuage the West’s desire for revenge? Armed archaeology can have it both ways. For archaeological reconstruction also furnishes a symbolic mode of punishment and way of naturalizing the publicized reason for the armed invasion itself: the hunt for Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. The army could not find what it was charged to find, but with Saddam out of the way and democracy installed in Iraq this has very little practical importance. Symbolically, however, the Archaeology-Military Complex located a powerful WMD hidden within the very archaeological treasures that it is now committed to protect. Failure to produce a WMD and failure to protect Iraqi heritage have been reversed into a narrative of victory.
The Hollywood war machine was also mobilized. Science fiction cinema affords an illuminating cultural artifact in this regard: Tripp Reed’s SF horror film Manticore, released in the same year as Fagan’s Return to Babylon. Exploiting images of military action circulating in popular films about – and news media coverage of – the war, the film takes as its premise the looting of the Baghdad Museum and the arrest of looters by occupation forces. Manticore conflates military occupation and archaeological stewardship in a science fiction story about saving Iraq from the double threat of insurgents and looters, and, moreover, from a legendary beast excavated from the very archaeological record the soldiers are charged to defend. I suggest, however, that the political orientation of this fabulous scenario is entirely credible and conventional within the logic of inversions, in which destruction, bombing, and looting become salvation, stewardship, shared culture, and liberation in the New Dawn era [For studies of archaeology and propaganda in the Gulf Wars see Pollock in in Pollock and Bernbeck (2005: 78-96); Pollock and Catherine Lutz (1994)]. For the film performs the deeper motives of cleansing the archaeological record from any economic threats inherent in opening the past to shared origins or shared culture with the Iraqi people. In the film, hunting down the WMD is a symbolic response to the symbolic attack on the World Trade Center, but in the absence of a WMD a replacement is furnished from the material past that is simultaneously erased/preserved by the invading forces: the Manticore, a beast that inhabits the Baghdad Museum, lingers in the anarchic psyche of the insurgents, and is unleashed against forces bringing democracy, freedom, and order to beleaguered Iraq. What follows is a Baudrillardian “excavation” of the film’s latent political agenda to support the coalition between archaeology and soldiering against the potential singularity of Iraqi heritage.
Hollywood’s Revenge on Archaeology: Manticore
The American people need to know that we’re facing a different enemy than we have ever faced. This enemy hides in shadows, and has no regard for human life. This is an enemy who preys on innocent and unsuspecting people, runs for cover (George W. Bush, Speech from the White House, September 12, 2001).
Our people have responded with courage and compassion, calm and reason, resolve and fierce determination. We have refused to live in a state of panic or a state of denial… People are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshiping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games (George W. Bush, Speech in Atlanta, November 8, 2001).
Mesopotamia may be the birthplace of civilization, but it is also embattled territory upon which ideas of civilization, democracy, and freedom continue to be contested. The 2003 Gulf War has generated a plethora of stories in the cognitive struggle to make sense of the conflict for audiences on the home front in just these terms. Cinema is an especially suited medium for fleshing out the war against terrorism. Popular narratives of war can certainly be entertaining and diverting, but popular culture is always deeply engaged in ideology, transforming “real social and political desires and insecurities into manageable narratives in which these can be temporarily articulated, displaced, or resolved” (Martin, 2006:104-16, 110). Abstracting violence into film is a time tested means of displacing real-world anxieties about war into safe diversions. As film scholars Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard explain, “the ‘war on terror,’ driven as much by US strategy to reconfigure the Middle East as by the events of 9/11, serves as the perfect backdrop for film industry productions of violent high-tech spectacles, now a major staple of media culture” (Boggs and Pollard, 2006: 335-52, 335). With the growing feeling that the Bush administration misinformed the American people and the international community about weapons of mass destruction, and the haunting sense that the invasion of Iraq was a misplaced target for reprisals on the 9/11 attacks,6 Hollywood cinema (often acting collusively with the US Military [see der Derian, 2001]) furnishes the public with sensible images of the conflict, emotional reactions to what’s going on “over there,” and, ultimately, a narrative substitute for the dull, almost un-cinematic reality of the occupation.
Aired originally on the SF Channel, Manticore offers material for contemplating the war on terror and, more specifically, the role of archaeology in the occupation of Iraq. Set in the early days of the occupation of Baghdad, the film has a documentary nature, a self-reflexivity about the soldiers’ mission and the role of media in creating images about the conduct and meaning of the war for the public. The film is an apropos document of the popular cultural response to the war, a response that carries deeper messages about geopolitics and archaeology’s role in appeals to global heritage. Manticore is an interesting and perhaps unique document of the war on terror, for its premise as a science fiction horror flick is the deep-seated coeval occupation of archaeologists and armies in the Middle East. The film presents the politics of occupation through archaeology, transforming the fragile archaeological record into a malevolent and potent weapon against democracy and freedom, a weapon that must be contained and neutralized by the US military.
Uncomplicated with romantic subplots or character development, the narrative of Manticore is simplicity itself. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, soldiers from the US Army 10th Mountain Division are sent on a mission to search for missing journalists, who, under the guise of covering a story on artifact looting, were acting on intelligence that they would find the heretofor missing WMDs. Arriving at a small town in northern Iraq, the platoon discovers its residents massacred by a man-eating beast, the titular Manticore (a winged beast with “claws that could tear through armour, a tail to crush stone, and teeth with an insatiable appetite for flesh”), a “living, breathing Weapon of Mass Destruction” reanimated from an ancient statue by an Iraqi insurgent leader and self-professed ancestor of Babylonian royalty dedicated to ridding the country of the American infidels and reclaiming his birthright. The narrative ends predictably enough with the field littered with corpses, the beast vanquished, and the heroes literally walking off into the sunset.
While diagetically unsophisticated, the film’s real interest from a cultural studies perspective lies in its fashioning of contemporary geopolitics within the oeuvre of SF horror. Politics are mediated through a familiar narrative of military conquest and the struggle with a metonymic substitute for the “real” threat of Iraqi insurgency. The Manticore is both a powerful weapon and a metaphor for Iraqi resistance, so its defeat is a necessary and forgone conclusion within the Hollywood liberation plot. In this regard Manticore is as politically revisionist as the spate of 1980s Vietnam rescue films such as Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Missing in Action (1984), and Uncommon Valor (1983), films that resist and essentially rewrite the war as a failed humanitarian mission to liberate territories from communist dictators. The Manticore assumes the bestial face of Iraqi insurgency, fashions it out of Iraqi archaeological heritage, their historical identity. While the movie strangely misprisions the mythical Manticore as an ancient Persian monster (perhaps as a way of deflecting any possible connection between the Americans’ part in the destruction of Iraqi artifacts during the invasion), the very geography of the action nonetheless retains the correlation between insurgents, WMDs, and Mesopotamian antiquity. The battle between good and evil, freedom and despotism, is at once shifted into a safe imaginative SF space, but one that clearly reflects the current ideological formulation of the American occupation of Iraqi space and time.
In SF horror, scariness depends upon establishing then threatening a normative environment. Manticore situates its audience in the conflict through constant reference to the news media. The opening credits and establishing shots are a montage of voices and images culled from CNN’s coverage of the invasion. Reports of bombing, street fighting, rooting out terrorists, and the tireless hunt for WMDs – Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reports that “We believe we are now able to carry out strikes around the clock” (CNN, 2001) – overlay familiar images of military machinery, burning buildings, and looting. The iconic shell-hole in the façade of the National Museum fades to a tumultuous interior scene of distraught museum officials roaming among the broken artifacts, overturned pedestals, and empty display cases. The belated tank stationed outside dissolves into the hollow eyes of a decapitated statue (Abu Dhabi TV, 2003). We hear the laments of Assyriologist John Russell on ABC’s Good Morning America: “This is probably the single event from the current Gulf War that will be remembered in the future. Long after all the other details are forgotten, the Iraqi people will remember this as the moment that their past disappeared” (ABC TV, 2003).
Russell’s heart-felt expression of grief certainly conveys the horror that gripped the academy, yet the complex range of interests affected by this particular kind of collateral damage is too easily homogenized within this liberal expression of loss. For the interests of the academic world as well as the political-military establishment have always been invested in Iraq and have always been complicit in its literal and figural destruction through the rhetoric of origins. Russell’s observation furthermore suggests that the destruction of lives is secondary to the destruction of artifacts, that the war will be forgotten but the memory of erasure of the material past will never be. He essentially deflects his own professional interests onto the feelings of the anonymous “Iraqi people”. His assertion in essence exemplifies Baudrillard’s central thesis of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place: in the virtual war of 2003, media exposure of broken statues stand in for and erase actual violence to Arab bodies. The body of the material past is a simulacra of flesh, irreparably replacing humanity through the lamentations of a world victimized by forces antagonistic to culture. The film capitalizes on looting as a pretext for a movie that ultimately buries the politics it foregrounds into a science fiction horror, a horror that ironically and unconsciously deflects the horrors of war back onto the Iraqi people. In this respect the film can trace its lineage back to The Omen (1976), in which the anti-Christ is released during an archaeological dig at Ur.
The opening sequence ends with a lingering shot of a broken alabaster head – the tranquil haunting eyes of antiquity look deeply into our own – then fades into two men burrowing into the basement of the National Museum. Rifling through a chamber crowded with cases, artifacts, and mummified remains, the men are clearly associated with tomb robbers. They are searching for a particular artifact, a magical amulet that we later learn will free the Manticore from its statue-prison. At this point one of the men baulks, begging his colleague to turn back lest they fall victim to “the curse of the sacred twins” (there are actually two Manticores but one is destroyed in a bungled reanimation ritual. I have more to say on the significance of twins below). Profit drives them on, ultimately to their doom as they themselves fall victim to the Manticore’s indiscriminate carnage. In a particularly cheesy moment, the leader holds the amulet up to the torchlight and observes “Our fortune awaits”.
A homage to Apocalypse Now, the camera cuts to helicopters gliding over the twilight Baghdad skyline before settling on a group of soldiers rounding up Iraqi civilians caught with stolen office supplies and artifacts bound for the black market. Tied and kneeling before the soldiers, the uncomprehending men, women, and children are interrogated, threatened, and demeaned. A soldier passes through the crowd with an interesting artifact from the occupation: a special deck of cards issued in 2003 by the Department of Defense that feature pictures of the “most wanted” Iraqi regime officials (Saddam figures predominantly as the Ace of Spades). The soldier compares the Queen of Aces (Air Defense Forces Commander Muzahim S’ab Hasan) to one of the prisoners, the tomb robber from the previous scene, convinced that he is “big time”. Clearly he is not. His buddy admonishes, “He may be a joker but he ain’t no face card”. This scene is also interesting for another reason. By the time the film was released in 2007, the DoD’s Legacy Resource Management Program had issued a similar deck, this time representing some of Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s archaeological sites. Their purpose is to teach soldiers how to identify and handle sensitive archaeological materials and their value to local and international communities. They also serve the purpose of selling the mission to the Iraqis. The Queen of Hearts is the patron of the deck’s core message: “Ancient sites matter to the local community. Showing respect wins hearts and minds.7 The use of the playing card in the interrogation scene thus conflates the mission objectives of the 2003 and 2007 decks: hunting down two kinds of war criminals, Iraqi Regime officials/terrorists and Museum looters.
The humanitarian overtones of the 2007 deck and the underlying mission to use archaeological stewardship to win hearts and minds is incarnated in the unit’s leader, Sgt. Baxter. A “good cop” character, he recognizes the economic necessity behind the looting and reigns in his trigger-happy troops. He even puts himself and his men at risk by ordering them to hand out their rations to the prisoners and cut them free, in spite of his standing orders “to arrest looters on sight”. But at the very moment the soldiers are bathed in the light of good deeds and mutual understanding, they are attacked by a gang of angry insurgents. Good will is rewarded with Iraqi hatred and violence (one soldier gripes “they don’t appreciate all we’ve done for them”). While dozens of gun-waving Iraqis are shot down in the streets, Baxter braves a hail of bullets to save the child of a woman killed by her own people. Outnumbered, the marines withdraw. The action is caught on camera by “GNN” journalist Ashley Pierce. Documenting the platoon’s defeat and the violation of their standing orders is absolutely crucial for building dramatic tension, generating sympathy with the soldiers, and for raising doubt about the transparency of news reportage itself. The tense relationship between the military and the news media – Pierce will stop at nothing to get a scoop – plays off of the war-within-the war for journalistic freedom of access and reportage. Saving the journalists – and saving Iraq from the WMD – salvages respect for the military’s sacrifices in the Middle East by casting doubt on the motives of a critical “free” press8 .
Stereotypically short-sighted with regard to the facts on the ground, and somewhat confused about how to conduct the mission, the army brass likewise contributes to the unit’s humiliation. The commanding officer, Major Spencer Kramer, is clearly displeased with Baxter’s report of the incident. Baxter’s quick thinking and humanitarian spirit is rewarded with a stiff dressing down. Both in the news and in the camp, the unit is criticized within the ambiguous mission objectives themselves:
Kramer: “Sergeant, you were sent there to stop further looting of the National Museum”.
Baxter: “Yeah, we did that”.
Kramer: “Once you’d identified and detained the looters you decided to give them all your supplies and send them on their merry way?”
Baxter: “There was a crowd of angry insurgents threatening our position. What the hell was I supposed to do”?
Kramer: “Maybe if you’d done your job, Sergeant, instead of handing out party favors, you’d have been able to get out of there before the situation escalated and have your prisoners with you”.
Baxter: “It was my understanding, Major, that we were here to liberate these people, and the only way this operation is going to succeed is if we show them that we’re here to help”.
Kramer: “That’s exactly what we’re doing”.
Baxter: “By arresting a bunch of people that are trying to find a way to feed their families”?
Kramer: “By maintaining order”.
Baxter: “Oh, come on, Spence, you know this is crap! …Those people aren’t criminals. They’re living in a vacuum. No jobs, no electricity, no clean water. I did what I did because it was the right thing to do”.
Kramer: “….If you wanted to save the world, why didn’t you join the Red
After a short digression for a game of football (perhaps as a nod to a similar scene in Starship Troopers ), we rejoin the looters, who, having slipped through the military dragnet at the National Museum, deliver the amulet to Sheik Umari. They enter the cave that holds the “Sacred Twins,” the Manticores. For “two thousand years they have slept, waiting patiently to be called upon to rid us of our enemies. And now we have the power to restore this great nation to a land of believers”. Umari embodies the multiple threat of the Muslim world: a Hussein, an Ayahtola, a terrorist, insurgent, and looter all wrapped into one. “Never doubt,” he explains, “that I am the rightful ruler of Babylon. With my sacred twins I will drive out the infidel and this will be our final victory for all to embrace”.9 Umari begins the ritual awakening, but one of the looters gets scared and smashes one of the statues. A single Manticore is reanimated, but without the balancing influence of its twin it goes out of control, ripping everyone except Umari to shreds. The villain escapes to die another day.
Breaking down or collapsing the balance of the twins is a crafty popular culture reference to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. The implication is that the occupation forces will check the destructive impulses of the Other. In the film and in popular consciousness the principle of Eastern despotism – the great other of Western liberal democracy – is paradoxically preserved and restrained through management. Both world orders would collapse without the other. But for Baudrillard, such twinning, especially as it resonates in the demonic forces of global capitalism reified in the very architecture of the Twin Towers, challenges us to look deeper into such easy and conventional conclusions. The towers are for Baudrillard the architectural monument of the limits of binary logic. Wheras “the other skyscrapers are each the original moment of a system continually surpassing itself in crisis and challenge,” the “two towers of the WTC are the visible signs of the closure of a system in the vertigo of redoubling” (Baudrillard  1993:70). As Gary Genosko suggests, “it is precisely this question of ‘collapse’ that has animated Baudrillard’s theorization in the events of 9/11” (Genosko, 2006:2). The towers’ vertiginous collapse prefigures the Baghdad Museum looting. The collapse of the artifacts – the fallen and broken statues – absolves American culpability for their destruction by collapsing the valiant archaeological record into a dangerous Muslim testament of a history antagonistic to the order to global heritage. The film unleashes archaeology as a weapon of mass destruction against the “unbelievers” and then destroys its bad element as a symbolic reprisal for the attack on the World Trade Center.
Representations of the news media are crucial to this end. Journalist Pierce overhears intelligence about a possible WMD in the northern border town of Al Kumar and jumps at the opportunity to be the first on site. She must first convince her cameraman, Steve, to accompany her. Their conversation is indicative of the central role the news media plays in shaping the war, as well as the cynical reasons for the war: profit. She admonishes the reluctant cameraman: “We could sit on our asses and do another puff piece about stolen artifacts”. Steve sardonically invests his duties as a journalist within the mission objectives. He responds,
It’s not just about art, Ash, but about hearts and minds. It’s about convincing the Iraqi people and the world that we care about preserving their culture and that we’re not just some imperialist power bent on crushing their religion and controlling their oil.
Yeah, well hearts and minds ain’t gonna put me on the anchor chair or get you a raise.
The journalists’ conflicted reactions to the war – Steve’s lip-service to the ethical dimensions of occupation and Pierce’s blatant war-profiteering under the guise of finding truth – reflect a deep tension with the mission, which at the time of the film’s creation was hopelessly bogged down in the reality that there never were any WMDs. In the absence of WMDs and after the execution of Hussein, the invasion had to generate new stories of liberation and protection: now the Iraqi people from insurgents. The Manticore is a retelling of the war – a cleansing of the lie of WMDs perpetrated by the Bush administration – by inventing a substitute that will in turn be vanquished by the military.
Succumbing to the compelling logic of her argument – we’re all here to serve global interests – Steve agrees to head north. At Al Kumar they begin filming and manage to catch a glimpse of the Manticore on film. Just as she begins to narrate a piece on recovering lost items from the National Museum (presumably to validate the unauthorized trip to the village), the Manticore races past in the background. In a stroke, the Manticore is equated with the stolen artifacts. The town is soon ravaged, but the journalists are saved by a boy who takes them to safety. Meanwhile, as punishment for their screw-up at the National Museum, Baxter’s unit is assigned special duty to search for the missing pair. Not wanting more bad press – an important impulse behind the belated measures to protect artifacts from looters – the main narrative of finding the journalists and hunting the Manticore commences.
The remainder of the film is narrowly plotted and entirely predictable: carnage, American sacrifices, the death of the villain, and the triumph of the heroes. The inevitable conclusion of the victory over the Manticore/WMD/terrorist is a transparent allegory of the US mission to free the Iraqi people from the Hussein regime, root out insurgents, and institute a legitimate government of the People. The American military machine, localized in the characters of Sgt. Baxter and his brave band of brothers, resolves the tensions of the invasion set out in the opening sequence. Politics and looting are forgotten as the film fully assumes its action-horror character, yet dramatizes these ideological issues through action itself. For the film enacts a surgical strike against terrorists and the elusive WMD by simultaneously saving and doing battle with the archaeological past itself. Iraqi heritage and cultural dignity is restored by a legitimate occupation that, in the film, evokes then allays the latent fear of Islamic fundamentalism in the figure of the Manticore and purges it once and for all from the land. The film opens with looting and in the end legitimizes the destruction of the past as a necessary means of securing the territory for global democracy. Couched in the Hollywood myth of individual heroism, the New World Order carries on, ever-vigilant against Islamic fanaticism and indifferent to its own moral values of forced democracy and free-market fanaticism (Baudrillard, 1997:133). The “New Babylon” is decidedly American, not Iraqi, through the symbolic destruction of Iraqi antiquity in the guise of the Manticore and, in an act of profound reversal, the safe-guarding of that very heritage as world heritage by its soldiers.
Manticore thus offers an oblique answer to Smith’s question of culpability: outwardly the war is humanized in the figures of Sgt. Baxter and in men and women doing their duty, but the film turns in on itself by raising an ideological screen against military aggression with its feel-good Hollywood ending, heroic plotting, and shift of blame to the evil twin. The film portrays the US military as a balance of power – the archetypal good twin who checks the nature of its evil brother and restores order – but the nature of power in the cause of transplanting and enforcing global monoculture is buried in the tireless Hollywood simulation of good versus evil.
While the main action of Manticore is concerned with the battle against the beast, it also engages in the battle to win hearts and minds. This mission is tantamount to teaching the Arabs respect for Western political and cultural institutions. The figure of the child is important for this hidden pedagogical motif (Wallace, 1994:171-84). Reminiscent of the adoption of the Vietnamese orphan in John Wayne’s Green Berets (1968), a pidgin-English speaking lad, Hani, is important to the resolution of the plot. An Americo-phile with a penchant for shouting “USA” at tense moments, the boy is fascinated with the American gear, and, crucially, the very technology that brought down the Manticore: not military hardware but a video-camera belonging to one of the marines, Private Davis. Throughout the film we see Davis turning the camera onto himself, assuming the various on-camera personae of reporter, action hero, faithful husband, and peace-keeper in a hostile environment. With his dying breathe he entrusts the camera, with his last message to his girl back home, to Baxter. The soldier’s video-recording forms another documentary layer, one that reiterates the kinds of stories with which he as a consumer of media culture is familiar. Saturated in media that glorify soldierly duty and sacrifice, the marine seems unaware that his camera functions as an ideological filter, as a way of making sense of his part in the war within a prewritten script.
The simple camera is a potent weapon in the arsenal against terrorism. The actual video-recording of prisoner humiliation, torture, and sexual assault at the Abu Ghraib camp suggests that in modern war cameras are as fetishized as rifles. As Baudrillard relates, “There is no longer any need for ’embedded’ journalists because soldiers themselves are immersed in the image – thanks to digital technology, the images are definitely integrated into the war” (Baudrillard, 2005:3). In the legend of the Manticore, control of the creature lay in its balance with its twin: the Manticores will revert to stone when they stare into each others’ eyes. Impervious to conventional weapons, and freed from its bond with its twin, the beast is coaxed by Baxter to gaze into its own image on the video-recorder screen. The Manticore turns to stone and Corporal Kinks shatters it with a sledgehammer. In an astounding yet typical act of reversal, Hollywood has created a monster out of the culture of a disenfranchised people, then saved them from it with the very technology that represents them as ignorant children and conniving terrorists in need of liberation, reeducation, and even torture. The camera is itself the twin that mirrors and contains the symbolic destruction of the other. The archaeological record lays in pieces, ready to be cemented back together in a parodic gesture of reconstruction.
Hani is crucial for this reversal. At the end of the film, Baxter rewards the boy for his help by making him a gift of the camera. His home and family are gone, but he is ready and eager to make his own films. “I make picture! Spielberg!” he exclaims. The movie industry is itself the means and message of victory, a message that affirms the central role of Western technology – both military and cultural – in bringing Iraq within the fold of civilization. Civilization will be exported through feature films. The Iraqi child and by extension all the “children” of Iraq can find security in watching themselves in paternalistic narratives of salvation. The child embraces the very technology that will destroy his own symbolic relationship with the past, the dangerous world of Mesopotamia that has been looted, burned, taken away and replaced by Hollywood itself.
Covering a vast array of issues, from arresting looters and protecting the archaeological past to tracking down and eliminating WMDs, this rather ordinary B film offers a happy ending to the tale of the National Museum and the continued looting of archaeological sites by diverting attention away from the very history the film references. America has purged the Iraqi people of its bad element and secured the land for freedom-loving masses ready to enjoy and reproduce Spielberg blockbusters. Sanitizing the archaeological past of its association with dictatorship, the film exonerates Operation Iraqi Freedom and the West’s invention of WMDs.
Like the Iraqi extras in this film, the material remains of Assyria play bit parts in cultural spectacles of propriety and control. In its rendition of the US occupation, Manticore essentially reworks the kinds of political and cultural claims Fagan attaches to the history of Mesopotamian archaeology in Return to Babylon. But if the looting of the National Museum has taught us anything, it is that if the stories we tell ourselves allow us to forget our role in the erasure, humiliation, and domination of Arab peoples and their culture, they are as reversible and as unstable as the myth of world trade that collapsed on September 11, 2001. If Baudrillard has taught us anything, it is that Weapons of Mass Deception, latent within our cinematic culture, are always ready to be mobilized against symbolic threats to any symbolic order that may lie outside its imaginative purview.
About the Author
Dr. Shawn Malley is from the Department of English, Bishop`s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada
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1 – Comprehensive bibliographies on nationalism and archaeology may be found in Meskell and Preucel (2004: 318).
2 – For a short history of the state archaeology in Iraq since World War 2, see Bernhardsson (2005: 211-21). For a concise study of the political uses of archaeology within the postcolonial Middle East see Reinhard Bernbeck and Susan Pollock in Lynn Meskell and Robert Preucel (2004: 335-52). For studies of the lingering effects of colonialism in Middle Eastern archaeology see Neil Asher Silberman (1989), James Goode (2007), and Caroline Steele (2005).
3 – For surveys of the damage see Angel M. H. Schuster (2005); Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton (2005); Bernhardsson (2005: 1-4, 222-23); and the special issue of the International Foundation for Art Research, Art Loss in Iraq, IFAR Journal 6 (2003), 30-62. John Malcolm Russell (1998) covers the losses during the First Gulf War. For a defense of the military occupation and the damage to archaeological sites see Alexander H. Joffe (2004).
4 -Iraq 65 (2003) reports that the British School of Archaeology in Iraq was “approached by the American military and asked to give information regarding the sites in Iraq under threat from bombing” (iii). Several archaeologists have noted in this context that the US and UK have not signed the 1954 Hague Convention, which makes the military occupation of heritage sites illegal under international law.
5 -An example of this is the construction of Camp Alpha on the site of Babylon. See Zainab Bahrani (2006). “Babylon: A Case Study in the Military Occupation of an Archaeological Site,” in Neville Agnew and Janet Bridgland: 240-246).
6 -This is the thesis of Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11. For a critical examination of the film see C. Weber (2006: 113-31).
7 -Both decks may be viewed online at Wikipedia. For an analysis of the cards’ geopolitical message see Shawn Malley (2008: 623-46).
8 -For studies of news media involvement with the 2003 Gulf War see Martin and Petro in passim, Holloway, 58-80, Ralph D. Berenger (2004). On the press coverage of WMDs see Kris Kodrich and Sweety Law in Berenger (2004:189-202).
9 -Saddam was himself obsessed with creating this legacy for himself. To the horror of archaeologists, he rebuilt a modern palace on the foundations of the royal palace at Babylon. Visitors were greeted at the annual Festival of Babylon with images of a Saddam posing with Nebuchadnezzar. He even had a stamp commemorating his inheritance of – and likeness to – the ancient monarch. For a detailed analysis see Baram (1991).