Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reason for a Liberal Arts Education

The news yesterday contained a horrifying story about how the US military leveled part of the ancient Babylon archaeological site. They apparently bulldozed mounds that were what remained of parts of guest palace of King Nebuchadnezzar's, damaged pottery that had cuneiform writing on it along with other items that date back over 2500 years, and carried on activities that damaged the reproduction of the Ishtar Gate at that site.

I am embarrassed that they did not know better, as one would expect from any decent humanities course or bible study in church school, but there is a precedent from World War II:


Every time I happen to hear a story about Kyoto that mentions how it managed to survive the war, I wish they would tell the whole story. The people planning the bombing of Japan had no idea of its religious or historic significance, let alone the beauty of the temples that fill the city. The only reason it was not firebombed was that it had been put at the TOP of the list of places to use the first atom bomb! Hiroshima was number 2.

You see, in order to be sure we could see the effects of the bomb, we wanted to use the A bomb on a pristine city. The people in Hiroshima and several other cities were sure they had said a special prayer to have been spared the bombings, whereas the reality was they were in the cross hairs of something far worse than about 400 planes carrying explosives and incendiaries sufficient to burn tens of square miles.

But it happened that Secretary of War Stimson knew Kyoto well, and fought hard to get it off the list and to keep Gen. Lemay from bombing it with conventional weapons during the rest of the war. You can read the details in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. Either Groves and others were ignorant of its cultural value to the world, or they wanted to destroy it for that very reason.

One would have hoped that today's generals would know something about Babylon's history and the nature of archaeological sites, if only because this city had an important role in the Bible, but apparently not. I'd hope that humanities teachers everywhere can draw on this as a teachable moment in their classes.

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