Wars as Acts of Cultural Cleansing – Notes

There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

– Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Why are we witnessing large numbers of Indians defending and celebrating the Russian invasion of Ukraine? We are a post-colonial nation-state with a long history of colonial rule that has caused irreparable damage to the population at large. If people cheer the Russian invasion anyway, it may reflect the latent imperial ambitions of Hindu majority politics in India and their desire for an ‘imagined’ Hindu Rashtra. Furthermore, the current obsession with the image of a “strong and determined leader” further cements these celebrations. It seems that urging and waging wars and celebrating them is at the core of national identity. In the context of Britain, cultural theorist Paul Gilroy has interpreted such aspirations as “the aftermath of imperial rule and a reaction to the loss of imperial prestige”. They are key components of what Gilroy calls “melancholic cultural formations”. And today’s war between Russia and Ukraine is a classic example of this.

The War of Civilizations

The desire for a monoculture is closely linked to the dream of a “perfect” nation. There are no wars that are not shameful. And, of course, war devours everything in its path. These are often categorized as collateral damage. Despite the unintentionality evoked by the word “collateral,” a close look at the workings of the mechanisms of war makes it clear that these claims are made to absolve the perpetrators of extermination from any liability. In other words, wars must be understood in terms of their mechanistic nature, for their role in spearheading and accelerating the imperial ambitions of majoritarianism of varying types and degrees.

Sometimes wars are not declared but communicated as something ubiquitous in our lives. For example, consider a manifested form of undeclared war in our context – the destruction of Babri Masjid (1992). A war cry that has devastating reverberations to this day. Why has the destruction of a historical monument become the most pleasing visual metaphor for many Hindus? The answer may lie in the fact that there can be no nationalism outside of cultural insularism or the obsessive desire for territorialization. However, such a love of territory, wiping out even people, culture and nature, is contrary to the ideal of democracy.

Cultural and civilizational claims are the primary rallying point of any territorial conception, making a cultural monument the catalyst for war against humans. When the imagined greatness of a past turns out to be already lost, political work turns into a war machine caught in desperate, endless attempts to bury the heterogeneity of the past. But the war against the past is not an exorcism of its evil spirit; it is the process of transforming oneself into embodied evil. This incarnation points to the everyday war that shapes our contemporary cultural and political ethos.

For example, the repeated destruction of Ambedkar statues – a symbol of the Dalit reclaiming of public space – across India is a local manifestation of such internalization of the war. As art historian Kajri Jain has noted, the erection of gigantic statues, both religious and ‘secular’ – such as the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial – can be read as a violent affirmation by majority caste groups of their monopoly on public space. In that sense, these gigantic statues and monuments are disguised forms of war cries. They are erected monumental pillars of monoculture that challenge the heterogeneity of past and present. The militarization of everyday life, especially when combined with the comfort blanket of an imagined monoculture, produces constant wars, vandalism and encourages the desire for destruction.

The War of Art

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin, a direct victim of World War II and the Nazi war machine, analyzes the Italian Futurists’ 1909 Manifesto, published in 1909, in his now canonical essay “Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), which was one of the most unabashed War Celebrations in the History of Western Modern Art. In his characteristic style, Benjamin not only criticized the content of the Manifesto as a proto-fascist document, but also paid attention to the linguistic power of the text. A text that lives from a sense of urgency, from the longing for a definitive upheaval, a call to catastrophe, as if only in this way could “progress” proceed. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the author of the Manifesto, wrote: “For twenty-seven years we futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic…Accordingly, we find…War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machines by means of gas masks.” , scary megaphones, flamethrowers and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamed-of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowery meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns.”

In his critique of the Manifesto, Benjamin noted that such a celebration of war by the Futurists not only points to a proto-fascist aesthetic regime, but also reveals its inner logic, which celebrates one’s destruction as the ultimate aesthetic experience – the sublime of being highest order. Benjamin remarked, “Humanity, which Homer says was once a spectacle for the Olympian gods, is now one for themselves. Their self-alienation has progressed to the point where they can experience their own destruction as the supreme aesthetic pleasure.”

war and culture

War and the destruction of cultural treasures are closely linked. War is much more than the mere desire to conquer and occupy. This desire is often fueled by an aversion to difference. This is the main reason that the planned destruction of vestiges of cultural difference has become an integral part of the world war machine. We have evidence of such acts of cultural cleansing from every geographic area and historical time period. We can make an endless list of such destructions from the annals of history – be it the Library of Alexandria, the Luoyang Imperial Library, or Nalanda University, the destruction and transformation of Buddhist monuments in ancient and medieval India, and the Bamiyan Buddhas, um to name a few. One of the most telling examples from recent history is the 1981 fire of Jaffna Public Library by Sinhala militia, which resulted in the destruction of over 97,000 volumes of books and numerous culturally valuable and irreplaceable manuscripts. By burning the library, the majority regime sought to erase the cultural past of the Tamil community, thereby attempting to push it out of history.

The colonization by various European empires also makes it clear that such acts involve the looting and destruction of cultural assets. The British looting and burning of the Royal Library of Burma in the late 19th century is a case in point. Ironically, some of the artifacts looted by the British Army are still on display as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection. The world wars also showed similar tendencies towards the wanton destruction of cultural assets. For example, Poland – a neighboring country of Ukraine – faced an unimaginable loss of artifacts of its history and culture. The Zaluski Library in Warsaw was repeatedly looted and vandalized, first by the Russian occupiers in the late 18th century and later by Nazi German troops in 1944.

The American invasion of Iraq in 1991 is perhaps the most relevant recent example of how war has had a devastating and far-reaching impact on cultural monuments, repositories, objects and archaeological sites. Legal scholar Marion Forsyth noted in her essay Casualties of War: The Destruction of Iraq’s Cultural Heritage as a Result of US Action During and After the 1991 Gulf War (2004) that pre-1991 Iraq was one of the most successful protection programs of cultural assets in the Middle East. Iraqi national law considers all antiques, immovable and movable, to be the property of the state. The antique trade was illegal, and it was also illegal to “break, mutilate, destroy or damage any antique, movable or immovable. But as war destabilized the region, these priceless artifacts were looted by organized gangs and smuggled into the antique markets of Europe and America.”

Assessing the impact of the American invasion on “the cradle of civilization” on behalf of UNESCO, Sue Williams states this in her interview with eminent archaeologist John Russell

The archaeological site of Ur of the Chaldeans, the alleged birthplace of Abraham, was bombed and shelled by Allied aircraft with over 400 gun holes reported in the temple tower and at least 4 bomb craters at the site. The unexcavated main site of Tell el-Lahm was trenched and bulldozed by American forces.

A cursory look at the various UNESCO reports on war crimes committed against cultural artifacts and sites reveals the extent of the destruction and how the war enabled the illicit global trade in artifacts to enter the international antiquities trade. One could go so far as to say that destruction is capitalism’s business and war is its familiar companion, and that every destruction opens up multiple market opportunities for capitalists and political opportunities for the capitalist class.

What’s left?

With this in mind, it may be worth reflecting on today’s calls for the decolonization of museums and institutions, particularly in the context of formerly colonizing/imperial nations. These calls for institutional decolonization go beyond symbolic gestures of repatriation and restitution, toward a more self-reflective and critical engagement with the guilt of cultural institutions in the imperialist-nationalist war complex.

So what would a decolonial initiative in India look like? If majority Hinduism is clearly on a state-sponsored warpath toward homogeneity and monoculture, would we be even remotely capable of thinking toward heterogeneity and restoring the ethos of pluralism?

This paper was originally published in Indian Express, May 2, 2022 →. Republished with permission.

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