An Unnatural History of Destruction: On Iconoclasm as a Tool of War

By Alex DigginsApril 3, 2020

An Unnatural History of Destruction: On Iconoclasm as a Tool of War
THE FIRST SNOWS of the season straggled across the mountain slopes in dirty drifts. In the small Afghan village below, TV aerials scanned the sky and UNESCO information boards broadcast their message in English and Pashto. In a field nearby, a man plowed with a single horse, chivvying it along with muttered encouragement.

The flight from Kabul International Airport had roared in earlier that day, disgorging soldiers, journalists, embassy staff, and do-gooders. Their ostensible purpose was to inspect the area’s fledgling tourism industry (consisting, at that current moment, of a lone guesthouse run by a dauntless Japanese woman and her husband). But in reality, the travelers were curious. They had come to see the Buddhas. Or rather their absence.

The two colossal statues of the Buddha, one 180 feet high, which had stood in Bamiyan valley since the sixth century, had been razed to dust by the Taliban in 2001. The Buddhas did not fall easily. They were first blasted by tanks and anti-aircraft guns. When that proved ineffective, mines were strewn about the statues’ feet: ricocheting shell fire and debris would, it was hoped, do the rest. Finally men were lowered from the cliffs above to stash dynamite in the sculptures’ blank eye sockets and the folds of their robes. The destruction was complete.

The Taliban were anxious for a media spectacle — photos and videos of the ongoing demolition were broadcast around the world; letters had been sent in advance to UNESCO and Western governments announcing their intention. Conflicting reasons were given. One Taliban commander claimed the desecration was a humanitarian gesture which shone a light on the hypocrisy of the West. Afghanistan’s people were in the grip of famine — why such hand-wringing over “non-living objects”? But, perhaps because this question could too easily be turned on the Taliban themselves, another explanation was quickly formulated. The Buddhas, elegant examples of Gandhara art and its rich syncretism of Buddhist and Greek heritage, were intolerable idols, remnants of Jahiliyyah, “The Age of Ignorance.” The Qur’an provides no direct justification for iconoclasm. But the Hadith, the Traditions of the Prophet, do. One such claims that, when Muhammad conquered Mecca, he confronted the idols arrayed in front of the Ka’bah. Taking an arrow, he put out their eyes, saying: “Truth is come and falsehood vanished.”

The visitors started up the hills toward the empty niches in the cliff face. Two vast absences: eloquent in their silence. Among the group was a middle-aged British army officer. My father.


His war stories usually bored me. Not because they were poorly told, but because of what they represented: the distance between us, the forking in our lives. For much of my childhood, he was a distant ideal — the heroic father, off at war. Yet, as I grew up, this ideal rubbed uncomfortably against flesh-and-blood reality: our conversations grew weighty, tautening with things unsaid. But his story of the Buddhas haunted me. It was brought sharply back into my mind at the beginning of this year. General Qasem Soleimani had been killed by a US drone strike outside Baghdad Airport. Iranian missiles crashed down on American airbases in Iraq. And President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States had in its sights “52 Iranian sites […] some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

His threat unleashed a storm of denials and condemnations. Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, hastily clarified: “We will follow the laws of armed combat.” And Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, led the denunciations: “The targeting of sites of global cultural heritage is abhorrent to the collective values of our society. Our world knows precisely what is gained from protecting cultural sites, and, tragically, what is lost when destruction and chaos prevail.”

Widely shared articles documented what might be destroyed if Trump followed through with his threat — “Here’s what could be lost if Trump bombs Iran’s cultural treasures,” ran a piece in the Guardian. (Rule one of conflict journalism: All war crimes are ultimately reducible to a listicle.) What struck me though was not Trump’s threat, nor the chorus line of condemnation it prompted, but the moral flexibility and shallow historical sense it revealed among Western commentators.

It is convenient to believe that cultural desecration is the tool of others who exist outside of Western mores. The black-clad foot soldiers of ISIS, wielding sledgehammers against the ancient city of Palmyra, are the unproblematic poster boys for this sort of “destruction and chaos.” Equally abhorrent, though less well reported, is the bulldozing of Uyghur graveyards in Xinjiang province by the Chinese authorities. Xinjiang has become an apartheid state. The suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs through techno-dystopian means — checkpoints, informants, facial recognition CCTV, and massive internment camps — has slowly been revealed. But this low-tech solution has proved effective as well. Where generations of families were buried, satellite images now reveal shining fields of dirt, stripped bare.

But cultural desecration is stitched into the West’s history as well. It is an intimate atrocity: its threads run through our sense of collective selfhood. There is a thin line between iconoclastic hostility and actual violence — wars, invasions, and occupations have long gone hand-in-hand with fits of desecration. In the eighth and ninth centuries, successive Byzantine emperors interpreted their military failures as divine judgments and ordered the widespread destruction of religious images and monuments. In 1453, the 21-year-old Ottoman emperor Mehmed II rode at the head of a victory procession into the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The city had endured a long siege and three days of looting. When the young emperor saw the glorious mosaics and frescos inside, it is reported that he fell to his knees in wonder. But, when he rose, he ordered the church to be converted into a mosque — the frescoes whitewashed, Islamic seals painted on its ceiling and minarets built, jutting from its corners. The symbolic center of the Byzantine Empire, its holiest of holies, had been turned.

One of the most frenzied bouts of iconoclasm, though, occurred not when religions collided — but when one spilt. The suspicion of images which Martin Luther wrote into his Reformation teachings reached a murderous pitch among Calvinists in the Low Countries. Sparked by the sacking of the pilgrimage church of Sint-Laurensklooster in August 1566, a wave of violence swept through Antwerp and Ghent. According to eyewitnesses, the Beeldenstorm, “the storm of statues” was vivid with apocalyptic coloring. Sir Richard Clough, a Welsh merchant living in Antwerp, described the Church of Our Lady as “like hell with above 10,000 churches burning and such a noise as if heaven and earth had got together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works[.] […] [T]he spoil was so great that a man could not well pass through the church.”

Iconoclasm works in two ways. First, there is the act of destruction itself — a leveling lust which becomes a kind of mania. Sometimes, as with the Beeldenstorm, this mania is driven by a sense of authority overturned. The whispered power of the Catholic icons — hushed, invisible, and jealously guarded from ordinary eyes — usurped in a crash of sparks and splintered wood. My brother and I once spent an afternoon hurling stones through the windows of an abandoned building. Twisted deep in my gut was the knowledge that what we were doing was wrong; yet I remember that afternoon as lit up with excitement — right up until my mother, radiant with anger, found us and dragged us home.

The second way iconoclasm operates is more slow-burning. The initial act of violence continues to ripple onward through time. As with Mehmed II’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia or the Chinese authorities’ razing of Uyghur burial grounds, desecration performs a ritualized seal of subjugation. “There exists an allegiance between the dead and the unborn of which we the living are merely the ligature,” writes the historian Robert Pogue Harrison. Iconoclasm is an attempt to sever that ligature. To cut a people off from their dead is to block access to their most potent wellspring of cultural meaning and identity. Burial, Harrison argues, is the means by which we preserve ourselves and our pasts. That is why tombs, memorials, burial grounds, and other material reminders of the dead are such frequent targets for desecration. To suppress the living, destroy the dead.


One of the most remarkable accounts of this process of erasure is W. G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction, an attempt to understand the implications of the Allied bombing campaign in the final years of World War II on German psychology and culture. Sebald was born in Wertach, Germany, in 1944, and he recalled growing up in a “nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition.” This myopia, he came to suspect, was not solely catalyzed by shame at Germany’s infatuation with fascism and its appalling consequences, but also as a direct result of the almost inconceivable extent of the Allied destruction. Between February 1942 and May 1945, over one million tons of bombs were dropped on 131 German towns and cities. An estimated 600,000 German citizens were killed and 3.5 million homes were destroyed. At the end of the war, there was 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for everyone in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden — 7.5 million were left homeless.

The bombs utterly reshaped German cityscapes. Where once stood prosperous avenues of homes and shops, interspersed with soaring ecclesiastical spires and proud municipal architecture, now was an “underground city” cowering beneath mountainous slopes of rubble — a nightmare warren of half-collapsed cellars and mashed masonry, thick with vermin and swollen corpses.

Despite this all-pervading evidence of destruction though, there was no reckoning. Rather, Sebald writes, the Germany he grew up in was possessed by “an individual and collective amnesia” — “a means of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms.” Whether the bombings were acts of desecration, or simply of war, is debatable. Certainly, Britain’s situation in 1942 was desperate. The Baedeker Blitz by the Luftwaffe — named after a guidebook to England’s tourist attractions — had reduced the centers of many historic towns and cities to rubble. In one raid on Coventry, 449 bombers dropped 30,000 incendiary bombs on the medieval city, killing nearly 600 and damaging 41,500 homes; looting and widespread hysteria followed. Britain was isolated and invasion seemed imminent.

Yet from its conception, the strategy of area bombing German cities was framed not as an attempt to weaken military-industrial capability, but rather “to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population.” It is this directive which reveals its iconoclastic origins. It was a calculated attempt to sever the German population from their cultural inheritance; to cut the knees from under their wartime spirit by razing the buildings and monuments which might bolster it. But we can also see the same self-combusting anger behind the iconoclasts’ hammer in the momentum of the Allies’ machinery of aerial bombardment. Sebald writes of Sir Arthur Harris, the architect of the campaign, that:

His plan for successive devastating strikes, which he followed uncompromisingly to the end, was overwhelmingly simple in its logic[.] […] Its continuation in the face of all reason suggests that […] the victims of war are not sacrifices made as the means to an end of any kind, but in the most precise sense are both the means and the end in themselves.

The war from the air was “war pure and undisguised.” Iconoclasm and war are “both the means and the end in themselves.” They are gestures toward erasure, yet as acts they are freighted with a terrible symbolism — a surplus of meaning.

Sebald takes his title from a report on the destruction of Cologne. The piece was due to be written by the journalist Solly Zuckerman for the journal Horizon. Yet the report was never completed; Sebald recounts that when he interviewed Zuckerman in the 1980s, he “could no longer remember in detail what he wanted to say at the time.” An unwritten report, a perfect blank: it is perhaps a fitting testament to a society’s collective amnesia — and the comprehensive erasure responsible for it.


Erasure, though, can never be wholly complete. Desecration can rarely — if ever — truly stamp out the vestiges of cultural memory. As the essayist Teju Cole observes: “Iconoclasm carries within itself two paradoxical traits: thoroughness and fury.” Partly those impulses are driven by the self-propelling momentum which, we have seen, lies at the heart of iconoclastic violence; destruction is its own addiction. But these impulses are also propelled by another emotion: fear. The iconoclast fears that unless their desecration is complete, the potency of the icon will linger. “The theological pretext for image destruction is that images are powerless,” Cole notes, “[b]ut in reality, iconoclasm is motivated by the iconoclasts’ profound belief in the power of the image being destroyed.”

This fear plays out time and again during bouts of cultural destruction. The iconoclasts’ fear of the persisting power of images proves justified. During their occupation of Palmyra, ISIS publicly executed the city's head of antiquities, the 82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad. Yet through his bravery, many of city’s treasures survived — he refused to give up their hiding locations and managed to smuggle some out for safekeeping. And since ISIS were driven out in March 2017, the city has been reopened for tourism, still bearing the marks of their vandalism. The acts of hate inscribed in the city’s ruined architecture have now been subsumed back into its wider story of endurance. Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, stood for 60 years as an empty, ruined shell at the center of the city — an eloquent testament to the ferocity of the Allied bombs and the suffering of the Dresdeners. It was restored in the early 2000s, yet by that time its shattered silhouette had become a lasting symbol. It formed a centerpiece in the postwar European project of reconciliation and union — a scheme designed to ensure that rivalry between nations on the continent could never again spill into armed conflict.


My father spent the rest of the day exploring the site at Bamiyan. He told me that the vacant plinths of the Buddhas’ statues were haloed with a network of caves. This hive of cells stretched all the way around the inside of the alcoves. The cells were small and connected by twisting staircases, and he stooped to clamber through them. Most had small windows punched in their sides which would have granted a view of the Buddhas, but now opened into empty air and a dizzying drop. Like the Buddhas, these rooms had once been richly painted; the ghosts of colored frescos were visible on their walls and a luxuriant pantheon of the Buddhist demons and saints danced on in the darkness. But these decorations had been heavily graffitied by the Taliban. Crude splashes of paint submerged much of the detail and many of the figures had been decapitated by furious blizzards of scratches.

But in one room, they encountered something different. It appeared to have been a guardroom for the Taliban soldiers. A fire pit had been dug in its center, and they could see huddled around it the indentations in the dust where the men slept. Yet looking up, an extraordinary pattern was visible. Covering much of the walls and the ceiling were bands of geometric shapes such as might decorate the inside of a mosque. Peering closer, it became apparent this patterning was made with the sole of a Nike trainer, dipped in the charcoal of the fire pit. It was intricate work — the labor of many hours. Whether inspired by the slow, lonely days on duty, or by some other urge, it spoke to a need to create, even amid such breathtaking destruction. It was beautiful. It was art.

In September 2008, archaeologists announced the discovery of a third Buddha nearby. They had been searching for a 300-meter-long reclining Buddha, recorded in the travel journal of Xuanzang, a Chinese pilgrim who had visited the area around 630 AD. Though only 19 meters long, this Buddha was as described as in Xuanzang’s account — lying in a recumbent position, a pose known as parinirvana. It denotes one who has broken the cycle of samsara, the endlessly repeated rounds of earthly suffering, and achieved Nirvana. A Buddha lying sleeping, hidden beneath the sands.


Alex Diggins is a writer and critic based in London. He writes for, among others, The Economist, Spectator, TLS, New Welsh Review, and 3:AM. He is published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth. He is working on a book about holy islands and climate change. Follow him at @AHABDiggins.


Featured image: "Smaller Buddha of Bamiyan before and after" by UNESCO is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Banner image: "Allegorie der Güte (auch: Bonitas)" by Deutsche Fotothek‎ is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.

LARB Contributor

Alex Diggins is a writer and critic based in London. He writes for, among others, The Economist, Spectator, TLS, New Welsh Review, and 3:AM. He is published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth. He is working on a book about holy islands and climate change. Follow him at @AHABDiggins.


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