We are now at the epicenter of a shift in the history of the world. The war against Iraq has unleashed unsuspected forces. The first signs are twofold. The need of the Americans to protect oil fields, but not hospitals, museums and libraries. This is a catastrophic failure of imagination and a signal absence of a sense of the true values of civilization. It does not bode well for the future.
The second sign is in the Iraqi people. We ask why have they turned on themselves, looted their own museums, and burnt their priceless National Library. The answer is simple. Some have been dehumanized. They have been broken by sanctions, crushed by tyranny and annihilated by the doctrine of overwhelming force.
The Aztecs never recovered when Hernan Cortez and the conquistadors broke the faith of that ancient civilization. Persia never recovered after its destruction by Alexander the Great.
The war against Iraq was won in the wrong way. There is a way to win that does not destroy the ancient mythic pathways of a people. And there is a way to win that destroys the meaning and value of their past. The worst way to win is when a defeated people turn on their ancient gods, and tear them down, when a people turn on their past and burn it. And they don't know why and yet they do. If the past had power and value why has it brought us to this, is what their actions say. The past has made us powerless. We need a new kind of power, so that we too can stand proud and with dignity under the sun. In this the war alliance failed them.
It turns out that we didn't believe truly in the values of civilization. either, or else we would have found a wiser way to win. A way in which we all were winners. Now, with the looting of the museums, and the burning of the National Library, with its inestimable manuscripts and books, the whole of humanity is the loser. We have lost great swathes of our past.
This is why more than ever the value of existing museums is raised to the highest pitch. The importance of the work being done at the British Museum is more urgent and luminous than ever. We may well be on the verge of a new dark age, when even the so-called highly civilized nations no longer know what the most enduring things are. And stand by and watch as darkness creeps upon us, unsuspected.
The real war always has been to keep alive the light of civilization. everywhere. It is to keep culture and art at the forefront of our national and international endeavors.
The end of the world begins not with the barbarians at the gate, but with the barbarians at the highest levels of the state. All the states in the world.
We need a new kind of sustained and passionate and enlightened action in the world of the arts and the spirit.
Ben Okri, who grew up during the Nigerian civil war, is the Booker prize-winning author of The Famished Road. His most recent novel is In Arcadia. He delivered this text as a speech for the opening of the British Museum's exhibition The Museum of the Mind (open until September 7 2003, admission free) on Tuesday. The British Museum celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003