There is no denying that human beings have laid waste to a great many things in the course of time: cities, species, vast amounts of cultural heritage. What seems more remarkable, though, is how often attempts at destruction go awry.
On the eve of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, in 1979, American officials desperately fed secret documents into the embassy's paper shredders. Over the next several years, while waiting for satellite dishes and Baywatch to arrive, the Iranians painstakingly stitched the documents back together. They ultimately published the reconstituted intelligence files in some sixty volumes, under the overarching title Documents From the U.S. Espionage Den.
During the controversy over the Iran-contra affair, in 1986, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North attempted to erase all the relevant e-mail messages on his computer; he repeatedly pressed the DELETE button, thinking that he was thereby expunging the messages. "Wow, were we wrong!" he later observed. North didn't know that pressing DELETE doesn't result in complete deletion. He also didn't know about the existence of a backup data-storage system.
Burial is another highly unreliable means of destruction. In the early 1980s some twenty-five boxes of documents pertaining to allegations of financial irregularities at the University of South Carolina were deposited in the Rockland County landfill. As it happens, landfills tend to mummify their contents rather than to biodegrade them. Years later investigators somehow located the documents, which remained intact and legible. Another problem with burial is that it too easily accommodates changes of heart. In 1862 the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti lost his wife, Elizabeth, to an overdose of laudanum; stricken with grief, he gathered up his unpublished poems and placed them in her coffin. Rossetti came to regret this act. Seven years later he had Elizabeth's body exhumed, and retrieved the poetry.
Historically, the most reliable means of destruction has been fire; used according to directions, it really does work. One of the grimmest episodes in the annals of combustion took place in 1835, when Thomas Carlyle asked John Stuart Mill to read a just-completed draft of the first volume of his monumental study The French Revolution. Mill took the handwritten manuscript away. Some while later he stood before Carlyle, ashen, explaining that his maid had accidentally destroyed it while lighting a fire. Carlyle received the news stoically; he told his wife afterward, "Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up. We must endeavor to hide from him how very serious this business is for us."
Fire destroyed the library at Alexandria. It has been the means favored by al Qaeda (whose hideouts are littered with incinerated evidence) and by Mrs. Warren G. Harding (who thereby obviated the need for a presidential library). It makes a frequent appearance in testamentary directives. One legal scholar has lamented that the correspondence of Benjamin Cardozo, a profoundly private man, was handled by the judge's executor "the way Warwick handled Jeanne d'Arc." Some recent losses to fire have been especially vexing. In the mid-1970s Colonel Guy Tutwiler, the commander of the University of Arkansas ROTC, incinerated a file relating to Bill Clinton's draft status and Clinton's (broken) promise to join the ROTC. The action was taken at Clinton's request. During the 1992 presidential campaign, when the matter surfaced, Master Sergeant Eddie Howard, who served under Tutwiler, provided an explanation that is hard to better: "One reason Colonel Tutwiler burned the file was that I think he thought it shouldn't exist."