A while ago I noted that I received Matthew Bogdanos' book Thieves of Baghdad in the mail. Well I finally got around to reading it and its a great story. One that reminds us of just how bad the media reporting was shortly after the capture of Baghdad. And Matt Bogdanos sets the record straight.
After the fall of Baghdad, looting was prevalent. One of the stories that emerged in the Press starting with an AP report on April 12th, 2003 was that "Looters Plunder Iraq National Museum, Smashing and Stealing Artifacts" followed by a New York Times article the next day which made the incredible statement "It took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters." And that "US generals reject plea to protect priceless artifacts from vandals".
Academic experts, who knew nothing but what the media was telling them, engaged in some over the top rhetoric given the lack of actual information. Matt Bogdanos points out Piotr Michalowski, professor of Near East Studies at the University of Michigan as one of the most hyperbolic
The pillaging of the Baghdad Museum is a tragedy that has no parallel in world history; it is as if the Uffizi, the Louvre, or all the museums of Washington D.C. had been wiped out in one fell swoop. Some compare the event to the burning of the Alexandria Library. The full range of losses will probably never be known because the catalog records were scattered and destroyed and the living record of more than eight thousand years of human history has been erased in two days.
Well, little of this turned out to be true. The gold jewelry collection from the Treasure of Nimrud was found in a vault in the Central Bank of Baghdad having been placed there by Qusay Hussein. He was going to spirit it out of the country if things went south. Well, things went way south and he never got to make his withdrawal.
Most of the other stuff was hidden away by the Museum workers themselves and were safe all along. And the vast majority of the real valuable stuff that stolen was stolen was stolen by professionals with inside help. And while there were looters, they stole few valuable pieces because the staff had replaced many of these with fakes for display.
Matt Bogdanos does a great job of detailing his investigation and debunking most of the stories written by the New York Times, the Guardian, the Independent and others.
And as for the charge that the US stood by while looters sacked, he points out a number of facts. One was that the Museum was on the "no-hit" list for US armed forces yet it was a fighting position used by the Iraqi Army. Any attempt to "take" the museum and secure it would have destroyed it. US forces had to wait until the Iraqi Army units were confirmed to have left the area which wasn't until April 14th.
The other was what exactly were US forces supposed to do with looters? Shoot them?
Bogdanos strategy after he got on the scene was to both offer an amnesty program and to go out to the local markets and buy back what was looted. More importantly, he alerted world wide customs officials in order to recover artifacts that were professionally stolen.
All of these strategies resulted in the vast majority of the what was stolen being returned.
And the story that 170,000 items being stolen was completely false.