Sunday, 5 February 2006

Iraq's tomb raiders and US's responsibility

Blog searching for "cultural heritage", I came across Me, Myself and I's repost of a response to Mark Fisher's Guardian article from the 19th of January 2006, "tomb raiders"; it was Patrick Boylan's Guardian comment on the 25th of January that, "the US could have saved Iraq's cultural heritage" from looting.

Neither Mark Fisher's nor Patrick Boylan's attack was as grave as Ole Rothenborg's interview with Khaled Bayomi in Dagens Nyheter on the 11th of April 2003 - that I dealt with in a previous post on the looting of the Iraq Museum - that not only maintained that the US held responsibility for the looting, but asserted that, on the 8th of April 2003, US soldiers:
  • "shot two Sudanese guards";
  • "told people to run for grabs inside the building"; then
  • "broke down the doors to the Justice Department, residing in the neighbouring building, and looting was carried on to there".
Matthew Bogdanos investigated the claims that the US had killed museum guards and encouraged looting. In the American Journal of Archaeology in July 2005, Matthew Bogdanos explained that he was convinced that they had been "proved completely false" (2005: 483), because US soldiers only "entered the compound for the first time" on the 16th of April 2003 (2005: 503).

Mark Fisher recorded that, initially, Bush and the US were widely criticised and some cultural heritage workers compared them to "the Mongol hordes" and accused them of "committing a 'crime against humanity'".

Later, as loss estimates fell to 15,000 and some finds were recovered, the media's "horror was replaced by a mood of relief, even of defiant complacency", while thousands of archaeological, historical, cultural and artistic artefacts and sites had been and were being "smashed", "stolen", "burned down" or "looted".

Interpol head Willy Deridder has acknowledged that Iraq's 10,000 archaeological sites are "almost impossible to protect"; moreover, as Fisher said, some of those sites that have been (in one sense) protected, including Babylon and Ur, are those that have been militarised.

Across Iraq:
  • vast areas have been "flattened" or "bulldozed";
  • "trenches... have been cut through archeological workings";
  • sandbags have been filled and fortifications made from the sites themselves; and
  • there has been such severe site erosion through wear and tear that, amongst others, the Temple of Nabu's wall and the Temple of Ninmah's roof have collapsed.
Many sites that have not been occupied by the military have been so intensively looted that they may be "irretrievably lost"; some resemble "devastated lunar landscapes".

Mark Fisher observed that, before the invasion, the Coalition ignored archaeologists' accurate predictions and, after, "Iraqis... now that the sites are not guarded, are 'farming' them at night for portable antiquities that can be sold".

He sighed, "when Baghdad fell in March 2003, the Iraq National Museum remained unguarded for days and the country's archeological sites for months", then left the looting as decontextualised as the artefacts looted.

Despite correcting a flaw in Mark Fisher's account, by addressing "why some of the world's most important historic sites went unprotected during the war and largely remain so even today" (emphasis added), Patrick Boylan also neglected to address why some of the world's most important historic sites were looted.

Boylan pointed out that the US's cultural property protection system had worked "extremely well" in the first Gulf War (so well it was supposed to be made standard) and that the joint chiefs of staff encouraged the ratification of UNESCO's (1954) Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

Deciding that it was, then, "simply inconceivable" that the previous cultural property protection system was not known about or rediscovered, Boylan inferred that,
Someone or some group must have taken a positive decision to scrap the US's established protection policies and ignore the January 1993 assurance to Congress given by the defence department,
hinting at (one of) his culprit(s) when he noted that that department was "still under Dick Cheney at the time".

In this assessment, I suspect he may be correct, insofar as there does seem to have been an utter lack of or disregard for post-war planning; nonetheless, as I tend to assume cock-up, rather than conspiracy, I think he over-extended his argument when he queried,
Who back in Washington refused to allow the Baghdad commander to move a tank 200 yards to protect the National Museum from looting - despite pleading by the museum and international experts...?
I think this despite the answer to his rhetorical conclusion,
Who authorised the building of a gigantic military base in the middle of Babylon's archaeological zone and allocated an adjacent area of the site to the Kellogg, Brown, Root subsidiary of Halliburton, Vice-President Cheney's old firm?
Given that Patrick Boylan must be an at least occasional Guardian reader (to read and respond to Mark Fisher's article), it is possible that he saw or heard about Colonel Matthew Bogdanos's insistence that "the suggestion that... 'Coalition forces stood idly by as looters ransacked the museum... is simply and undeniably factually inaccurate'".

Given that Boylan "is professor emeritus of heritage policy and management at City University, and has trained US special forces in cultural protection", it is probable that he has read Bogdanos's (2005) American Journal of Archaeology article on "the truth about the Iraq Museum", in which he conceded that "the claims that U.S. forces did not provide adequate protection are not so easily answered" (Bogdanos, 2005: 503).

In that article, nevertheless, Bogdanos showed that it was not a matter of someone refusing to allow a commander "to move a tank 200 yards to protect the National Museum", as Boylan had suggested:
What these critics... fail to realize is that... a stationary tank inside a city during active combat (such as was the situation in April in that section of Baghdad) is a guaranteed death trap [Bogdanos, 2005: 504].
Between combat and confusion, the Coalition soldiers could not have known exactly when the museum's protection would have become a viable option. Coinciding with the cock-up view of history, then, Bogdanos (2005: 506) argued that,
the more pointed question, however, is why no unit before the battle had been given the specific mission of protecting the museum from looting after Baghdad was secure.
Bogdanos (2005: 507) concluded that:
  • first, the Coalition's soldiers' advances were not only too fast for the Iraqi soldiers to respond, but also so fast that Coalition security planners couldn't respond either; and
  • second, the security planners had not identified the museum with the regime, so had not thought that it would be a target and so had not anticipated it needing protection.
Although Mark Fisher proposed (and Patrick Boylan didn't disagree) that, to stop the looting,
  • "the guards should be restored and their salaries raised",
  • "there should be aerial surveillance over the most important sites",
  • "action needs to be taken to stop the illegal export of artefacts stolen" and
  • "responsibility for re-establishing Iraq's museums and sites should be assumed by the interim Iraqi government",
neither of them once advocated or even mentioned aid, development and education for the poverty-stricken local communities to remove the need, convenience and desire to loot.

Without aid, development and education, it will be impossible to erode:
  • either, the need to engage in subsistence looting to make ends meet; or
  • the convenience of looting to supplement a meagre or irregular income; or
  • the desire to loot what is perceived to be a personally unimportant material that is prized by the looters' enemies and oppressors (vengeful destructiveness).
Bogdanos, M. 2005: "The casualities of war: The truth about the Iraq Museum". American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 109, Number 3, 477-526. Available at:
Rothenborg, O. 2003: "US forces deliberately encouraged the looting". Dagens Nyheter, 15th April. Available at:


  1. Nice Weblog! I am especially interested in the posts on cultural heritage!

  2. This is a bit late in the day, but I thought you might be interested in my short piece on Bogdanos and US culpability in the destruction of Iraqi heritage.

    I've been thinking lately, is it possible for archaeologists to work ethically in occupied Iraq? This issue is touched upon by P.Stone in 'The identification and protection of cultural heritage during the Iraq conflict: a peculiarly English tale' Antiquity 79 (2005) 933-43 (one of very few articles in mainstream publications to deal with heritage, ethics and the Iraq war - do you know any others?)

    - Will