And Now: 'Operation Iraqi Looting'
By FRANK RICH
Let it never be said that our government doesn't give a damn about culture. It was on April 10, the same day the sacking of the National Museum in Baghdad began, that a subtitled George W. Bush went on TV to tell the Iraqi people that they are "the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity." And so what if America stood idly by while much of the heritage of that civilization — its artifacts, its artistic treasures, its literary riches and written records — was being destroyed as he spoke? It's not as if we weren't bringing in some culture of our own to fill that unfortunate vacuum. It was on April 10 as well, by happy coincidence, that the United States announced the imminent arrival of nightly newscasts from Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer and Brit Hume on newly liberated Iraqi TV. Better still, the White House let it be known, again on that same day, that it was seeking $62 million from Congress for a 24-hour Middle East Television Network that would pipe in dubbed versions of prime-time network programming.
Goodbye, dreary old antiquity! Hello, "Friends"!
There is much we don't know about what happened this month at the Baghdad museum, at its National Library and archives, at the Mosul museum and the rest of that country's gutted cultural institutions. Is it merely the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years, as Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeologist, put it? Or should we listen to Eleanor Robson, of All Souls College, Oxford, who said, "You'd have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale"? Nor do we know who did it. Was this a final act of national rape by Saddam loyalists? Was it what Philippe de Montebello, of the Metropolitan Museum, calls the "pure Hollywood" scenario — a clever scheme commissioned in advance by shadowy international art thieves? Was it simple opportunism by an unhinged mob? Or some combination thereof?
Whatever the answers to those questions, none of them can mitigate the pieces of the damning jigsaw puzzle that have emerged with absolute certainty. The Pentagon was repeatedly warned of the possibility of this catastrophe in advance of the war, and some of its officials were on the case. But at the highest levels at the White House, the Pentagon and central command — where the real clout is — no one cared. Just how little they cared was given away by our leaders' own self-incriminating statements after disaster struck. Rather than immediately admit to error or concede the gravity of what had happened on their watch, they all tried to trivialize the significance of the looting. Once that gambit failed, they tried to shirk any responsibility for it.
"What you are seeing is a reaction to oppression," said Ari Fleischer on April 11, arguing that looting, however deplorable, is a way station to "liberty and freedom." If only the Johnson administration had thought of this moral syllogism, it could have rationalized the urban riots that swept America after the assassination of Martin Luther King. "Stuff happens!" said Donald Rumsfeld, who likened the looting to the aftermath of soccer games and joked to the press that the scale of the crime was a trompe l'oeil effect foisted by a TV loop showing "over and over and over . . . the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase." As Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, summed up the defense secretary's response to the tragedy, he "basically shrugged and said, `Boys will be boys.' "
When the outrage over the story refused to go away after the looting subsided, a cover-up began. "I don't think that anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the Iraqi people," said the Centcom spokesman, Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, on April 15, days after the museum had been sacked, the library burned. But even the public record makes this assertion laughable. In the 1991 war, nine of Iraq's 13 regional museums were looted, flooding the antiquities market with the booty for years. Why wouldn't we anticipate that the same would happen again?
In fact, we did. The Pentagon held a late January meeting with American experts on Iraq's cultural bounty, opening a conversation that continued in the weeks before the war. "I had thought they were aware of the importance of the museum," said McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who was among the Pentagon meeting participants I interviewed last week. Last Sunday The Washington Times uncovered the smoking gun proving that Professor Gibson was right and that General Brooks's claim of ignorance was (at best) misinformed: a March 26 Pentagon memo to the coalition command listing, in order of importance, 16 sites that were crucial to protect in Baghdad. No. 2 on the list was the Baghdad museum.
Our troops cannot be blamed for what happened 10 days after that memo was sent. The failure to deploy any of them to guard the museum and its sister institutions happened somewhere within the command, and we may never learn where. It was "a matter of priorities," said Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Obviously the highest priority is human life, including that of our own forces. But this wasn't an either/or proposition. If we had enough troops to secure the oil ministry, we surely had the very few needed to ward off looters at the museum. "America would have scored a coup in Europe, the Middle East and the Muslim world if it protected the museum," says Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Instead we sent the message that Iraqi's "great civilization," as the president called it, wasn't worth a single tank for protection.
But we also sent the message that we don't appreciate the worth of our own culture so terribly much either. For all the news reports of "billions of dollars" of losses, for all the golden objects shown on TV, the most devastating crime may have been the pillaging of cuneiform clay tablets and other glitter-free objects that tell us of the birth of writing, cities and legal codes in what was the former Mesopotamia. This land was the cradle of our civilization, too, long before there was Islam. Most of the early chapters of Genesis are believed to have been set in what only recently has been known as Iraq.
If this history was forgotten or ignored by our ostentatiously Bible-minded administration, so was much more recent American history. In 1943, American armed forces fielded a monuments, fine arts and archives section to try to protect cultural treasures as we prosecuted the war in Europe. Lynn H. Nicholas, who wrote the definitive account of that story in "The Rape of Europa," told me that she had been invited to give lectures "to reserve units doing serious study on the securing of cultural artifacts" in recent years. "They were being prepared for the eventuality of something like this," she says. "Why weren't they deployed?" According to Mr. Rumsfeld, it would be "a stretch" to say our failure to take such measures was "a defect in the war plan." Rather, he said, the looting is just a reminder that freedom is "untidy" — or, in this case, literally just another word for nothing left to lose.
Now that the pillaging of the Baghdad museum has become more of a symbol of Baghdad's fall than the toppling of a less exalted artistic asset, the Saddam statue, all the president's men are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Colin Powell was once again suited up to counter crude Pentagon rhetoric. Karl Rove has been on the phone with Mr. de Montebello. F.B.I. agents are on the case. But even if all such efforts, from Unesco's to that of the mobilized museum world, disable the black market for the major loot, nothing is going to restore the priceless library that is now ash or reconstitute the countless relics that have modest individual monetary value but collectively would have helped scholars reconstruct mankind's deepest past. "These items will appear for sale for $50 or $100 in antique stores all over the Middle East, Europe and North America or on eBay," said Oxford's Professor Robson. "The unsuspecting or the unscrupulous will buy them as novelty Christmas presents or coffee-table pieces."
It's hard to put a loss this big in perspective. I asked Mahrukh Tarapor, the associate director for exhibitions at the Met, to try. Ms. Tarapor has spent the past six years seeking Mesopotamian holdings from museums throughout the world for "Art of the First Cities," an all too timely exhibition that by coincidence is opening on May 8. "It's almost a new emotion," she said, noting that she has felt it only once before, when the Taliban destroyed the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan two years ago. "One is almost conditioned to accept even human death as part of life. The destruction of art — of our heritage — goes very deep in our unconscious. To a museum person, the worst thing you can experience is damage to an object on your watch. For the magnitude of what happened in Iraq, you have no words. You lose faith in your fellow man."
The tragedy for America is not just the loss itself but the naked revelation of our worst instincts at the very dawn of our grandiose project to bring democratic values to the Middle East. By protecting Iraq's oil but not its cultural motherlode, we echo the values of no one more than Saddam, who in 1995 cut off funds to the Baghdad museum, pleading the impact of sanctions, yet nonetheless found plenty of money to pour into his own palaces and their opulent hordes of kitsch. We may have been unable to protect tablets containing missing pieces of the Gilgamesh epic. But somehow we did manage to secure the lavish homes of Saddam's hierarchy, where the cultural gems ranged from videos of old James Bond movies to the collected novels of Danielle Steel.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company