By Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the Marine Reserves and an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, is the author, with William Patrick, of “Thieves of Baghdad” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/03/07):
WITH the situation in Iraq growing seemingly graver by the day, Americans are increasingly reluctant to risk American blood to save Iraqi lives. So it’s a pretty tough sell to ask people to care about a bunch of old rocks with funny writing.
But what if they understood that the plunder of Iraq’s 10,000 poorly guarded archaeological sites not only deprives future generations of incomparable works of art, but also finances the insurgents? Having led the United States investigation into the looting of the Iraq National Museum in 2003, I know that millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities flow out of the country each year. And it would be naïve to think the insurgents aren’t getting a major share of the loot.
And what if Americans understood that our failure to appreciate the importance Iraqis place on their history has added to the chaos faced by our troops? Four years after the initial looting — and despite having recovered almost 6,000 antiquities — we cannot keep pace with the artifacts being stolen every day. This continued failure to protect an artistic heritage going back to the dawn of civilization has convinced many in Iraq and the Middle East that we do not care about any culture other than our own.
It’s worth pointing out that the failure to safeguard Iraqi antiquities does not rest solely with the United States. While the United Nations and NATO took the lead in providing security for cultural artifacts in postwar situations in Bosnia, Cyprus and elsewhere, neither seems much interested in rectifying the situation in Iraq. NATO opened a training center for security officers outside Baghdad in 2005, but none of the Iraqis trained have been assigned to archaeological sites. The United Nations says that it has no mandate to train guards and that the level of violence does not permit its involvement.
So who might act? In the past, most archaeological digs in Iraq have had foreign sponsorship — the Germans at Babylon and Uruk, the British at Ur and Nimrud, the French at Kish and Lagash, the Italians at Hatra, and the Americans at Nippur. Given that background, it would make sense for each of these countries to “adopt” the sites its scholars have been studying.
Each of the foreign nations would provide guards around the perimeter and around the clock. (Obviously, this would entail getting permission from the Iraqi government and help from the American military.) Ideally, these foreign forces would also be assigned a group of Iraqi recruits to train. Once the Iraqis were mission-capable — it should take only six months or so if the Baghdad government supplied the manpower — the donor nation would recall its forces.
In this way, Mesopotamia’s cultural patrimony would be safe, Al Jazeera would have to find other ways to show TV clips of Western indifference to Arab culture, and the terrorists would have to find another income source.
One challenge has been convincing European governments that providing coordinated site security would not be a statement in support of the war. But surely they could be persuaded that it would be a humanitarian effort to protect a cultural heritage rich with common ancestry that predates the splits among Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite.
The lesson for the United States is that we must never again cede the moral high ground on cultural issues like this one. In advance of any future military action, we should assign units the task of protecting cultural property. And all troops scheduled to deploy overseas should receive cultural awareness training; the Archaeological Institute of America has already conducted some seminars at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Yes, diverting resources to save cultural artifacts during a time of war may seem like cutting funds for the police and firefighters in order to expand the public library. And my decision to expand my team’s counterterrorist mission to investigate the looting of the museum was characterized by many as a distraction. But some soldiers before us have seen the wisdom of this approach. “Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve,” said Dwight Eisenhower just before D-Day. “It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.”