Matthew Bogdanos: Fighting for Iraq’s Culture

Roundup: Talking About History

[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.”]

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....

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