Transterrestrial Musings  

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay

Alan Boyle (MSNBC)
Space Politics (Jeff Foust)
Space Transport News (Clark Lindsey)
NASA Watch
NASA Space Flight
Hobby Space
A Voyage To Arcturus (Jay Manifold)
Dispatches From The Final Frontier (Michael Belfiore)
Personal Spaceflight (Jeff Foust)
Mars Blog
The Flame Trench (Florida Today)
Space Cynic
Rocket Forge (Michael Mealing)
COTS Watch (Michael Mealing)
Curmudgeon's Corner (Mark Whittington)
Selenian Boondocks
Tales of the Heliosphere
Out Of The Cradle
Space For Commerce (Brian Dunbar)
True Anomaly
Kevin Parkin
The Speculist (Phil Bowermaster)
Spacecraft (Chris Hall)
Space Pragmatism (Dan Schrimpsher)
Eternal Golden Braid (Fred Kiesche)
Carried Away (Dan Schmelzer)
Laughing Wolf (C. Blake Powers)
Chair Force Engineer (Air Force Procurement)
Saturn Follies
JesusPhreaks (Scott Bell)
The Ombudsgod
Cut On The Bias (Susanna Cornett)
Joanne Jacobs

Site designed by

Powered by
Movable Type
Biting Commentary about Infinity, and Beyond!

« This Week's Fox Column | Main | We Don't Give Ourselves No Respect »

The Shrinking Museum Looting Affair

As time goes on, it's looking more and more like claims of the loss of Iraq's cultural heritage in looting were as overblown as the Jenin "massacre" over a year ago.

...While many museum officials watched in horror as mobs and perhaps organized gangs rampaged through the museum's 18 galleries, seized objects on display, tore open steel cases, smashed statues and broke into storage vaults, officials now discount the first reports that the museum's entire collection of 170,000 objects had been lost...

...Col. Matthew F. Bogdanos, a Marine reservist who is investigating the looting and is stationed at the museum, said museum officials had given him a list of 29 artifacts that were definitely missing. But since then, 4 items ? ivory objects from the eighth century B.C. ? had been traced.

"Twenty-five pieces is not the same as 170,000," said Colonel Bogdanos, who in civilian life is an assistant Manhattan district attorney...

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 01, 2003 02:38 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference this post from Transterrestrial Musings.

There is an inverse ratio between the looting of "Iraqi" antiquities and the contrived outrage generated concerning. These are crocodile tears from people who could care less about the liberty of the peoples of Iraq let alone archaeological materials.

Posted by Nicholas Packwood at May 2, 2003 06:42 AM

The generalization in the previous comment doesn't apply to me: I supported the war, but I was also greatly upset by the news of the looting of the Museum. I'm happy to learn that initial estimates of the damage were overblown. (I continue to believe, by the way, that our forces' initial laissez-faire approach to looting was a big political blunder; if that approach was necessitated by the relatively small number of American and British forces on the ground, that's a good reason for thinking that too few were deployed.)

While I'm opining on this subject, I can't help remarking here on something very striking about Instapundit: every time Mr. Reynolds has mentioned the National Museum and its antiquities, he's done so in a decidedly sneering tone: as if only some very unworldly sorts (lefties all, no doubt) would be boohooing about the failure of our forces to protect some old statues. As Micky Kaus and others have cogently argued, there were reasons of the solidest Realpolitik for U.S. and British forces to step in and stop looting--of antiquities, hospitals, government bureaus, you name it. The snotty tone affected by Reynolds whenever the Museum comes up suggests something more than mere disagreement with Kaus, though what the source of it would be, I can't fathom. In one of his posts, Reynolds refers to "uneducated philistines." He's taught me what the educated variety is like.

Posted by at May 2, 2003 07:18 AM

I'm happy to learn that initial estimates of the damage were overblown.

This sets you apart from those Nicholas is talking about in his comment. People who were wailing and rending their garments over the museum looting mostly because it was a good solid stick to beat America with will be somewhat disappointed if the damage turns out not to be as great as was thought; people who were doing so mostly because they were dismayed that so much of historical value had been lost will be pleased that it's not as bad.

As Micky Kaus and others have cogently argued, there were reasons of the solidest Realpolitik for U.S. and British forces to step in and stop looting

Well, no doubt, but you do realize there was still a fairly hot war going on in Baghdad at the time? Number of troops aside, it's not that easy to do police work at the same time as fight a war.

(Which is pointed up by the reports that American soldiers were being fired on from the museum during the period that looting was going on. You shoot back, you're a philistine risking priceless antiquities. You vacate the immediate area so you don't have to engage said fighters, you're a philistine abandoning priceless antiquities to looters. I'm not at all sure this wasn't a no-win situation. For that matter, what would we be hearing if American troops had fired on the looters and people had died?)

Posted by jeanne a e devoto at May 2, 2003 07:35 AM

I want to remind everyone who thinks that "too few troops" were deployed that one of the amazing thinks about the Iraq campaign was that the Coalition forces were advancing on a very, very narrow front. With only Kuwait secured as a basing area, 3 heavy divsions were basically shoulder-to-shoulder at the start of the war. There wasn't any room in Kuwait for the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) or any other formation. The problem was the Turks refusing to allow a Northern front.

Posted by Joshua Chamberlain at May 2, 2003 08:36 AM

For that matter, what would we be hearing if American troops had fired on the looters and people had died?

That we're a bunch of Muslim-hating philistine aggro cowboy etc., of course. Wait, that was a rhetorical question, wasn't it?

Posted by Rick C at May 2, 2003 08:49 AM

> I supported the war, but I was also greatly upset by the news of the looting of the Museum.

That's nice - where were you when the previous regime was looting the museum?

If you only care about the museum when Americans are involved, you don't actually care about the museum.

Posted by Andy Freeman at May 2, 2003 09:04 AM

Following up on Joshua Chamberlain's comment:

The other thing to recognize is the logistics feat this one. We were essentially doing what "A Bridge Too Far" said you shouldn't: Advancing up a single road, trying to move both combat and supply forces along the same route.

Never mind deploying a fourth division across. Given the "American Way of War," I'm not sure you could have SUPPLIED a fourth division, even if you could get them into the line.

Posted by Dean at May 2, 2003 10:27 AM

Well, that got a response! I don't have my press clippings handy, so what I say next will be weak on citations. I can supply them later if anyone is obsessed enough to care.

A few things: I'm not a military person; I wonder whether too few troops were deployed only because I've read a number of military people who've made that argument. Presumably, they think a larger deployment was possible even with the narrow front involved (by bringing more forces up behind those already advancing, for example); if you think they're wrong, take it up with them. I also bring up the possibility b/c the conscious decision (and before this drops down the memory hole forever, please remember that for a few days it WAS a conscious policy) not to discourage looting may have owed something to the relatively low number of troops at Baghdad and at Basrah. Of course, more than enough troops were deployed to win the war. The question that now has to be faced is: were and are there enough troops on the ground to manage the country after disposing of Saddam and his henchmen?

It's been pointed out that the fighting wasn't over when the National Museum was looted. No it wasn't, though I have yet to see a detailed chronology that fits together all the reports I've heard or read into a coherent whole. At one point, American troops were being fired on from the Musem. At another, a small number of American soldiers (two, I think) were able to come to the Museum and scare off looters (no indication that these troops were under fire). I'll venture an opinion here that will be assented to by some and violently rejected by others: I think that U.S. forces should have had a policy of securing certain places (hospitals, government offices (not just the Oil Bureau), as well as the Museum and those Libraries that were torched later), even if it meant putting U.S. troops at risk. I hold this opinion not b/c I think museums are more important than human lives but b/c we didn't just have to defeat an enemy militarily; we have (for the foreseeable future) to run Iraq, and we have a propaganda war that we need to win as surely as we did the military conflict. I can elaborate on these practical reasons for anyone with the patience to listen to them; I'll just say here that my view appears to be shared by Gen'l Garner, who reportedly was furious when he learned the Museum hadn't been secured and that the recommendations of his office had been disregarded.

Are we damned no matter what we do or fail to do? I supppose so, but not all decisions are equal here, not all decisions will necessarily incur the same black marks in the propaganda war that we now have to fight. One Washington Post reporter, Keith Richburg, concluded after interviewing inhabitants of Basrah that they were more frightened by looters than by the Fedayeen. If most Iraqis are law-abiding, and I know of no evidence that they aren't, a tough stand against looters (up to and including shooting a few of them) might not have hurt us in the least. Protecting the museum rather than disregarding it for a number of days would have on balance won us points, too (at any event, I think it would have).

As to where I was when Saddam was looting his country's treasures, I was where I've always been. I've always been horrified by the destruction of ancient artifacts through greed, wantonness, or simple negligence. But why shouldn't it be especially bothersome to me if the U.S. has a hand (if only by carelessness) in that kind of destruction? I expect a little better of us.

Posted by Aaron Baker at May 2, 2003 11:34 AM

Hey, if it were a choice between a human life and the Mona Lisa, well, fuck the Mona Lisa. Art serves life, not the other way around. Anyone who chooses to coldly sacrifice the living in order to preserve the trinkets of the dead is a prick in my book. Sorry.

I love art and history as much as anyone who has ever walked the face of this earth, but let's try to keep things in perspective.

Posted by Paul Hrissikopoulos at May 2, 2003 11:54 AM

My reasons for urging that life and limb should have been risked to protect the Museum (and a bunch of other places) were political and strategic, as you would have noticed if you'd read me more carefully. Now I may be a prick for saying that this or that reason of state justifies risking (and taking) lives (though if that's so, everyone who favored this war is also a prick), but I insist on being called a prick for the right reason.

Posted by Aaron Baker at May 2, 2003 12:19 PM


Posted by Mike at May 2, 2003 01:41 PM

That must have been a strain.

Posted by Aaron Baker at May 2, 2003 01:51 PM

Folks, let's tone it down here, and stick to the issues, or I'm going to start deleting posts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 2, 2003 01:51 PM

When the war is still hot, military considerations have to outweigh political ones. Otherwise we get things like <insert overly familiar 1960s-'70s-era war name, here> or <insert overly familiar name of an African capital a certain college professor said he wanted to see a million of, here>.

Posted by Kevin McGehee at May 2, 2003 02:14 PM

Several things:

1. Jeanne's comment about how people react to (possibly) good news was spot on. Those of us who supported (in my case, reluctantly but firmly) the removal of the regime but were horrified by the loss of the museum should indeed be pleased if this holds up.

2. Verification is a non-trivial problem. My impression is that recordkeeping wasn't great to begin with, and many records may have been deliberately destroyed. We may never know, even within an order of magnitude, how many artifacts were taken, and may therefore never know how successful efforts to recover them are. In that respect, Rand's analogy to Jenin fails, though he is all too correct in suggesting that there are those who inflate statistics by adding one or more zeros to them, typically in an effort to portray American Christians and/or Israeli Jews as blundering (or deliberately savage) aggressors.

3. Several correspondents have expressed the usual either-or view of risk management which, albeit unknowingly, presumes it to consist of either risk avoidance or risk acceptance -- in this context, avoid the risk to the museum by not carrying out regime change (with its associated game-theory implications, ie civil unrest), or simply accept the risk to the museum and try to put things right later, which is what we ended up doing. But there are also risk transference -- finding a third party to manage the risk, probably impossible in this situation; and risk mitigation -- a specific intervention to prevent looting.

4. The failure to carry out risk mitigation was one of prioritization and planning, not of execution. There were coalition forces in the area, but they had their hands full. An interesting question, and of course one that would not be answered during the combat phase, was just how many coalition combat troops were on the ground and physically inside Iraq. My not-too-well-informed guess would be that it was only a few thousand, and may have been only a few hundred inside Baghdad. The vast majority of coalition forces in southwest Asia are serving in support roles. Granting prevention of museum looting a high priority, therefore, even if the proximate result was the additional deployment of only a squad or two of infantry, might have meant a surprisingly large additional commitment of resources from the US and UK to Kuwait, etc.

5. I do not mean to imply that this could not have been done. It could and should have, and I'll bet it does happen if we're ever in a situation like this again. It's no good dismissing the losses at the museum, whatever their scope, as unimportant. The question is always: what did we learn, and what do we do as a result?

Posted by Jay Manifold at May 2, 2003 03:05 PM

What has been the political cost of not carrying out a military mission to protect the museum with the people of Iraq?

Have the Iraqies been holding mass demonstrations of thousands of people blaming America for their lost antiquities?

I would say that from what I have seen the goodwill lost over this with the people of Iraq is next to zero. You could probably equate it with the goodwill lost for them being without power for about 15 minutes.

OTOH the goodwill of the international museum elite may have been lost for a generation.

Posted by Bob at May 2, 2003 03:55 PM

OTOH the goodwill of the international museum elite may have been lost for a generation.

Boo hoo hoo.

Posted by Reginleif the Valkyrie at May 2, 2003 06:07 PM

Having intimate knowledge of museum of arts operations, I will postulate that few real antiquities were lost from the looting. Even the French were intelligent enough to hide away their real objects of art from the Germans, and no one really has accused the Iraqi museum authorities of being stupid. The "real" Iraq historical art is still safely hidden away.

Posted by Gary at May 3, 2003 10:28 AM

Indeed I gather the French, to give them a little credit for sang-froid, obliged the demands of their conquerors by giving them excellent forgeries of the paintings they requisitioned by name.

Posted by Dave F at May 5, 2003 03:19 AM

>> For that matter, what would we be hearing if American troops had fired on the looters and people had died?

>That we're a bunch of Muslim-hating philistine aggro cowboy etc., of course. Wait, that was a rhetorical question, wasn't it?

Yes, it was. :)

Posted by dc at May 7, 2003 08:32 AM

Has anyone considered the likelihood that the "looting" was, like Saddam and his boys' robbing a cool billion from the central bank in March, an inside job?

I hate as much as anyone to see priceless treasures stolen, but theft by Iraqi insiders who can open safes is not at all comparable to wild "looting." Clearly the blame falls on the Iraqi thieves, which again makes clear that this story is merely the media baton du jour with which to beat up the wicked Bush admin.

Posted by Tombo at May 7, 2003 11:55 AM

Post a comment

Email Address: