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The Ransacking of the Baghdad Museum Is a Disgrace

It has now been more than twenty-four hours since the first news of the looting of the Baghdad Museum started coming in; the details mount, and the mourning becomes unbearable. I sit at my desk looking at a photo of a woman's head made of marble, whose empty eyes have stared back at me for my whole adult life. This amazing face had survived for more than five thousand years and I always took it for granted that it would gaze out at the world long after I was gone. Now, together with approximately 170,000 other objects: statues, stele, figurines, vases, cups, diadems, clay tablets inscribed with everyday accounts as well as with hymns, myths, and epic poems, it has been brutally ripped from its shelf and has very likely disappeared forever. The pillaging of the Baghdad Museum is a tragedy that has no parallel in world history; it is as if the Uffizi, the Louvre, or all the museums of Washington D.C. had been wiped out in one fell swoop. Some compare the event to the burning of the Alexandria Library. The full range of losses will probably never be known because the catalog records were scattered and destroyed and the living record of more than eight thousand years of human history has been erased in two days.

The looting of the museum is all the more tragic because so many of the objects were still unpublished. Almost everything that was officially excavated in Iraq since the twenties of the last century was deposited there. In the years following the first Gulf War, the Department of Antiquities fought an uneven battle with looters and organized armed gangs of robbers who were systematically stripping archaeological sites and smuggling tens of thousands of ancient objects to the West for sale to rich collectors and investors. During this period large numbers of Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian antiquities were saved from these robbers. More objects were excavated by Iraqi archeologists from the mounds of the country in an effort to save some of this cultural legacy, and most of this material was deposited in the central museum in Baghdad. The antiquities service worked with few resources and was very much understaffed, since the country was impoverished by government policies and external sanctions. Therefore conservation efforts were inadequate and almost none of the newly discovered materials, including countless written records, was ever published. Thus the full extent of the loss may never be known.

One can understand that war is by nature brutal, and that during combat the safety of soldiers is paramount, but other concerns are surely of importance to planners and commanders, for this is a tragedy that could very well have been avoided. More than that, in light of various international conventions, it is the duty of an invading army to preserve not only the lives of civilians, but also their cultural heritage. With this in mind, archaeologists had supplied our military and civilian authorities with a ranked list of cultural sites that were to be protected once the war broke out and it was our understanding that the authorities agreed to guard these sites once they were under their control. It is both a tragedy and a disgrace that our forces were not prepared to control Iraqi cities once they had abolished local power, and hence did not fulfill that promise. The looting of museums in northern parts of the country after the last Gulf War provided ample warning and it cannot be said that the events of the last few days were totally unexpected. Most disturbing is the information, related by the New York Times, that a small group of U.S. soldiers, aided by a tank, were summoned by one of the museum workers and succeeded in warding off the looters. Not heeding pleas to stay, they left after half an hour and the pillage began again. It is astounding to think that one tank could have saved 8000 years of history.

The museum contents are gone and little of it will ever be recovered, but that does not mean that we can simply express our regrets and move on. Various archaeological and historical organizations are demanding that our government take steps to stop any further deterioration of the situation inside Iraq and to stop the looting and the export of the loot to the West. Among other matters, the petitions ask that the coalition close Iraq's borders to stop the export of antiquities and offer amnesty and monetary rewards for the return of objects from the museum that still remain within the country. We should also demand that the troops on the ground do everything possible to stop any further looting of museums, monuments and archaeological sites, and that they resist any proposals by organizations such as the American Council for Cultural Policy, that are trying to convince the U.S. government to weaken rules on the importation of antiquities into this country.

The army has finally moved in to protect what is left of the museum, and that is a start. But there is more that must be done. The public reaction of our government officials has been shameful, to say the least. Rather than express remorse and horror to the looting of hospitals and cultural treasures, our secretary of defense has made merry at the site of looters carrying pottery and excused the plunder as "untidiness." In our democracy administrations come and go, with a shelf life or four or eight years, but the consequence of their actions in the name of us all sometimes last forever. Such callousness is unworthy of our country, and no matter what opinions one holds on the justification and legality of this war, one should expect more from out public servants. There is little shame in admitting miscalculations and mistakes; the whole world is watching us and unless we want to be viewed as the great barbarians of the twenty-first century, we must demand that our elected government take responsibility for what has happened and pledge to do its best to repair the damage and prevent any reoccurrence of these horrific events. The fact that this looting took place on our watch is bad enough, but such statements reveal an utter disregard for other peoples' achievements and for our common global cultural patrimony.