The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

Johan Franzén is disturbed by America's failure to protect Iraq's historical artefacts during the war

August 13, 2009

The 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq recently marked its sixth anniversary. During these years, thousands of people have been killed, injured, maimed and tortured as a direct or indirect result of the invasion and the chaos it precipitated. In the absence of the repressive Baathist regime, various groups have seized the opportunity to position themselves and get a "piece of the action".

In this indescribable mayhem, an event took place in February 2009 that went by largely unnoticed. This event was the reopening of Iraq's National Museum, which had been closed since its looting in April 2003. It was estimated that the collection of the National Museum, once the envy of the Middle East (and the world), had been severely reduced. Approximately 15,000 objects were looted in 2003 and, of these, only a quarter had been retrieved by the time of the museum's reopening.

Set against this background, Lawrence Rothfield's aptly titled The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum is a welcome study of the wheeling and dealing involved in the American planning and execution of the invasion in 2003. It is a tremendously important study, published at a time when the Bush Administration has been booted out of Washington, and with it Bush's entourage of ideological warriors such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. Hopefully, the book will serve as a warning against American incompetence and ideological righteousness in future conflicts that coming administrations head into.

In the book, Rothfield sets out to answer the question of how the looting and pillaging of thousands of the world's most precious artefacts, some of which make up the oldest evidence of human culture, was allowed to happen. The question, however, is more than rhetorical. Some would say that what befell Iraq during the spring of 2003 was a war, and that in such conflicts certain priorities take centre stage, cultural heritage not being one of them.

Yet under the laws of modern warfare as enshrined in the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict adopted at The Hague in 1954, the signatories have an obligation to take preventive measures to safeguard cultural heritage in armed conflicts. As pointed out by Rothfield, this obligation was upheld commendably by America's enemies in conflicts and tumultuous events in the 20th century. Thus, for instance, Russian Communist revolutionaries during the October Revolution made sure to protect the Hermitage museum, Iranian revolutionaries amid the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79 sent revolutionary guards to protect key cultural sites and, perhaps the most damning of recent examples, Saddam Hussein himself had taken the utmost care to safeguard the national museum and other sensitive cultural sites during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Why, then, did the Americans fail so miserably to protect Iraqi cultural heritage? Rothfield's answer is that the US policy, or lack of policy, towards Iraqi cultural heritage was the result of a complex set of causal effects. On the one hand, there was an existing milieu in the Pentagon in which cultural affairs were understood not to be on the military's table. On the other hand, the actual events of 8-16 April 2003, when the brunt of the looting took place, were directly caused by a series of behind-the-scenes "actions or inactions of a motley crew of agents and agencies", as Rothfield observes. It is precisely this aspect of the disaster that The Rape of Mesopotamia primarily deals with; three out of eight chapters are devoted to the goings-on behind the scenes in the months immediately preceding the invasion. "It is important to recognise," Rothfield says, pointing out the main thesis of the book, "that the disaster that has befallen Iraq's cultural heritage is the result not of merely personal ineptitude, indifference and ignorance but of a pervasive policy failure."

This meticulously researched and convincingly argued book is a damning indictment against the US (and British) cultural policy in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. Having interviewed 28 key players, Rothfield leaves no stone unturned in his unearthing of the shenanigans that went on behind the scenes in the run-up to the invasion. One of the most instructive facts we learn from this episode is that the so-called Future of Iraq Project, a scheme hurriedly put together by various disparate Iraqi exiles eager to get their teeth into the approaching "liberated" Iraq, and which comprised various working groups charged with attending to the problems of future governance in Iraq, actually had neglected to form a group responsible for culture. However, this interlude proved irrelevant as Pentagon planners chose to dismiss the thousands of pages of analysis and recommendations put together by these working groups, illustrating with stark clarity the US's attitude towards Iraqi cultural heritage.

The Rape of Mesopotamia is an important book and one that should be read by anyone interested in the Iraq War, US foreign policy or modern history, as well as by members of the cultural heritage community. The book is not primarily about cultural heritage per se, but is above all a political history of an important event in recent world history, and as such should be of as much interest to the general as to the academic reader.

The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

By Lawrence Rothfield

University of Chicago Press 228pp, £17.50

ISBN 9780226729459

Published 19 May 2009

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