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« This is scary fun | Main | More on the Iraq Museum thefts »

July 03, 2005


jj mollo

Previous posts on related subjects by Frank on
October 31, 2003
October 27, 2004
January 18, 2005
January 16, 2005

Frank Warner

Thanks, JJ.

And the "single backpack theory" explains everything.

Toby in Oxford

To my certain knowledge, there has since been at least one fully-fledged academic conference devoted to the "looting of the Iraq National Museum" (Oxford, September 2004) and I have physically handled two different scholarly books and a special issue of a journal on the same topic. The books do not really discuss the "looting," for the obvious reason that no-one knows anything about something that never happened, but lament it at length in prefaces and then go on to describe the "lost" treasures. I know some of the people who organised the conference and they are decent people who probably never heard that the story turned out to be a lie. It is my impression that 95% of the scholarly community, in and around archaeology/Oriental studies and elsewhere, still firmly believe the original reports and that this will probably never be properly debunked, even when the books' contributors one day visit the museum and realise that all the things they have gone on record as bemoaning the loss of are in fact still there. That is horrifying.

Frank Warner



It is the task of a good archaeologist to make judicious use of incomplete evidence.

It is the archaeologist’s job to look at a broken vessel here and a dropped tool over there, and, using informed judgment absent pride or prejudice, to consider the context in which that vessel was broken or that tool was dropped, and then to draw up the most likely scenario of human activity immediately before, after and in between.

In 2003, 2004 and 2005, the archaeologists failed in Iraq even with fresh evidence staring them in the face. They bought a story and then insisted on protecting it, in spite of a mountain of contradictory facts. The conclusion was set, no debate allowed.

No U.S. guilt, no U.S. grants. Or as H.L. Mencken said, “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.”


This story has made it as #12 in the The Dishonest 101 list of Media Dishonesty.

Frank Warner

I could quibble with the summary, but I'm glad it made the list.


I am sure if the Soviet Union had invaded the United States and burned down the White House and the Smithsonian because there were secret service or DC police inside, this blogger would have been perfectly happy with that. He also completely ignores the 600,000 archaeological pieces looted by Kurdish and Shia militias allied with the United States since 2003. documented in the book The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum‎ by Lawrence Rothfield (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Frank Warner

Is this Mr. Rothfield?

The United States did not simply invade Iraq. Iraq invaded Kuwait and for 12 years failed to meet its many cease-fire requirements, including the end of repression, the return of 600 Kuwaiti POWs and full cooperation with U.N. arms inspectors.

The Iraq National Museum was not burned down. It's still there, and we've expanded it. In the end, 97 percent of its artifacts never left museum control. And 2 percent that was in museum control was stolen before U.S. troops arrived, probably by museum staff.

So that was a 1 percent loss.

If the U.S. ever becomes a dictatorship, I invite any other nation to help liberate us. Our freedom is more important than anything in the Smithsonian, but if our friends manage to liberate us and save 95 percent of what's in those museums, sure, I'll give them extra credit.

jj mollo

I've also read that many items have been returned by now. I imagine that the motive for theft by museum staff might have been to protect the items from Saddam's undisciplined soldiers. The motives of the current museum managers, however, are to exaggerate the losses in order to influence pity-donors.

There is no doubt that Mesopotamia has been raped, but not by the Americans. I believe that confirmation bias is influencing many writers who are steeped in the honored American tradition of moral self-flagellation (a point of similarity with the Shia psyche, I suppose). This attitude prevents us from being able to clearly understand the good that we do.


Crimes of humanity during war has not been much of a topic in war history and rarely extends to looting, but, in fact, some attention has been focused upon the recovery of artwork that the Natzi's stole and hid during WWII - and some has been returned.

The spoils of war has never made it into the annals of war history that is condemnable, but given man's propensity to plunder under the self justification of his acquisitve taste for relics, and sentimental artifacts (like scalps during the days of the American indians), it's probable that plundering is not a privilege of the conqueror but a war crime that has little to do with the intentions of fighting a war. It may have been an objective of tribal warfare or primitives, but today's armies are not plundering for survival.

At what point does plundering museums become little more than the chaos of riots who plunder retail stores?

The distinction is one so close that morality and ethics are the stakes of what armies do, and the attitudes they carry home with them. What are generals training soldiers to do these days? Anything goes is an archaic and obsolete objective by any standard of decency simply because of the golden rule, if nothing else.

If armies maintain dignity, they must be dignified; otherwise, the hypocrisy that tramples human rights and respectability is far too great for soldiers to emerge with honor. They become nothing but thugs, organized by thugs for the purpose of mob science.

Frank Warner

Pat, I assume then that you're saying the American liberators in Iraq proved themselves dignified and honorable.

They kept an eye on the Iraq museum as they took fire from the fascist enemy. In the end, 97 percent of the museum's contents were preserved, and Iraq is free.

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