Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Iraq Antiquities Revisited

Last night I read Paul McGeough's In Baghdad: A Reporter's War, just one more volume of what is now a small shelf of books I have read about the Iraq War. Paul McGeough was one of a hundred or so journalists who stayed in Baghdad through the entire war. He worked next to John F. Burns from the New York Times and Jon Lee Anderson from the New Yorker. There is one story that, more than any other, reveals just how shoddy current journalism can be, and that is the alleged and later debunked story of the looting of the antiquities at the Iraq National Museum.

The events around the museum began on Thursday, April 10, as the Baathist regime fell apart, and the reporting of those events started on Sunday, April 13, 2003.

On April 13, McGeough and Burns are tipped off about possible looting at a museum and they take a taxi across Baghdad, arguing with each other on the way about the museum's location, tempers flaring. When they finally arrive at the museum, they interview a few people and they know at once that they've got a BIG STORY. They finish up and quickly return to their hotel to write and file their stories. Later they do stand-ups for television, pleasing their companies by getting a great scoop. The big story of the day, of course, the one that makes their mouths water, is the looting of the Iraq National Museum. They can't believe their good luck.

John F. Burns, whose reporting I normally respect, writes:
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraq National Museum recorded a history of civilizations that began to flourish in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago. But after American troops entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein's government last week, it took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed and at least 50,000 artifacts to be carried away by looters.

The full extent of the disaster that befell the museum came to light Saturday, as the frenzied looting that swept much of the capital during the previous three days began to ebb, and museum officials reached foreign journalists with word of what is likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history.
Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.
"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."

While elsewhere in the article John F. Burns shows restraint in his assessment of the looting, Paul McGeough, in contrast, plays to the packed-house audience of anti-Americans like a real professional propagandist:
They knew what they were looking for. It needed to sparkle in the light of the burning oil-soaked rags that the looters use to light the darkness as they continue to maraud in Baghdad.

But as they searched for ancient jewels from civilisations dating back millenniums, they utterly destroyed one of the world's finest collections of antiquities, the Iraq National Museum.

It is a cultural catastrophe. Yesterday the museum's exhibition halls and security vaults were a barren mess - display cases smashed, offices ransacked and floors littered with handwritten index cards recording the timeless detail of more than 170,000 rare items that were pilfered.

Worse, in their search for gold and gems, the looters gained access to the museum's underground vaults, where they smashed the contents of the thousands of tin trunks in which curatorial staff had painstakingly packed priceless ceramics that tell the story of life from one civilisation to the next down through 9000 fabled years in Mesopotamia.
All of the items that made it safely around the world and back to Baghdad have been looted.

They include centuries-old carvings of stone bulls, kings and princesses; shoes made of copper and cuneiform tablets; pieces of tapestries and ivory figurines of goddesses, women and Nubian porters; friezes of fighting soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all dating back at least 2000 years, some more than 5000 years.

"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."

That both Burns and McGeough used the exact same quote from the security guard suggests either that they used the same interpreter or that they sat together as they wrote their articles.

The Bush-bashers and anti-Americans, of course, went wild with this story. Even the historians at History News Network screamed bloody murder and emailed each other feverishly as they worked on another one of their lame petitions.

About a month later, however, while Burns and McGeough were cooling their heels on a desk somewhere, other journalists started to engage in that quaint journalistic practice of actually ... gasp! ... researching the story and trying to locate something that was much, much closer to the truth.

On May 22, 2003, Alex Spillius, writing for the Telegraph, reported:
Officials at the National Museum of Iraq have blamed shoddy reporting amid the "fog of war" for creating the impression that the majority of the institution's 170,000 items were looted in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad.

A carefully prepared storage plan, used in the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war, ensured that tens of thousands of pieces were saved, they said. They now believe that the number of items taken was in the low thousands, and possibly hundreds.
Donny George, research director, said: "There was a mistake. Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost.

"Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the show cases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move." Some pieces were hidden in the vaults of the central bank and others at secret locations, he added.

On June 10, 2003, David Aaronovitch took on the new twists in the story for the Guardian.
When, back in mid-April, the news first arrived of the looting at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, words hardly failed anyone. No fewer than 170,000 items had, it was universally reported, been stolen or destroyed, representing a large proportion of Iraq's tangible culture. And it had all happened as some US troops stood by and watched, and others had guarded the oil ministry.
So, there's the picture: 100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves. And the only problem with it is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks.
George is now quoted as saying that that items lost could represent "a small percentage" of the collection and blamed shoddy reporting for the exaggeration.

"There was a mistake," he said. "Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the showcases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move."
Furious, I conclude two things from all this. The first is the credulousness of many western academics and others who cannot conceive that a plausible and intelligent fellow-professional might have been an apparatchiks of a fascist regime and a propagandist for his own past. The second is that - these days - you cannot say anything too bad about the Yanks and not be believed.

On June 23, 2003, over at History News Network, history professor Piotr Michalowski tries to weasel out of taking any responsibility for the hyperventilating of his colleagues.
It is two months since we learned of the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The news reports at the time were clear and consistent, but it now appears that they exaggerated the scope of the damage. Many of us reacted passionately to the news, writing editorials and letters expressing our sorrow and anger. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports. Unfortunately, there are now voices in the media suggesting that the damage was so slight that we should all apologize and forget about the whole thing. Some have even gone as afar as to suggest that the whole affair was fabricated for domestic political or ideological reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Who is Piotr Michalowski?

According to the History News Network, Mr. Michalowski is George G. Cameron Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, University of Michigan, member of the American Coordinating Committee for Iraqi Cultural Heritage.

Now, let me repeat what Mr. Michalowski wrote:

Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports.

And this is an honored historian?

"Perhaps," writes Mr. Michalowski (I just love that hedge), "we should have realized that we were dealing with preliminary reports."

Question: Why does Mr. Michalowski, the George G. Cameron Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, buy this story hook, line, and sinker?

Isn't it true that even the first-year graduate student in history is trained to question rigorously the sources of a document?

So why does the George G. Cameron Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations embarrass himself and his profession by failing to use one of the most basic techniques of modern historiography?

Simple. Because Mr. Michalowski was inexorably pulled into one of the historians' favorite "tropes," a Whitean metahistory -- or a metastory or story-frame or master-narrative used by communications researchers -- that was as strong as a black hole.

In the eyes of Mr. Michalowski, the trashing and looting of the museum while American soldiers looked on indifferently -- and most likely chewing Wrigley's gum at the same time -- FIT PERFECTLY with his no doubt deeply-held view of the American military as the Barbarians at the Gates. One only needs to research the antiquities blunder a little to pull down a long list of professors who immediately rose up and started bashing the administration in Washington and our troops -- Genghis Khan and his horde come to life!

Paul McGeough was no different. He never thought of blaming the Iraqis who were actually doing this now debunked looting and ransacking of the entire collection. No, he blamed the Americans because -- relying on his basic view of the world -- it simply made sense to him that the Americans, those crass militarists, must be at fault.

And that is scary, folks.

What is pathetic is that Burns and McGeough can write anything they want and never take responsibility for their mistakes and their slanderous portrayals of our troops.

Has anyone heard Burns or McGeough apologize?

But we are just beginning to take on the Mainstream Media. The contest has just begun.


UPDATE: Roger Atwood, writing in the Summer 2003 issue of Art News Online, interviews both the Iraqis who worked at the museum and the American soldiers on the scene for this more comprehensive article on the events from April 10th to the 15th.

September 25, 2003. An abridged transcript of a report by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a United States Marine reservist, who led the U.S. government's investigation into the theft and looting of the Iraq National Museum. Very thorough.


THE BEST OVERALL ANALYSIS SO FAR: Alexander Joffe, in his "Museum Madness in Baghdad," written for the Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2004), offers us the most comprehensive account of what really happened at the Iraq National Museum.
From April 10 to 12, 2003, during the mayhem that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, looters entered the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. They stole and destroyed artifacts and caused damage to the museum. But as the confusion also enveloped the museum, no one outside Iraq knew exactly what was taken or the identity of the thieves. Seizing upon tiny bits of available information, Western archaeologists created their own narrative of events and aggressively promoted it through the world media. That narrative revealed nothing about what had happened at the museum. It told everything about the prejudices and biases of its authors.[2]

In this account, U.S. authorities had been explicitly warned of the danger to the museum prior to the war. They deliberately neglected to stop the looting and were possibly complicit in it. The archaeologists' narrative told a moralizing tale of culpability and guilt and heaped it upon U.S. policymakers and forces, even as the battles raged. No analogy was too far-fetched, from the thirteenth-century Crusader sack of Constantinople to the Mongol destruction of Baghdad.

There was only one problem: this saga had no connection to reality. Over time, the truth trickled out, and it was less dramatic than the tale of the "sack of Baghdad" told by the archaeologists. Though severe, the looting of the museum was far less devastating than originally represented. Western scholars of ancient Iraq, who already had a long record of silence about the crimes of Hussein and the Baath Party, compounded their ignominy in April 2003 by irresponsible distortions and unwarranted extrapolations. The years of silence gave way to a spasm of anti-coalition hysteria, some of it genuine, much of it self-serving.

Read the whole article. I find the twists and turns of this story fascinating.


For me as a critical consumer of information and a budding blogger, the hyperinflated story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum and the knee-jerk response and reliance on prejudiced master-narratives by journalists and scholars alike forces me more than ever to be always vigilant and sceptical when faced with the reconstructions offered by the mainstream media.

Journalists like McGeough have incredible power because they can pass off their version of reality as "facts." They can also simply fabricate -- as we've seen many times over the past few years -- and hope the public passively accepts their little tales as "that's the way it is."

Fact-checking their asses is only the beginning, my friends!


UPDATE: The best estimate of losses from Francis Deblauwe, an archaeologist who has written about the events at the museum during the fall of Baghdad.
My best guess of the losses at the National Museum

(very approximate numbers based on all available info, my evaluation of the quality of same info, and lots of extrapolation and common sense; also taking into account that the comparison with the inventory is not yet finished; updated whenever new info changes the picture)

• 1,140 artifacts on public display: 5% missing
• 490,878 artifacts in Museum storage rooms: 2% missing
• 616 valuable artifacts in storage in Central Bank: 0% missing
• 8,366 public-display artifacts in secret storage location: 0% missing

501,000 artifacts in total, of which 2% (8,560) still missing

• contrary to press and US military reports, the 39,453 manuscripts and scrolls found in a bomb shelter in western Baghdad were the Saddam House of Manuscripts (now renamed Iraqi House of Manuscripts) collection and not a part of the Museum holdings
• the frequently mentioned total figure of 170,000 reflects the inventory numbers; however, lots of individual inventory numbers cover large groups of artifacts

Here's a "whodunit" article on the museum story from Deblauwe from the fall of 2003.


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