Art and Empire: On Oil, Antiquities, and the War in Iraq

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I. VIEWING THE PLIGHT OF IRAQI ANTIQUITIES

It is undoubtedly a sign of our times that Matthew Bogdanos, the reserve Marine Corps colonel who led the investigation into the April 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, has become somewhat of a celebrity spokesperson for the cause of Iraqi antiquities. Bogdanos, who earned an M.A. in Classical Studies and a Law degree from Columbia, served as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan prior to the events of September 11, 2001. Living near the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, his family narrowly escaped the devastation of the attacks, making their way on foot through the chaos and confusion uptown, like many other New Yorkers on that dreadful day. The events prompted Bogdanos to return to active military duty, and he joined a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan, eventually becoming part of a military team that helped draft plans for the early phases of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'. 'I love the action and the challenges I experience in the military--I make no bones about that', he stated in his 2005 book describing these events, which claims to be a serious account of the investigation into the looting of the Baghdad Museum, titled Thieves of Baghdad. The book's subtitle, One Marine's Passion for Ancient Civilisations and the Journey to Recover the Worlds Greatest Stolen Treasures, however, announces the true spirit of the work: part military autobiography, part Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt, and part wartime thriller--even the Washington Post viewed the book as 'symptomatic of a new hubris in certain military and political circles'. (1) Although Bogdanos is donating the royalties from the volume (co-written with 'ghost-writer', William Patrick) to the Iraq Museum, he sold the story rights to a Hollywood production company that, in partnership with Warner Brothers, has been responsible for such contemporary releases as Terminator 3 and Superman Returns. 'This is one of the most dramatic stories of the war in Iraq', the producer of the soon-to-be-film version of Bogdanos' book explained in the showbiz journal, Variety. 'It's a compelling adventure, with intrigue, grit and pathos'. (2) Meanwhile, President Bush personally rewarded Bogdanos with the National Humanities Medal in 2005, an award that honours individuals whose work 'has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities'.

What is immediately striking about Bogdanos' book, and his range of efforts--some of them successful--to recuperate objects that were looted from the Baghdad Museum, is the way in which his mission to protect Iraqi antiquities feeds and sustains the larger premises and procedures of the American 'liberation and rescue' of Iraq. Bogdanos, paradoxically, does not oppose the conditions that gave rise to the destruction of material culture in Iraq in the first place. On the contrary, he is a loyal proponent of military culture, and he defends the American failure to protect the museum on those fateful days following the invasion on the tactical grounds that it was 'too dangerous' for American soldiers. Moreover, his personal story, proceeding from the assault on Manhattan to the retaliation in Afghanistan to the necessity of 'regime change' in Iraq, reinforces the fictional links between the events of 9/11 and the rule of Saddam Hussein, however oppressive, so actively promoted by the Bush administration. In the meantime, the real story--a human tragedy of epic proportion--remains only partially narrated: the story of damage to the ancient material culture of Iraq through looting and the destruction of archaeological sites resulting from the first Gulf War, the economic conditions caused by UN imposed sanctions, and the current occupation, now entering its sixth long year, that has unleashed a series of catastrophic civil wars in the country. Given these contexts, it seems both predictable and unacceptable that a military spokesman like Bogdanos has come to represent the face of the humanities at a national level. …