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The Rape of Mesopotamia
Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

Lawrence Rothfield

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On April 10, 2003, as the world watched a statue of Saddam Hussein come crashing down in the heart of Baghdad, a mob of looters attacked the Iraq National Museum. Despite the presence of an American tank unit, the pillaging went unchecked, and more than 15,000 artifacts—some of the oldest evidence of human culture—disappeared into the shadowy worldwide market in illicit antiquities. In the five years since that day, the losses have only mounted, with gangs digging up roughly half a million artifacts that had previously been unexcavated; the loss to our shared human heritage is incalculable.

With The Rape of Mesopotamia, Lawrence Rothfield answers the complicated question of how this wholesale thievery was allowed to occur. Drawing on extensive interviews with soldiers, bureaucrats, war planners, archaeologists, and collectors, Rothfield reconstructs the planning failures—originating at the highest levels of the U.S. government—that led to the invading forces’ utter indifference to the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage from looters. Widespread incompetence and miscommunication on the part of the Pentagon, unchecked by the disappointingly weak advocacy efforts of worldwide preservation advocates, enabled a tragedy that continues even today, despite widespread public outrage.

Bringing his story up to the present, Rothfield argues forcefully that the international community has yet to learn the lessons of Iraq—and that what happened there is liable to be repeated in future conflicts. A powerful, infuriating chronicle of the disastrous conjunction of military adventure and cultural destruction, The Rape of Mesopotamia is essential reading for all concerned with the future of our past.

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction 1
1 Cultural Heritage Protection in Iraq before 2003:
The Long View 4
2 “Nobody Thought of Culture”: War-Related Heritage
Protection in the Early Prewar Period 21
3 Getting to the Postwar Planning Table 34
4 The Meetings 56
5 A Punctual Disaster: The Looting of the National
Museum of Iraq 81
6 The World Responds 101
7 The Slow-Motion Disaster: Post-Combat Looting
of Archaeological Sites 124
8 Deathwatch for Iraqi Antiquities 136
Coda 153
Appendix: Interviews 159
Notes 161 Bibliography 189 Index 205

This book arose from an intense feeling of guilt. As news
surfaced in April 2003 that the National Museum of Iraq
had been looted, it struck me that I had been asleep at the
wheel. As the director of an academic research institute
that studies public policies affecting the arts, humanities,
and heritage, part of my job was to be on the lookout for
incipient cultural debacles like this one. We had brought a
policy-analytic perspective to bear on a number of similar
cases: the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition; the
renovation of Chicago’s landmarked Soldier Field, which
generated intense tension between landmark preservationists
and downtown developers; efforts by Congress to impose
restrictions on sales of violent video games. Yet I had
not thought carefully about what the war in Iraq might
portend for the astonishingly rich archaeological holdings
there, whether in museums or still in the ground. I was
deeply chagrined to realize I had failed to consider that
policies, organizations, and leadership to protect cultural
heritage in time of war might be so weak that the museum,
as well as Iraq’s archaeological sites, could be left
My unhappy sense that I could have done something
to prevent the calamity was compounded when I learned
that a colleague, eminent archaeologist McGuire Gibson,
had met in January 2003 with postwar planners at the
Pentagon and State Department, to no avail. I already
knew that several of the key imaginers of postwar Iraq—
including Paul Wolfowitz (Ph.D., University of Chicago,
1972) and Ahmad Chalabi (Ph.D., University of Chicago,
1969)—had connections to our institution, the University of Chicago.
Rumsfeld’s granddaughter attended the university’s high school, and
her class would even take a trip to Washington in 2004 to meet the
secretary of defense. The missed opportunities for linking up Gibson
directly to these movers and shakers haunt me to this day.
Nothing can put all the artifacts back into the museum’s display
cases or restore to us the history obliterated by the trashing of
thousands of previously untouched archaeological sites. But we
can—we must—try to at least salvage some lessons about what went
wrong in the past, or, as Santayana warns, we will be condemned to
repeat it. It is with that purpose in mind that I offer this autopsy of a
cultural disaster.

Summary: Missed opportunity, very disappointing
Rating: 2

At the outset, let me say that I have read the kudos given this work on this site; these come from various important publications. But I beg to differ strongly with the favorable impression they create.

Personally, this was a very difficult read. Harking back to my days as a professor, I was reminded of how it recalls very bad doctoral dissertations, of the type that I would either have rejected or insisted on the author's doing a rewrite. The research is oustanding and comprehensive, but the presentation is worse than pedantic. Rothfield is drunk on alphabet-soup organizations to the extent that the reader becomes totally lost and confused as they are continually cited. Yes, bureaucracy malfunctioned worse than ever here, but the point does not need to be made on every other page.

This book is a missed opportunity because the American public needs to know what happened and did not happen in re: the looting of the great Baghdad Museum. For that reason, there should be some popularization of this topic because the disaster there cries out for widespread publicity. Although Rothfield does not so state, there is implicit anti-intellectualism in the failure to pay absolutely no attention to the museum. American military indifference, ineptitude, and incompetence need to be chronicled in readable fashion. Recent works describing the looting of Italy in WW II provide examples of how readable accounts can be handled.

I do not want to labor this critical view, but in closing let me say that I am amazed that the University of Chicago Press let this book be published with little if any evidence of the work of a serious editor.

Finally, this book's main value seems to be largely as a reference work for the wealth of data it contains. As a narrative of the disaster in Baghdad, it is a total failure.

Summary: How our military can build the capacity to secure cultural sites and institutions
Rating: 5

"Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum" is on the ROROTOKO list of cutting-edge intellectual nonfiction. Professor Rothfield's book interview ran here as cover feature on May 11, 2009.

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