Lawrence Rothfield


On his book The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

Cover Interview of May 11, 2009

The wide angle

It is a pretty twisted professional path that leads a cultural critic like me to become an expert on the history of the Army’s Civil Affairs division, fluent in the alphabet soup of military acronyms, and conversant in the legal niceties of the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  But one branch of cultural studies has always been interested in the ways in which culture is policed.  Edward Said, my dissertation advisor, had blazed the path for this kind of work, and I was trying, in the years before the war, to build on his example by starting a research center on cultural policy at the University of Chicago.  The policies we were analyzing were domestic, not international, and I had paid little attention to the problem of antiquities looting and smuggling—a huge policy concern even for countries not at war.

So it was with a mixture of chagrin and dismay that I learned from the New York Times that my colleague, the great Mesopotamian archaeologist McGuire Gibson, had met in January 2003 with postwar planners at the Pentagon and the State Department, to no avail.  Had I not been asleep at the wheel I might have gotten involved, might have made a difference myself.  I simply had failed to consider that policies, organizations, and leadership to protect cultural heritage might be so weak that the museum and sites could be left unsecured.

There is a body of law and commentary, including that 1954 Hague Convention, that is supposed to take care of, police in the good way, heritage that is threatened during and following conflict.  As my book shows, this international legal regime does not take account of the problem posed when it is civilian looters, and not soldiers, who are ripping artifacts from museum cases or the ground.  Worse still, by obfuscating the distinction between civilian and military pillaging, the laws created opportunities for misunderstanding between archaeologists and war-planners that led advocates believing wrongly that their concerns had been heeded.

There also is a body of theory and, indeed, a very robust discussion under way, about who should own antiquities, about whether they should be returned to their countries of origin, and about the adequacies or inadequacies of the very concept of cultural patrimony.  James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago and Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah have forcefully argued against what they call “retentionism” on the part of antiquities-rich nations, in favor of free trade.  But it is striking that, as they make these arguments, we see, in Iraq, the results of a finders-keepers free market in its purest form.  As Rumsfeld said, referring in part to the reports that the museum had been looted, freedom is untidy.

The invasion, sweeping away a tyranny, made clear the vacuousness of the contemporary debates about patrimony.  The looting showed that we all need to be thinking much more practically about how museums and sites can be secured.  The military needs operationalizable plans, not abstract principles.  What is the best strategy for bringing looting under control, what tools and forces can be mustered, and how can resources be found to pay for what needs to be done?  The tank commander in Baghdad did not have the museum on his map, much less tear-gas or other anti-riot gear, because no one was thinking about these matters.