Lawrence Rothfield


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

Cover Interview of May 10, 2009


The book ends before the surge restored a semblance of normality to Iraq.  But the picture it paints of the dire situation on Iraq’s archaeological sites, and of the inexcusable neglect of this problem even now by both military and State Department officials, still holds true.

As we turn our attention to Afghanistan, it is far from clear that there is either the will or the way on the part of Pentagon or State to do any better there.  And while not the cradle of civilization, Afghanistan resembles Iraq in having an incredibly rich – and largely unexcavated – archaeological heritage.  Much of this has been lost since 2002: the British government, for example, just recently returned 3 tons of artifacts seized at London airports.  As in Iraq, there is no question that the same networks that smuggle antiquities are also involved in insurgency.  We know that Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, tried to sell antiquities for the expressed purpose of raising money to buy an airplane.

Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, I hope Rape of Mesopotamia will spur conversations and encourage discussions about how our military can build into its force structure the capacity to secure important cultural sites and institutions.  One lesson of the book is that this is not as easy to do as some might think.  Iraq’s National Museum was an enormous compound, and the country has 10,000 registered archaeological sites (with perhaps 90,000 more unregistered ones!).  Iraq will take patience and persistence to make the changes needed.  There are hopeful signs of progress already on this front, I should add.  A Blue Shield organization – the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross – has finally been created in the US.  The Defense Department has been working well with archaeologists on programs to raise the cultural awareness of troops heading overseas.  And perhaps most important, the Army Field Manual that guides invasion planners now defines one of its “Essential Stability Tasks” as being to “protect and secure… cultural sites… museums; and religious sites.”

© 2009 Lawrence Rothfield