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  • Iraq Museum

    Posted by Malibu Man on June 20th, 2005 (All posts by )

    The LA Times (6/20/05, E1+) reports on a new book, “The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad,” ed. Donny George, the director of the museum. The Times story notes that “early estimates of losses turned out to be wildly inflated.” In fact, the “early estimates” were that something like 150,000 pieces were stolen in 48 hours. A moment’s reflection on the logistic issues would have shown that that couldn’t be right. The story has never been told about how the New York Times and other media could have been so gullible as to report such claims or how it came about that the NY Times correspondent in Baghdad came up with these false claims–and doubtless we will never learn how this could have happened. Eventually, the very newspapers that misreported the story and collected equally gullible expressions of shock and outrage from academics and others reported the results of an Army investigation that came much closer to the facts. But by then the story had already been used up in polemics against the invasion, which were never retracted, corrected, or apologized for.

    The fact is that perhaps 15,000 objects were stolen, with some indications pointing to an inside job. About half of these have been recovered, and the director remarks that “in an almost daily action, people–police, customs officers at the airport–are bringing objects to the museum.” Iraqis are even buying pieces with their own money and returning them.

    This is not the only case when someone who asks the question, exactly how many pieces were stolen?, hears the accusation, you are “minimizing the seriousness of the issue.” But seeking precise facts is not minimizing anything. The demand for indignation without precision is mental laziness motivated by the desire to recruit an unfortunate or even tragic event for a polemical purpose whose intensity is permitted to outrun evidence. This is a common fallacy in political arguments where facts are used not as the basis for a conclusion–critical or not–but as talismans for opinions formed in passion and expressed in fury. The aim is not to find the truth nor even to defeat a misinformed opponent but to foreclose debate by implying that anyone who disagrees or even asks for details is morally defective and outrageously irrational. Moral posturing replaces analysis and debate.

    The museum has still not been reopened. It is “in a very hot spot in Baghdad,” near a center of insurgent activity. Two museum guards were wounded by gunfire and hospitalized. But the end of the article (why is this saved for the end?) has some good news. The museum is being fortified and refurbished. Motion detectors and surveillance cameras are being installed in the galleries. The staff have been given courses, “mostly outside the country.” Director George concludes, “We will reopen the IraqiMuseum at a very high standard. I am looking forward to the party.” Can anyone tell me if the New York Times carried this story? Will any of their reporters be attending the party?

     

    9 Responses to “Iraq Museum”

    1. Ginny Says:

      Don’t know about NYT but George was on C-span last night; the presentation included pictures of lovely art works, lost art works, the refurbished museum and of the new intensive surveillance & protection equipment. I only saw parts of it; he did report that some friendly to the museum had “looted it” only to bring objects back when the “looters” considered it safely guarded. And he noted some objects had clearly been noted earlier, for the taking. Thanks for the article; I’ll try to note the program if it is rerun.

      And welcome Malibu Man – I take it you are a new West Coast Chicagoboy?

    2. Sandy P Says:

      Rummy and his “vase” comment.

    3. Lex Says:

      MM — Greetings, a blare of trumpets and thunder of cannon in salute.

      Good analysis of yet one more item where the “facts” reported are the ones that support the preexisting narrative. God bless these Iraqis who are resurrecting their country bit by bit, despite the lunatics trying to create bloody anarchy, and who are getting no support from our news media, which doesn’t even want to tell their story.

    4. Mark Says:

      Malibu Man,

      Thanks for your news about the museum. Im glad to hear that its not as bad as it first appeared. I can remember the news footage with the smashed display cases and shards of broken clay, and shuddering at the thought that the Smithsonian might have undergone such devastation if we had been the ones suffering an invasion.

      I thought your comments about discourse were interesting:

      This is not the only case when someone who asks the question, exactly how many pieces were stolen?, hears the accusation, you are “minimizing the seriousness of the issue.” But seeking precise facts is not minimizing anything. The demand for indignation without precision is mental laziness motivated by the desire to recruit an unfortunate or even tragic event for a polemical purpose whose intensity is permitted to outrun evidence. This is a common fallacy in political arguments where facts are used not as the basis for a conclusion–critical or not–but as talismans for opinions formed in passion and expressed in fury. The aim is not to find the truth nor even to defeat a misinformed opponent but to foreclose debate by implying that anyone who disagrees or even asks for details is morally defective and outrageously irrational. Moral posturing replaces analysis and debate.

      response:
      You set a pretty high bar for discourse. My wife is a voice teacher, and she talks about different registers of discourse. The moral posturing and debate foreclosure are essential parts of talk radio and pundit tv, and they are geared in part to the nature of their medium. One might call that a lower and lesser register of political discourse. Some might even identify those elements as essential parts of political campaigning, though that would be pretty cynical. Your more measured reporting about the museum represents a higher register, but it relies on more authoritative voices and time in which to do careful analysis. How long has it been since we first saw those tv images of the ransacked museum?

      The kind of story youre talking about goes through a cycle of newsspinanalysis. Ginny has counseled that time will release the facts of history, but, unfortunately, at least in this case, it takes some time. Do we trust that truth will out? That takes faith.

      The recent Newsweek story on the Koran flushing illustrates the cycle nicely. Newsweek reports, various interests spun, and then the facts emerged: yes, there was some abuse of the Koran, no, it wasnt exactly as reported. In the meantime reality marched right along: religious beliefs were disrespected; people died; people were offended; people were radicalized; eggs were laid that may come home to roost.

      Chicago Boyz has run quite a study on the Lancet story, which would be another example of a story where theres an issue about precise facts. A refereed journal story would represent yet another register of discourse; one from which we can and should demand high levels of precision.

      However, with the initial reporting of the museum debacle I dont think the reporters should be held to the same level of accuracy that we can demand from Lancet. That reporting was taking place during the first flush of victory, from people who had been under tremendous pressure. The museum as physical evidence looked like a disaster, and the reporters interviewed the people who were available. The other element is that I dont think we can be too harsh in condemning the military for not securing Iraqi cultural treasures. They had a lot on their plate with the actual fighting, and were also operating under tremendous pressure and uncertainty. We have had discussions and reviews about nationbuilding here, and there is a lot to it. Our military is better suited for combat than for policing. It would take a big commitment to develop true nationbuilding capabilities. There is still a lot of thinking to be done about that issue.

      I would temper your suggestions ever so slightly to argue that while we should aim for factual and quantitative accuracy, we shouldnt forestall or foreclose debate and analysis on issues just because we havent reached certain levels of precision. We can and should discuss issues as they arise, and to the extent that we can adjust our preconceptions to the emerging facts of history, we should do that too.

    5. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “However, with the initial reporting of the museum debacle I dont think the reporters should be held to the same level of accuracy that we can demand from Lancet.”

      I disagree. The story was obvious bunk, motivated solely by Bush bashing, from the get-go. What follows is what I posted, on my late unlamented blog, the day after the NYTimes story was published.

      [4/14/2003 11:58:45 PM | Robert Schwartz]Oy, Vase Mirror*Now that the war is coming to an extremely successful conclusion the
      Bush-must-be-destroyed-at-any-costs-crowd is desperately searching for any conveniently sized stick with which to beat the victorious Commander-in-Chief. The stick of the hour seems to be looting.Unlike The Revolution [that] Will Not Be Televised there were pictures of Ali Baba and Fatima May pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run, and trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance. But to the true liberal intellectual the most painful thought arrived on the front page of the Sunday New York Times “Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure.” When I read the article I could see demitasses of hot espresso flying across coffee shops all over the Upper West Side and hear mighty oaths . . . “Bush — You — You — You philistine.” At first I was tempted to blow the whole thing off. After all greater minds than mine have rationalized the looting and when the anti-war protesters and I were in our salad days we rationalized looting and shoplifting as “liberation” of the goods. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that some thing was wrong with the picture painted by the author. To be sure the author hedges some of his bets but read the following excerpts:

      . . . A full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months. The museum had been closed during much of the 1990’s, and as with many Iraqi institutions, its operations were cloaked in secrecy under Mr. Hussein. So what officials told journalists today may have to be adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light. It remains unclear whether some of the museum’s priceless gold, silver and copper antiquities, some of its ancient stone and ceramics and perhaps some of its fabled bronzes and gold-overlaid ivory, had been locked away for safekeeping elsewhere before the looting, or seized for private display in one of Mr. Hussein’s myriad palaces.What was beyond contest today was that the 28 galleries of the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that descend floor after floor into unlighted darkness had been completely ransacked.Officials with crumpled spirits fought back tears and anger at American troops, as they ran down an inventory of the most storied items that they said had been carried away by the thousands of looters . . . a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, . . . a collection of gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings, also from the Sumerian dynasties and also at least 4,000
      years old . . . Mr. Hassan, who said he had spent 34 years helping to develop the museum’s collection, described watching as men took sledgehammers to locked glass display cases and in some instances fired rifles and pistols to break the locks. . . “Did some of them know the value of what they took?” he said. “Absolutely, they did. They knew what the most valued pieces in our collection were.” . . . Mr. Muhammad, the archaeologist, directed much of his anger at President Bush. . . “If a country’s civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation.”

      So, lets think about this. The Museum, full of priceless antiquities, is located in a country run by a ruthless tyrant who has treated the country and its treasures as his personal playthings. It has been closed to the public for years. War has been threatened for months, and the tyrant knows that the city will be bombed, so does the museum staff. Rumors abound that the tyrant, his henchmen and their families are stashing treasure in foreign countries against the possibility of flight. When the army of liberation arrives, the Museum is empty, its displays and vaults ransacked. The staff blames an anonymous mob of civilians.Motive, Means, Opportunity; isn’t that what Miss Marple would wonder about? The tyrant would certainly have them in spades. He would have sent some lackeys over to pick up things like the gold harp, which could easily pay for a favored mistress’ exile. But, wouldn’t the staff have pointed the finger at him, hoping to curry favor with the new boss? Maybe the tyrant didn’t take everything. He probably had no interest in clay cylinder seals. Tyrants are notoriously uninterested in the evolution of writing and the other elements of culture.What about the staff of the Museum? When the allied armies approached Germany at the end of the Second World War and allied air forces stepped up their bombing attacks, the regime and the museum staffs packed up the contents of the country’s museums and stored them in mine shafts in the mountains. Why didn’t the staff of the Iraqi Museum do something like that? The Museum had “vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that descend floor after floor into unlighted darkness.” Why weren’t the artifacts sealed in those vaults to protect against the bombing attack that everyone knew was coming? Were the vaults not equipped with bank vault type locks? Knowing what little I do about the tyrant, I would be surprised if he had stinted on that. But even if there were no locks on those vaults, any welder from a neighborhood body shop should be able to seal those doors to the point where looters could not open them without high explosives. Why were the exterior doors and windows of the Museum not barred?To me, the most likely scenario is that the tyrant appropriated a number of small and very obviously valuable pieces and sent them into exile or hiding. The staff of the museum, like everyone else in Iraq, took no initiative while he was alive. In the week of Monday April 7 as his regime collapsed they lost their fear of his goon squads.The staff could have sealed up the collection in the vaults and sealed the vaults, the doors and windows. But maybe they had a better idea, they took the collection home “for safekeeping.” When the looters and the newspapers showed up they had a convenient excuse not to return it. And they could make the reporters happy by blaming President Bush.So where is the collection? Expressed in the way I would invest $100 in a pari-mutuel pool; betting on the best known items in the collection: Saddam’s family members in exile — $80, the Museum staff — $19 and the looters — $1; betting on the bulk of the collection: Saddam’s family members in exile — $33, the Museum staff — $66 and the looters — $1. Will the collection be recovered? Eventually. The stuff is hot. It may sit private collections for a long time, but eventually it will come to light where knowledgeable scholars will see it and it will be recovered, but this process may take a long time. Fifty seven years after the end of World War II the search for lost art from that war continues.*What my Yiddish Great-Grandmother used to say was “Oy veh ist mir” (trans. Oh woe is me) Her great-great-granddaughter says it too. Somehow it doesn’t sound the same in English.To be continued:

    6. Robert Schwartz Says:

      [4/18/2003 2:22:59 AM | Robert Schwartz]Bad Meme RisingAs I argued below*, the meme that random anonymous looters pillaged the Iraq National Museum on 9 through 11 April while the U.S. Military negligently twiddled its thumbs, resulting in the devastation of the greatest treasure trove of the progress of civilization since the burning of the library of Alexandria did not square with the facts contained in the initial report. My own hypothesis was that any despoliation of the Museum was an inside job.The popularity of the meme has nothing to with the facts that may or may not have engendered it, not that Bush bashers have ever needed facts. Facts are so difficult and stereotypes are so easy to manipulate. The facts are starting to verify my analysis. For example, on 16 April, URL deleted at mt request Knight Ridder reported that:

      Iraqi museum officials and U.S. military authorities now think that the much-publicized looting of antiquities from the world-renowned Iraq Museum was most likely a well-executed theft, perhaps planned before Baghdad fell. Museum officials have determined that most of the looting that did take place at the museum, . . . was focused on office machines and furniture, . . . and that only selected antiquities were taken.”The people who came in here knew what they wanted. These were not random looters,” Donny George, the director general of Iraq’s state board of antiquities, said Wednesday . . . He pointed out that replica items – museum pieces that would have looked every bit as real to an angry mob as authentic items – were left untouched. The museum’s extensive
      Egyptian collection, which is valuable, but not unique to the world, also was left alone. . . American soldiers on guard duty here said that while the damage in the museum areas seemed bad, the appearance was deceiving. “It looked pretty bad inside, much worse than it was,” said 2nd Lt. Erik Balascik, 23, of Allentown. Pa. “The administration building, the library, they are a mess. In the museum, there is broken glass and papers on the floor, but a lot of the collection was pulled before the war. And not as much is missing as first thought.”In fact, in the main collection, it now appears that few items are missing, and very little seems to have been the victim of mob violence. . . The military perspective is that it did all it could to protect the museum at the time. During the looting, “the fighting was still going on. The Republican Guard headquarters are across the street, and they were far from secure,” Army Maj. Michael Donovan said. “Frankly, we were here to protect people and property, but in the early days we had to choose, and we chose people.” . . .

      On 17 April AP reported that:

      Professional thieves, likely organized outside Iraq, pillaged the nation’s priceless ancient history collections by using the cover of widespread looting — and vault keys — to make off with irreplaceable items, art experts and historians said Thursday. The bandits were so efficient at emptying Iraqi libraries and museums that reports have already surfaced of artifacts appearing on the black market, some experts said.

      The piece was filed from Paris and, as you might expect, the rest of it was devoted to reprising the meme. But note the allegation about keys to the vaults. I did not think that first class bank vaults used keys, but if these did or if they did not and they were opened non-violently. I think that would be even more evidence for the insider theory.Finally we must return to the source of the meme, The New York Times, which on Thursday 17 April ran no less than 3 count ’em One, Two, Three Op-Eds riffing on the meme and buried the facts on page B-5 under the headline Museum Pillage Described as Devastating but Not Total. The Times reporter for this article wrote that:

      In one possibly encouraging sign, several people in the Al Awi neighborhood that surrounds the museum said they did not see looters leave with any antiquities, even amid gun battles and looting that lasted two days. An imam who lives behind the museum said he stood outside the museum for several hours on the first day of the looting, begging them to stop. “I kept reminding them that this is their country and it was against Islam to steal,” said the imam, who asked not to be identified. But he said the only items from the collection he saw stolen were several old rifles. Mostly, he said, he saw looters take chairs, typewriters, ceiling lamp fixtures and other items from the museum’s offices, as happened at nearly every other government office in the capital.

      I quit. From here on, this is not a detective story about stolen goods or a political story about responsibilities of conquering armies, but a psychological story about the mental disintegration of the Blue State Chattering Classes as their continuing inability to use their mythology to understand and negotiate events in the 21st Century drags them under.A very bold Thank You, to the Instapundit, our Blogfather for linking the story below.Also the always perspicacious Porphyrogenitus, whose Book of Ceremonies is absolutely indispensable for anyone who desires to, or is required to, understand life at the Imperial Court, was on this story before me and deserves all the credit.

    7. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Note: while I am on the subject of meme plagues, the burning of the library of Alexandria is one of the master meme plagues of western civilization.

    8. Mark Says:

      “The story was obvious bunk,”

      “The fact is that perhaps 15,000 objects were stolen”

      “motivated solely by Bush bashing, from the get-go.”

      “the very newspapers that misreported the story and collected equally gullible expressions of shock and outrage from academics and others reported the results of an Army investigation that came much closer to the facts.”

      Those awful, mean reporters, and those gullible academics—-

    9. Robert Schwartz Says:

      The reporters are not mean and the academics are not gullible. Like everyone they navigate the “blooming buzzing confusion” of life using myths and stereotypes. My conclusion was that:

      “this is not a detective story about stolen goods or a political story about responsibilities of conquering armies, but a psychological story about the mental disintegration of the Blue State Chattering Classes as their continuing inability to use their mythology to understand and negotiate events in the 21st Century drags them under.”

      I wrote that two years ago, and nothing that has happened in the mean time would cause me to doubt that conclusion.

      Nothing.