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It’s Not the Oil, It’s the Art!


“What the hell! As long as U.S. laws aren’t broken, it’s all right. After all, these things are not appreciated in those countries. They’re brought here and given a home. Now cultured people can see them.”

— Lowell Collins, Houston antiquities dealer, on the plundering of Pre-Colombian sculptures from Mayan sites, quoted in The Art Stealers, Milton Esterow, Macmillan, 1972.

Here’s a suggestion: arrest whoever gave the order to leave Iraq’s national museum unguarded, together with anyone who knew about it and failed to override it, and take them to those outdoor holding cells built for terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. We can make room by releasing all the children we’ve finally admitted we’ve been holding among the prisoners (“the radio said they were just detainees”). If we’re feeling patriotic, we might want to rip the uniform of the United States of America off their backs and let them ride naked. Sound a little extreme? Read on.

The sacking of Iraq’s national museum was “completely predictable,” says Jane Walbaum, the president of the Archaeological Institute of America. As far back as February, the AIA had been warning anyone who would listen that “following the 1991 Gulf War, archaeological sites and museums in Iraq were looted on a large scale, with stolen antiquities appearing on the art markets in Western Europe and the United States.” That the same looting was not just likely but certain to happen again, this time on a gigantic scale, unless the U.S. took serious preventive measures, was a no-brainer.

Weeks before thieves and vandals were left free to haul away irreplaceable artefacts, destroying much of what they didn’t take, the museum had also been identified as “a prime target for looters” in a memo from retired Lt. General Jay Garner’s office. Garner’s people felt the museum should rate second behind the banks in order of security priority. Garner, the new “governor” of Iraq, was reportedly livid when he learned he had been victimized by a bureaucratic dodge older than Ancient Mesopotamia: one cannot be held accountable for failing to act on a memo one has not yet “gotten around” to reading.

“Inexcusable,” said Martin Sullivan, the chair of the White House Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, when U.S. forces ignored the memo, stood idly by and declined to intervene as the museum was sacked. Sullivan and two other members of his committee resigned in protest. Bear in mind, these were not left-wing members of what Foxadelphia likes to call the “anti-Bush, anti-America” crowd. These were people who reported to the president.

Sullivan and his colleagues did the right thing, but should they have been shocked? The scandalous looting of Mesopotamia’s cultural heritage, consistently described on cable TV as something unprecedented, was in fact a re-run of looting that went largely unreported after Gulf War One.

Immediately following the 1991 war against Iraq, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem began getting requests to evaluate “pieces.” The requests came from Americans. The “pieces” came from Iraq and were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because the objects presented for “evaluation” represented only a minute part of what had been stolen in the first Gulf war, the scene was merely a microcosm of what was happening around the world at other cultural institutions (and for the benefit of private collectors) as thieves shopped their bling-bling from the cradle of civilization.

John Malcolm Russell, writing in Archaeology in 1996, called this tragedy “The Modern Sack of Nineveh” and sounded a warning: “Today Assyria is in fashion again, and its sculptures are bringing unprecedented prices.” He cited a Nineveh porch sculpture sold at auction for $12 million, “by far the highest price ever paid for an antiquity.”

What sounded like a warning to some ears may have rung like a dinner bell in others. As a result, many of the newly privatized artefacts are already passing through the global underground art market directly into the hands of collectors and dealers who know how to “appreciate” them, in exchange for cash and who knows what else.

That is why the working assumption must not be that “mistakes were made” as commanders faced “tough calls” in the chaos.

Rather we should act on the basis that crimes against all humanity have been committed and demand a public accounting from the people who were in charge when it happened, to determine how much they knew about what they were doing.

What a choice: either our field commanders are so ignorant and lacking in judgment they make George W. Bush look like Marcus Aurelius, or they are implicated in some very sinister business indeed.

If they didn’t know what they were doing, their ignorance was as inexcusable as it was disgraceful. They have done more damage to this country’s standing abroad than they could ever be expected to imagine. They may have helped to finance decades of terrorism. If they did know what was going on, they’re key players in the biggest corruption scandal in U.S. military history.

The only other possible explanation is that they were acting on orders from much higher up the chain.

In any case, they should have already been put where cultured people can see them and interrogated. This is no time for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. His scorching new CD, Way Down Here, is now available from CounterPunch.

He can be reached at:

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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