The Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad by saying, “Stuff happens… the images you are seeing over and over and over. It’s the same pictures of some person walking out of some building with a vase and you see it twenty times. And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases?” Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” Those are callous and ridiculous comments to be sure, and there were a myriad of failings in protecting the museum when hostilities began.
However Naomi Klein in her new book The Shock Doctrine is just plain wrong when she attempts to criticize the coalition forces after the Iraq invasion. An excerpt of her new book is published in today’s Guardian. After reading the piece I wondered, why distort the facts so badly when the solid facts actually could support your position. Here is the relevant excerpt:
The bombing badly injured Iraq, but it was the looting, unchecked by occupying troops, that did the most to erase the heart of the country that was.
“The hundreds of looters who smashed ancient ceramics, stripped display cases and pocketed gold and other antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq pillaged nothing less than records of the first human society,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Gone are 80% of the museum’s 170,000 priceless objects.” The national library, which contained copies of every book and doctoral thesis ever published in Iraq, was a blackened ruin. Thousand-year-old illuminated Qur’ans had disappeared from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which was left a burned-out shell. “Our national heritage is lost,” pronounced a Baghdad high-school teacher. A local merchant said of the museum, “It was the soul of Iraq. If the museum doesn’t recover the looted treasures, I will feel like a part of my own soul has been stolen.” McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago, called it “a lot like a lobotomy. The deep memory of an entire culture, a culture that has continued for thousands of years, has been removed”.
Thanks mostly to the efforts of clerics who organised salvage missions in the midst of the looting, a portion of the artefacts has been recovered. But many Iraqis were, and still are, convinced that the memory lobotomy was intentional – part of Washington’s plans to excise the strong, rooted nation that was and replace it with their own model. “Baghdad is the mother of Arab culture,” 70-year-old Ahmed Abdullah told the Washington Post, “and they want to wipe out our culture.”
As the war planners were quick to point out, the looting was done by Iraqis, not foreign troops. And it is true that Rumsfeld did not plan for Iraq to be sacked – but he did not take measures to prevent it from happening either, or to stop it once it had begun. These were failures that cannot be dismissed as mere oversights.
During the 1991 Gulf war, 13 Iraqi museums were attacked by looters, so there was every reason to believe that poverty, anger at the old regime and the general atmosphere of chaos would prompt some Iraqis to respond in the same way (especially given that Saddam had emptied the prisons several months earlier). The Pentagon had been warned by leading archaeologists that it needed to have an airtight strategy to protect museums and libraries before any attack, and a March 26 Pentagon memo to coalition command listed “in order of importance, 16 sites that were crucial to protect in Baghdad”. Second on the list was the museum. Other warnings had urged Rumsfeld to send an international police contingent in with the troops to maintain public order -another suggestion that was ignored.
Even without the police, however, there were enough US soldiers in Baghdad for a few to be dispatched to the key cultural sites, but they weren’t sent. There are numerous reports of US soldiers hanging out by their armoured vehicles and watching as trucks loaded with loot drove by – a reflection of the “stuff happens” indifference coming straight from Rumsfeld. Some units took it upon themselves to stop the looting, but in other instances, soldiers joined in. The Baghdad International Airport was completely trashed by soldiers who, according to Time, smashed furniture and then moved on to the commercial jets on the runway: “US soldiers looking for comfortable seats and souvenirs ripped out many of the planes’ fittings, slashed seats, damaged cockpit equipment and popped out every windshield.” The result was an estimated $100m worth of damage to Iraq’s national airline – which was one of the first assets to be put on the auction block in an early and contentious partial privatisation.
From what I understand, Klein argues in her book that crisis has been manipulated by leaders to bring about sweeping social change. That seems like an interesting hypothesis, and its the kind of controversial and engaging argument that I usually find interesting. But in discussing the looting of the Iraq museum, she gets a myriad of facts wrong, distorts the truth, and wholly fails to account for the good work American soldiers, led by former prosecutor, and then Colonel Matthew Bogdanos did in tracking down objects. I talked about this last year.
Most notably, the 170,000 figure has been discredited, and the number of objects still missing is probably around 3,000. That’s still an alarming number to be sure, but why quote old and inaccurate estimates? Also, the Iraqi military occupied the site, and fired on coalition troops from the museum. To be sure, the invading forces dropped the ball when they neglected to secure the museum after the museum was abandoned, but that paints a very different picture from what Klein describes here. When you have plenty of good accurate evidence to support your position, why would you resort to this kind of lazy inaccuracy? I presume that in her zeal to lay out here position she neglected to account for other points of view. This is the same kind of myopic view which has plagued the current administration. It becomes all the more puzzling though when you consider Rumsfeld did most of Klein’s work for her.