Raider of the Lost Art

Reviewed by Philip Kennicott
Sunday, January 22, 2006


One Marine's Passion for Ancient Civilizations

and the Journey to Recover

the World's Greatest Stolen Treasures

By Matthew Bogdanos with William Patrick

Bloomsbury. 302 pp. $25.95

Perhaps Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine colonel who helped sort out the looting mess at the Iraq Museum after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, is everything his new memoir makes him out to be: tough, smart, patriotic, a good father, a loyal fighter, a man of many parts. His sleuthing, courage and hard work in the months after the beginning of the Iraq War helped recover thousands of priceless objects from the ransacked museum. And last November, President Bush rewarded his efforts with a National Humanities Medal in a White House ceremony.

But there is something terribly strained about the voice of his new book, co-authored with novelist William Patrick. Written in a mix of military jargon and tough-guy slang, Thieves of Baghdad certainly succeeds as a good read. It covers the dramatic years from Sept. 11, 2001, through the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, detailing Bogdanos's family life, his work as a prosecutor in New York, his mobilization to fight in Afghanistan and later Iraq, and ultimately his suspicion that it was in part an inside job that left one of the world's richest collections of ancient treasures trashed.

It also reveals a man who seems to have a huge chip on his shoulder, quick to judge people who question his authority and contemptuous of people who don't share his blue-collar, raised-by-the-boot-straps background. Bogdanos and his family lived a block from the World Trade Center, and on the day it was destroyed, he returned to the lobby of his building, which was filled with neighbors desperate for advice and direction. "These were the kind of people I would never allow on one of my juries," the then-prosecutor writes. "They were typical, well-educated Manhattan types who appear to maintain a fashionable suspicion of, if not outright contempt for, the police and the military, but in a crisis, they were looking to me for help." He then quotes a Kipling poem about a simple soldier's resentment of a society that affords him respect only "when there's trouble in the wind."

With that broad brush, he dismisses the very people he is supposedly serving. Little episodes like this are sprinkled throughout the book. He shows no patience when he is accosted by a U.N. official preparing for a UNESCO visit. He calls a Treasury Department official who confronts him just as he's trying to get access to a vault in a major Baghdad bank a "weenie." By the time Bogdanos gets to making his larger argument -- that the United States needs a renaissance of the honor and values of "warrior" culture -- readers will be sharply divided. Those who are already enamored of military culture and still believe in the Iraq War will probably nod in agreement. Those who question that war -- and question war in general -- may find Bogdanos a repellent figure, symptomatic of a new hubris in certain military and political circles.

That's too bad, because if one can read past Bogdanos's defensiveness and simmering rage at intellectuals, academics, liberals and military red-tape types, there's a good narrative and a lot of fascinating detail in this book. Bogdanos works hard to set the record straight about what happened in the chaotic days between April 9, when Baghdad fell, and April 16, when U.S. forces finally secured the Iraq Museum from looters. He argues (and other sources agree, including a 2003 article in Science magazine) that the museum was being used by Iraqi forces, including snipers, and was too dangerous to secure. A low-key assault would have endangered U.S. soldiers, and an all-out battle would have risked the very treasures they were trying to protect. "The bottom line here is that any suggestion that U.S. forces could have done more than they did to secure the museum before the twelfth is based on wishful thinking," he writes.

But he also downplays the desperate efforts of archaeologists to get the U.S. government to take the looting threat seriously. And though he acknowledges one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tone-deaf statements about the mayhem, he doesn't grapple seriously with the lack of planning, dismissive attitude and arrogance of the administration in the run-up and early days of the war. He cites unnamed sources and hides behind the fog of war when necessary to make his case, but he has little patience with journalists, who trumpeted a wildly oversized estimate of 170,000 lost objects just after the looting, and gives them no fog-of-war exemption.

Ultimately, questions of privilege are the most disturbing thing in this book. Bogdanos's love of the warrior class is presented as a necessary corrective to a democracy gone slack, in which everyone bloviates about right and wrong but few are willing to defend their ideals. But there's more going on here, the faint rumblings of an interpretation of military culture that goes beyond mere duty and includes a disturbing degree of entitlement -- to bend rules, disdain criticism and place oneself above the people one serves. Granted, much of this attitude is a staple of military narratives, and Bogdanos's bull-headedness is no doubt part of the reason that he and his men were able to restore to the Iraqi collection thousands of purloined objects. But for a man who bristles at snobbery and presumption, Bogdanos emerges as a snob of sorts himself -- a Marine snob.

Bogdanos ends his tale with more questions than answers. His prosecutor's instincts lead him to suspect even some of the Iraqi Museum officials he befriended while investigating the looting. But he has no certain conclusions. Perhaps it's that lack of an easy, satisfying end that inspires his strange and strained defense of "warrior's ideals," which he claims have been "forced ever farther to the margins of society." Once again reader reaction will probably divide. Those who hear only a stout defense of the Marine esprit de corps and old-fashioned notions of masculine honor will cheer him on. Those who find warrior values anything but marginal in post-9/11 society won't be so enthusiastic. Whether he intended to or not, Bogdanos has written a book that plays out basic conflicts in our society. With revelations of domestic spying and secret prisons and torture dividing Americans over the degree to which they trust one version of "warrior" culture, Bogdanos's impatience with those who would guard the guardians has a resonance well beyond a search for lost art in a war zone. ยท

Philip Kennicott is culture critic of the Washington Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company