Col. Matthew Bogdanos led the search for missing antiquities after the fall of Iraq and wrote about it in his book, THIEVES OF BAGHDAD. NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke with him recently about his adventures there and the continuing search.
Bruce Cole: We're proud to have you among the recipients of National Humanities medals. You don't seem to fit the mold. You're a D.A., you're a marine, you're an amateur boxer, you're a classicist. How did that all come to be?
Matthew Bogdanos: My immediate visceral response is, maybe I should fit the mold. Maybe this should be the mold. It is only in the last hundred years where we have, as a society, made the distinction between the thinking man and the fighting man.
One of my favorite anecdotes is about Aeschylus, who wrote his own epitaph. One would think that Aeschylus would have spoken of the laurels that he won in Athens at the playwriting competition. Instead he wrote, "Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus. . . . The field of Marathon will speak of his bravery and so will the long-haired Mede who learned it well." We view him as being the father of tragedy; in fact, he viewed himself in much different terms. His value system was such that it was his bravery in defending his country that he valued most. Both of those aspects of a life well lived are really just two halves of the same whole.
Look at Winston Churchill, who, before he was the finest statesman of the twentieth century, was decorated for bravery in the Boer War and in fighting the dervishes. This was not considered out of the ordinary. In the sixteenth century, the writer of Hagakure, the samurai code, considers a samurai who does not excel in poetry and calligraphy as a samurai of little worth.
I'm with Sir William Butler on this—that a society that insists on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the thinking man and the fighting man is likely to have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.
Cole: So this is a pretty modern phenomenon, this split between what one may call the thinker or the intellectual and the man of action.
Bogdanos: Absolutely. And not in all societies, but certainly in the West.
Cole: Churchill's a great example because not only was his early life full of adventure and military campaigning, but he was also a great writer and a marvelous historian. He encapsulated all those.
Bogdanos: And let's not forget that he fancied himself a pretty good painter.
Cole: He wasn't a bad painter. I saw a show of his in London. As was Eisenhower, who was also a pretty good Sunday painter.
How did you get interested in so many things, especially the classics? If you could just sketch out the path that brought you to where you are today.
Bogdanos: I was raised in my family's Greek restaurant in Lower Manhattan. My mother was the waitress, my father was the chef, and we had four boys. I have three brothers; one is a twin. My absolute earliest memories are in the restaurant itself. We started off living in the back of the restaurant, and then moved upstairs. That's relevant because that's where most of my life lessons were begun.
Table number one was the homework table. Two of us would be busing tables, cleaning the silverware, peeling the shrimp, doing whatever jobs we could do at the ages of eight and nine and ten and eleven, and two of us would be sitting doing our homework. Both of my parents, although not school-educated, were avid readers. And my mother and father would have customers teach us. You would get a free piece of baklava for teaching us math. You would get a glass of retsina for teaching us history or English.
Fast-forward now, twenty-five years later. I'm an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and I'm in one of my earliest cases. I'm in front of a judge, Shirley Levitan, a remarkable woman who was a partisan fighter for the French resistance during World War II in Germany and then became a judge in New York.
Well, she made a ruling that I didn't like and I objected to the ruling, and in front of the crowded courtroom, defendant, jury, and all, she said, "I taught you math when you were eight. You were a precocious brat then and you're a precocious brat now. Objection overruled! Sit down." She had been a customer in my father's restaurant and taught me. The chief of detectives was a customer in my dad's restaurant. I came across a police officer in one of my first cases who taught me how to play stickball.
One of the other aspects to growing up in the restaurant was learning about mission accomplishment and of the importance of keeping focus. I tell a story that to this day my mother denies, but it's true. I still have the scar.
I was thirteen years old. It was a busy Friday night, and four souvlaki and shish kebabs had come out for table thirteen. My father rang the bell, the dinger to get you to come pick up the food. If that food sat there for ten seconds, you had a lot of explaining to do. I went running up and I pulled out the dupe, the duplicate part of the check the kitchen uses to make the order-and I checked, okay, souvlaki medium rare, shish kebab, got it, okay. Then I went to slam the dupe down on the spindle because you keep the dupes to check the receipts at the end of the night. The spindle went right through my hand, came out the other end. I looked at it, and the pain hadn't registered yet because my brain was still comprehending that the spindle had gone through my hand, and I'm thirteen years old. My father, without skipping a beat, pulls the spindle out of my hand in a flash, pulls my hand over to the side, pours Clorox in the hole—my father's belief was Clorox cured everything-kisses my hand, and says, "Table thirteen is waiting for their food."
I turn to my mom and I show her my hand. My mom kisses my forehead and says, "And table thirteen needs water, too."
Cole: Your parents instilled in you these values of hard work. They themselves were interested in reading and books. But college didn't seem to be in your future. Right?
Bogdanos: No. When I was twelve, my mom gave me the Iliad, and from the moment I read that book, I realized what the values of a life well lived were. It is no overstatement to say that you can measure my life before and after I read the Iliad. It became my constant companion. I read it often, and when I got to the end, I went right back to the beginning and read it yet again. The values that my parents instilled happened to be the values that I also derived from the Iliad. It's one of the reasons, I'm sure, that my mother gave it to me. It instilled a sense of Greek-ness, of areté-areté, virtue for the sake of virtue, honor for its own sake. None of that required college. It just wasn't in our frame of reference. Neither of my parents went to college; none of my brothers has ever gone to college. It just was: When you're seventeen, you graduate high school, you're going to become the day manager of the restaurant, your brother will become the night manager, and that was what was expected.
If you call the Iliad a eureka moment, the second eureka moment would have been the Marine Corps. I tried to enlist in the Marine Corps about a year and a half out of high school.
Cole: Your father had been a marine, right?
Bogdanos: My father had been a marine but never spoke about it. He fought in Korea and didn't tell his parents until he got back from Korea that he had been there. He was proud, very proud of his service, but it wasn't something that was drummed into us. He clearly was opposed to any of us going into the military because he'd seen the horrors of war and he did not want us to experience it, just like I don't want any of my children to ever experience firsthand the horrors of war.
Cole: The Iliad is a wonderful demonstration of the power of the humanities to transform people's lives, to give them models, to help them lead the life well lived. Often, the humanities are a map to life.
Bogdanos: It is the height of naïveté to suggest that anything we do today-simply by virtue of its being done today or by virtue of improved technology-has never been done before. There are few questions of real import that I've come across today that haven't been addressed, if not in the Iliad, then certainly in Thucydides or Herodotus.
Cole: I agree with that.
The Iliad and the Marines. Why the Marines?
Bogdanos: There wasn't anything very sophisticated about it. I was a Greek- American male, nineteen years old, growing up in Lower Manhattan. If I was going to do anything outside the restaurant, it was going to be boxing. I wanted to be a middleweight boxer. Of course, you need talent, and that was where I came in way short.
The decision to enlist in the Marine Corps was just another challenge. I had seen the ads, as all of us have growing up: "The Few, The Proud." That resonates. I'm not suggesting that the people who write the ads and the copy for the Marine Corps have read the Iliad, but let's remember what Glaucus's father told him before he went into battle with his best friend Sarpedon: "Ever to be the best and stand far above the others." That's the only rule you need to live by: "Ever to be the best and stand far above the others."
Cole: That's what the Marine Corps is saying.
Bogdanos: They're saying those exact words. So I tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. Their recruiter made me take the standard battery of tests, and when I came back a day or two later, he simply said to me, "I'm not taking you," and I was devastated. I couldn't believe it. He's decided I'm not good enough. Then he said, "I want you to be an officer." Apparently, because of the way I'd scored on the tests, he felt that I should be an officer, not enlisted. But in order to be an officer in the Marine Corps, you have to have a college degree. He said, "Go apply." This Marine Corps gunnery sergeant in his uniform said to some nineteen-year-old kid, "Go apply to college." So I said, "Yes, sir," and did it, I mean, literally that night, and applied to Bucknell.
Cole: So you went to Bucknell, and what did you study there?
Cole: This, then, circles back to the Iliad.
Cole: More than that-in some ways, the Iliad set you off on that course, but independently, you talk about challenging yourself to a life well lived. So you're circling back to where it all started. That seems to make a lot of sense.
Bogdanos: The Iliad and, to a lesser extent, Thucydides and Herodotus and certainly Alexander the Great-I don't view them as literature, fiction, nonfiction, epic poetry. I view them as a travel guide, but not a travel guide in the conventional sense. If you're going to a city for the first time, you buy the best travel guide you can find. Well, this is a travel guide for life.
Cole: Isn't that one of the reasons we call them classics? They were written a long time ago, but they have lost none of their immediacy because they deal with these really major issues of life and how it's lived.
Bogdanos: Right, yes, absolutely.
Cole: So you studied classics.
Bogdanos: As soon as I got accepted to college, I was accepted into the officer program. I wound up going to the Marines in the summers of college, and then, upon graduation from college, was commissioned an officer, a second lieutenant. That's how we do it.
Cole: And then served. Right?
Bogdanos: And then served. And a commanding officer said, "You ought to be a lawyer. I want you to be a judge advocate." He said, "I want you to apply to law school." It was the same deal. It had not been on my radar screen. I hadn't considered lawyers. We have, obviously, no lawyers in the family. I didn't know any lawyers.
Cole: Your growing up in classics, the Marine Corps, and the law. These are seemingly different things, right? But I have a feeling that somehow they all fit together.
Bogdanos: Yes. I think they're only different on the surface. I learned when I joined the Marine Corps that the Marine Corps has a vigorous reading program. There are books that you are required to read, and among them are Thucydides and Herodotus. The Iliad is not required, although it ought to be. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is required reading. So the Marine Corps recognizes the continuity, both with the classics and with history on a larger scale.
Cole: That's a great testimony. We have supported the Sumerian dictionary project, which is now online. A couple of months ago we got an e-mail from the Sumerian dictionary editors that had been sent to them by a marine in Iraq, an officer, who had been using it and asked them some questions because he wanted to convey this knowledge to his young marines. I thought that was great.
Cole: I thought it was just terrific.
Bogdanos: I will give you another example. In 2004, I was at a conference on the transition to Iraqi sovereignty and the plans for the assistance of Iraq. We were talking about what we could use for a model. And I said, "Well, pretty much what we're talking about here is a country, the United States, that in large part bases much of its wealth on its maritime capabilities, and it's a country that has been engaged in one front in the global war on terrorism, that front being Afghanistan, and then has decided to open a second front significantly far from home, that one being Iraq, in a country that isn't a homogeneous society." And I said, "I wonder where in history we could find such an example." Obviously I'm talking about the Athenian Empire when it opened the second front of Syracuse in the fifth century B.C. Virtually everyone in the room knew exactly what I was talking about, and we all decided to pull out our Thucydides and say, "Okay, what were the mistakes the Athenians made in Syracuse? What were the mistakes they made in treating some of the other islands, in being too harsh, in being too lenient, and what lessons can we learn?" This is a conversation that took place among senior military officers in 2004.
Cole: Lessons to be learned. Thank you for sketching that out. But in some way, again, fate intervened with 9/11. There's a fantastic section in your book, Thieves of Baghdad, about that. Could you describe that experience?
Bogdanos: Once again, I truly mastered the art of being in the right place at the wrong time.
We live a block and a half from the World Trade Center, across the West Side Highway. That morning of September 11, I was getting ready to go to the courthouse when the first plane hit. My three-year-old looked out the window from our living room and looked right there-I mean, it is literally across the street from us-and said, "Daddy, look at the-what's that noise, the crash?" And I said, "Oh, Michael, there's a lot of construction. Remember, Daddy told you they always knock down buildings to put up bigger buildings." And he said, "No, Daddy. Look at the fire."
I went to the window and, sure enough, there was the fire. My eighteen-month-old was also at the window. And my immediate thought at that point-and this is something that I've struggled with since then-was about getting to the courthouse. It is ingrained in every marine that you are to be at your appointed place of duty. My appointed place of duty that morning was the criminal courthouse for my murder case.
I turned to my wife and I said, "No one goes out today. You stay in the house. You don't go to the park. Just stay in. I'll call you when I get to the office." And in a moment I can retrospectively only describe as sheer insanity, I left to go to work. The D.A.'s office and the criminal courthouse are just north of City Hall, basically on the other side of the World Trade Center. I remember thinking, "Let me take my car off the street," because in the '93 bombing of the center, my car got blocked in by the emergency vehicles for a couple days. "Let me not have that again." I wound up taking my car to the D.A.'s office, which is the only reason I still have that car, because that entire street was completely flattened.
When I got to the D.A.'s office, I felt the ground rumble and heard all the screaming people. I jumped my car up on the sidewalk, pulled over, and then watched the tower collapse. At that point I realized what an unbelievable mistake I had made. I turned around and headed home. Ordinarily it would be a relatively easy run-a mile and a half, two miles. But because of the sheer volume, the number of people, the cars, I was running in the wrong direction; it took what seemed forever, and I was trying to avoid large buildings in case they were going to collapse, running as fast as I could. By then the smoke was becoming pretty bad, so I took my shirt off and wrapped it around my face to breathe through, using the shirt as a filter, and continued running.
By then, there were also police barricades, and at the first police barricade, the police tried to stop me from going in because I'm running the wrong way. I'm now literally running into Ground Zero, a couple hundred yards from the North Tower. One of the police officers happens to be my old gunnery sergeant, and he recognized me from Marine days. I said, "Hey, Mac"-McEniry is his name-I said, "Mac, my family's inside," and he just turned to the guys in the barricade and said, "That's my old CO; let him in."
I ultimately got to my building, past the falling bodies, which was, of course, just devastating, because you knew what they were doing. It was clear at the moment, they were jumping. They were literally just feet first, holding hands, jumping, and you just couldn't believe the hopelessness that they must have felt to have jumped from a hundred stories. The image will stay with me forever.
There was also another awful moment when there were some U.S. fighter jets overhead. People started screaming, "They're attacking us, they're attacking us!" I and many others, as we're running through, are screaming, "No, they're ours, they're ours!" You could clearly see they were U.S. jets.
I watched one woman dive off the side of the promenade that snakes its way up the west side of Manhattan and go off the edge, only to land on the walkway fifteen feet down, head first. She thought she was jumping in the water, not realizing it was recessed there, and there was a walkway. I just watched her jump to her death. She made it out of the building and then she jumped to her death.
I finally get home and get up to the apartment. The windows are blown in, piles and piles of dust, debris, paper, ash, asbestos. But no blood trail, also no wife and kids. My wife is seven months pregnant at this point, with our third. I go back downstairs to the lobby, and that's where I find her, in one of the little corner rooms in the lobby that had no windows. She was very smart.
Cole: So they got out.
Bogdanos: They got out, got downstairs. Ultimately we got out, but it wasn't until five or six p.m. We were in effect cut off from the rest of the city by the towers. The only evacuation route was by water. They were running boat after boat, ferry after ferry, to Ellis Island, Governors Island, Liberty Island, and New Jersey, Hoboken, and Weehawken. They were just running nonstop ferries, ferrying thousands.
Ferries are notorious for overcrowding and spilling, and there was no way I could take the chance with a seven-month-pregnant wife, a three-year-old, and a one-and-a-half-year-old on the water. I just wasn't going to do that. So we chose to stay and then go north.
We put the kids in their Halloween costumes, told them it was a game, and wrapped wet handkerchiefs around their faces. I was already in Marine mode. I had my .45 strapped to my waist. I was wearing my shield. D.A.s carry the same badge detectives carry, so I was carrying that shield around my neck just for identification purposes because I was carrying a .45 on my hip.
Cole: That was probably a good idea.
Bogdanos: Yes. And wearing a NYPD hat, anything I could do to make identification easier. Then we simply walked out.
It took hours. I would have to recon each street. I'd go, "Okay, you stay here." Then I would run ahead. I would say, "Stand on the corner." I'd run a block and then say, "Okay, it's safe," come back, and then I'd run back and get them. We'd walk another block, and then we'd do it all over again. We finally got up to Canal Street, got my car, got in the car, and then drove up to my wife's parents. They live on the Upper East Side.
Cole: That's really something. I was just thinking about fate again. That was eventually going to get you to Afghanistan and then Baghdad.
Bogdanos: That's the other incredible thing.
In 1998, I had just been promoted to lieutenant colonel, and I was an infantry battalion executive officer. I'd been in the same infantry battalion for ten years, in the reserves. Well, in '98, because I was promoted, I was in effect promoted out of a job. A buddy of mine whom I'd served with years earlier had been assigned to U.S. Central Command. I never heard of the thing! He called me up and he said, "I saw you just got promoted. I know you're out of a job. Why don't you come down to U.S. Central Command?"
I go down there and I join the unit as a reservist. It's roughly anywhere from forty-five to sixty days a year of active duty.
So it's my first day there. I've just joined. They are reassigning countries, and people are saying, "Okay, who wants Pakistan, who wants Saudi Arabia?" because Central Command has the Middle East and Central Asia. All the guys that are there longer are obviously getting the first-choice countries. Somalia was considered cool, good to have. Obviously, Iraq, Iran.
Well, we get to the stans-Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan-nobody wanted them. They said, "How about the new guy?" and I said, "Sure. I'll take all three."
Then I had to become the expert. You learn the culture, you do your homework, and then you get into those countries and you go on training exercises with those countries' militaries. For the next three years, I was the stans guy because I was the new guy, because no one else wanted it.
September 11 comes around and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who's going. When Task Force Bowie [classified counterrorist unit] gets assembled to go to Afghanistan, there's one Marine reservist in it.
Bogdanos: Yes. What are the odds?
Cole: Let's talk about how you got to Baghdad. There are so many parts of your background that seemed to predestine you—your classical background, your investigative background—to make you the right person for that job.
Bogdanos: It's important to understand that the team that I was on was an experiment. As a result of September 11, a dozen different agencies were put together with all four branches of the military in a single team. I'm just a lieutenant colonel, one of a hundred [in the team]. We go to Afghanistan and then come back to Central Command. Afghanistan is considered a success. Most of the people go back to their respective commands. I'm promoted to colonel, and for reasons that completely elude me, I'm put in charge of the team. Now we get the mission for Iraq.
The mission for Iraq was the same as it was for Afghanistan: pure counterterrorism, specifically, terrorist financing, evidence of terrorist cells and terrorist activity, and prohibited weapons, mostly weapons that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions. We were also charged with a law enforcement investigative aspect. We were to do the investigations simultaneously with combat.
We entered Iraq in March of 2003. It's about a hundred people, the same dozen agencies, pretty much every agency that has an acronym: FBI, CIA, DEA, Customs, Treasury, Energy. We're conducting forensic exploitations of various warehouses, sites where we're interrogating high-value detainees—Baathists, and so on.
I was in Basra in mid-April. I heard about the Iraq Museum the same way the rest of the world did. I heard about it from an outraged journalist. She was a British journalist embedded with another unit. She walked up to me and in colorful language, said, "I can't believe all you macho assholes are down here searching for weapons and money, when the finest museum in the world has just been completely ransacked."
Cole: They claimed it was comparable to the sack of Constantinople, right?
Bogdanos: Exactly. The greatest pillaging since the Mongol wars of 1258 A.D.
Because of my background, I knew she had to be talking about the Iraq Museum. I had studied the items there. I called my chief of intelligence back in Umm Qasr, Senior Master Sergeant Roberto Pinero, and I said, "Senior, what the hell is she talking about? Find out now!"
"Roger that, sir, got it." He put up the satellite, got online literally, and started downloading all these reports. Sure enough, I read all the reports. IT WAS AS IF STONEHENGE AND THE NATIONAL MALL HAD ALL BEEN DESTROYED IN A SINGLE SWOOP, TEN THOUSAND YEARS OF CIVILIAZATION WIPED OUT IN A SINGLE MOMENT WHILE U.S. FORCES STOOD IDLY BY. I'm quoting newspaper headlines.
Here I was in Basra. I had the only law enforcement, counterterrorism team that the U.S. government had in-country. This was a criminal investigation. And we also had enough firepower to at least secure the museum. So I simply decided this was our mission.
I know sometimes I get painted as this maverick Marine colonel, but one of the things the Marine Corps instills in you is a seize-the-initiative mentality. It is a Marine Corps philosophy that it is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. So, what I was not going to do was file a request in triplicate in order to go to the museum.
Permission was denied from several generals. I finally went to one general who was my direct supervisor, and I told him flat out.
I said, "Sir, you know, everyone else has said no, and I'm coming to you. This is the right thing to do." I told him what I'd learned, that not only was the museum looted under the noses of the U.S. forces, but in fact there were reports that U.S. forces did it.
To his everlasting credit and honor, he said, "I don't care what everyone else says. You work for me. Get your ass up there."
He said, "Can you do it?"
I said, "Yes, sir, I can."
And then he said, "Don't give me your typical Marine B.S. Can you do it? I don't want to hear Marines don't know how to fail." He's an Air Force general.
And I said, "No, sir, we can do this."
Then he said two things. One, he said, "How long do you think it'll take you?" and I did say to him, "Sir, I think I can wrap this up in three to five days." I really said that. I said three to five days. Three years later, I'm with Churchill on this one. We are not even close to the end. We are not even at the beginning of the end. We are perhaps at the end of the beginning.
He said, "Okay. Get up there. And this is a direct order. Don't you get killed because I'm not making that phone call to your wife. Do not get killed."
I said, "Roger that, sir."
Then I said, "Sir, you know these reports about U.S. forces involved in the looting?" I said, "Sir, you know that if I go up there and do an investigation, God help any U.S. forces involved in this in any way. That's how I'm going to handle it."
And his exact reply to me was, "You know that pit bull thing you do in New York?" Pit Bull was that totally unfair nickname that I got in New York for prosecuting Puff Daddy. And he said, "You know that pit bull thing you do in New York? Well, you do that thing in Baghdad and get to the bottom of this." Those were the only instructions he ever gave me.
Cole: What was going on when you got to the museum? What kind of authority was there?
Bogdanos: None, none at all. There was the absence of everything. There was the vacuum that is created in regime change. In many respects we were in what I call the honeymoon period, where you would walk down the street and the biggest danger in some sections was getting hugged too hard. People slapped me on the back and grabbed me and kissed me. This is true. I know you hear these stories-they're not apocryphal. In the south, you couldn't walk down the street without people pulling you by the wrist into their house to serve you tea and to show you photographs of loved ones, usually loved ones who were missing. That was, to a certain extent, true in Baghdad as well.
The problem was, of course, there was also still fighting, still combat. In between Basra and Baghdad, you have Najaf and, of course, Fallujah, and then Ramadi once you got there. It was surreal in the sense that you could never know, from one neighborhood to the next, whether you were going to be hugged or shot at. I'm not overstating that. Obviously, you have to be prepared for the worst.
In Baghdad, unless we were going on raids, I refused to wear a helmet. I felt that a helmet sent the wrong cultural message. It sent the "I don't trust you" message, not unlike mirrored sunglasses on state troopers. I chose to wear my body armor underneath my uniform, which was obviously uncomfortable—again because I thought it sent the wrong message. But we weren't stupid either. We never went anywhere without our weapons, ever. And we never went anywhere unless there were two or four or eight of us at a given time.
When I got to the museum, I continued that practice. Everybody is a suspect, but nobody's treated with suspicion. I know that sounds a little inconsistent, but you could still treat suspects with respect, with openness. That's what I chose to do with the museum staff, who were extraordinary in their reception and their welcoming of the entire team.
Cole: What was going on in the museum during the invasion?
Bogdanos: It is clear that the museum was a fortified military position. That is clear beyond any doubt. We are talking machine gun positions, well prepared, four of them, with interlocking fires. We're talking about boxes of RPGs, shoulder-launched, Iraqi Army, Soviet-built, rocket- propelled grenades, antitank weapons.
Cole: In the museum.
Bogdanos: In the museum compound—boxes that had not yet been fired, and a couple dozen that had already been fired, AK-47s, hand grenades, at least a dozen Special Republican Guard uniforms. None of this should have been surprising to anybody for two reasons. There was a Special Republican Guard compound directly across the street from the museum. Secondly, the museum itself is forty-five thousand square meters; it's eleven acres; it's a dozen different buildings spread across a compound, and it occupies a strategic crossroads in Baghdad. You need to have those crossroads to seize that portion of Baghdad. Militarily it was an important position and it was heavily fortified. According to all the evidence—both the forensic evidence that we found and the interviews of all the neighborhood residents—about 100 to 150 Special Republican Guard fighters fought from the compound. That's a fact. And it took months to prepare it. That's a fact. And they could not have done the military fortifications without the active assistance of the museum staff. That's a fact, and you get nowhere denying that or hiding that.
However, before anyone is too quick to point a finger of condemnation at the museum staff and say, "Oh, look how you violated international law," we should remember the regime under which the museum staff was operating. It is not as if they had a choice. It is not as if any of those museum staff members were asked, "Would you mind terribly if we just set up some machine gun positions here or loaded a cache of weapons here?" It was just done. You have to recognize that.
We have clear evidence that the museum staff handed out AK-47s to staff members and told them to fight the Americans. By the way, that's not illegal. We were an invading force. That's totally consistent with the laws of war.
So it is true and it is accurate to say that the museum staff assisted the preparation of the military fortifications, but they also left on the eighth. In effect, when they left they turned over the museum to the Iraqi army and then combat ensued within the museum compound itself and surrounding that eleven-acre compound for the better part of the next seventy-two hours, from the eighth until about the eleventh.
Cole: There is the unforgettable image of the giant statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad. Art did play a political role. The Baathist regime had tried to use images from their past to bolster its power, harkening back to the kind of styles that were thousands of years old.
Bogdanos: Yes. Hussein ordered Donny George [director of research under Hussein and currently the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities] to do a reconstruction of Babylon.
Cole: On the way to Baghdad, you took a detour to see Babylon, right?
Bogdanos: Oh, we did, we did. The restoration looked like Disneyland. Saddam Hussein found out that Nebuchadnezzar, among others, would inscribe on the bricks that were used in the construction of the walls, "Built by Nebuchadnezzar." Hussein had all of his bricks inscribed, "Built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar." And frequently, there would be portraits of Hussein in Syrian or Babylonian garb.
Cole: With his armor and helmets and things like that?
Bogdanos: Absolutely. It's all part of the personality cult, obviously, but he was trying to convince the people that in fact he was a continuation of the line that began with Sargon and Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.
We were on our way to Baghdad—a smaller team headed for the museum investigation. It was primarily Customs agents for their expertise in smuggling and tracking. As we were driving north—and, remember, this is still combat—I saw that we were going to pass very near Babylon. Alexander the Great couldn't bypass Babylon, and neither could I. Here we were. We were already on a mission for which we had not received official sanction and we were now looking at taking some little grad-student-indulgence kind of tour. I said, "This one's got to be completely voluntary." I pulled everyone aside and I said, "Gentlemen, up ahead is the home of Hammurabi. This is the Old Testament, the Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel." And some of the team were, "Wow, Babylon, I've heard about that," and some of the team were, "Come on, boss. We're going to Baghdad because you promised us action." It wasn't as if every single person in my team was completely sold on the importance of the preservation of our shared cultural heritage.
Bogdanos: I'll confess that I took some liberties. For example, I took them on tour and on one particular patio-and this was awful-on one particular patio, I said, "Right here, gentlemen, in 323 B.C., Alexander the Great died." He did die in Babylon; we're clear on that. That's a fact. It was 323 B.C. I don't know if it was this particular patio. I said, "Right here, you are standing in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. Now let's go down about a hundred feet because you're going to be standing in the footsteps of Hammurabi. You remember Hammurabi, right? Eye for an eye? That's Hammurabi." At the end of the afternoon, we are back in the car driving, and I could hear the guys in the backseat talking to each other like students again, with that sense of wonder and amazement. They got the sense of how important it was, the mission that we were about to begin.
Cole: Then you went on to Baghdad and began the process of recovering works of art there. What did you find?
Bogdanos: You have to understand that there was not a single theft, but there were multiple thefts, and you have to think of them in threes.
First, you have the professionals. They were individuals. We have evidence, mostly anecdotal evidence from interviews, that individuals literally came to Baghdad weeks and months before the war, waiting for the opportunity of a lifetime. They stole many of the items as if they were stealing items from off of a shopping list.
Cole: Did they have customers in mind?
Bogdanos: Almost certainly. You wouldn't steal certain of the pieces without known buyers. The reality is there are pieces that are so universally recognizable, they can't ever surface. The dirty little secret is that there are people who will spend tens of millions of dollars to own a piece of art they can never show to anyone but their closest friends. It's a finite universe, but those people exist. So you have the professionals.
The second set of thefts are the random looters, the neighborhood residents, people who, when the doors were opened, simply flooded the place. Over 90 percent of those items have been recovered, owing exclusively, in my view, to the courage and the integrity and the trust and the conscience of the Iraqi people, who have always invited me into their hearts and into their homes. You have that second.
Then you have the third set of thefts, which is what I call the inside job. I'm with Arthur Conan Doyle on this one. Eliminate the impossible; whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth. It is inconceivable that this third theft-that's the theft of the basement area-was done by anyone other than an insider with an insider's intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage practices. They found—in the most remote regions of the most remote room of the sealed basement—they found the museum's collection of coins and cylinder seals. That had to be an insider.
Putting aside these three separate sets of thefts, you also have the systematic removal of items by the regime and by museum staff members over the course of the last decade or two decades. Those numbers were over sixty thousand separate pieces alone. Sometimes the items were removed for safekeeping. Sometimes they were removed as a life insurance policy. Sometimes they were removed as a ticket out.
One of the things I've learned from the last several years in the Middle East, and in Baghdad in particular, is, if you are ever given a multiple-choice test about the Middle East, and one of the possible answers is "all of the above," always choose "all of the above," always; you will never be wrong. And that was the museum.
Cole: And can you give us an overview about the recovery efforts, what the situation is like now?
Bogdanos: What we've done is—and when I say we, I'm talking about inter-national law enforcement. My skill is surrounding myself with extraordinarily talented people, and then letting them do all the heavy lifting.
Throughout the world, approximately six thousand pieces have been recovered from a combination of strategies. Some were the result of the amnesty program that I instituted in Iraq. Close to two thousand pieces were returned by average Iraqis simply because we asked them to; we enlisted the aid of sheiks and imams and went from mosque to mosque and teahouse to teahouse, drinking more tea than I thought humanly possible, and playing backgammon all day long, and just talking and earning their trust.
Roughly another four thousand—and I have to be rough here simply because some of these investigations are still ongoing—roughly four thousand have been recovered in Iraq and throughout the world pursuant to raids and seizures. By raids, I mean acting on tips received from informants, usually Iraqis, almost always Iraqis, and then acting on that information. And then by seizures, I'm talking about at borders or at Customs at various crossing places.
Cole: What's the single missing piece you want most to have back?
Bogdanos: It's The Lioness Attacking a Nubian. It's on the cover of my book and it is a painful reminder to me. Until this piece and every piece like it is recovered, I am not going to be satisfied, and I will consider my mission in Iraq to have been a failure.
Cole: You're back in New York in the District Attorney's office.
Bogdanos: I can give you very little about what I'm doing now because of the nature of investigations. Any conversation about open investigations necessarily compromises those investigations.
There are investigations going on throughout the world—the U.S., the U.K. and Italy and Jordan in particular—and this is as far as I can go, I'm sorry. I will continue to hunt for antiquities. Destination places are for the most part unchanged. The destination places for the stolen Greek antiquities and the stolen Italian and the stolen Egyptian are much the same as Iraqi antiquities or Mesopotamian, and that is New York, London, Paris, Tokyo.
The transit points, the countries through which they have to go to get exit stamps, and sometimes to get good paper, in other words, to get laundered so that they can surface in auction houses and museum collections, those transit points are also unchanged, and they tend to be Geneva, Beirut, and Dubai. This is pretty well known. But knowing it and actually having sufficient information upon which you can act—in other words, execute a search warrant, go to a judge, and get an order—those are two different things, and that's why these investigations take so long. The people that we're talking about are good at what they do in terms of smuggling and hiding and moving.
Cole: We've heard rumors that there's going to be a movie.
Bogdanos: Warner Brothers has optioned the rights for a movie. This was a hard decision for me to decide to write the book. The Marine Corps does not like people who go to war and write books about themselves. Everyone knows MacArthur stormed the Philippines, and Nimitz won the Battle of Midway, and it was Patton who raced across the Ruhr Valley. Everyone knows that. Name me the general at Iwo Jima. You can't. Or at Okinawa. You can't. Or at the Battle of Belleau Wood. You can't, because it's always the Marines. It was the Marines at the Inchon Reservoir, the Marines at Khe Sanh. And so this is really a hard thing for me to do.
But there were three overarching goals. The first is, I wanted people to understand that Afghanistan and Iraq are each countries of roughly twenty-five million people, people who are extraordinarily appreciative and extraordinarily deserving, appreciative of our efforts and deserving of freedom, and they're good people, people who genuinely care about the same values that we do. It's just the damn 10 percent that monopolize the media because of their horrific acts. So one of the things is I wanted to offer a different perspective on the Afghan and Iraqi people.
The second thing was, I wanted people to be aware of the importance of preserving our shared cultural heritage. Mesopotamia, Ur is the place where Abraham came from, Abraham the patriarch in all three major western religions. The three major religions that are fighting and causing so much bloodshed actually have more in common than they have dissimilarities. Maybe a reminder of our shared beginnings represented by these pieces of our cultural heritage might remind us of that fact.
And my third goal—and it's the reason all my royalties go to the museum—is that I want to assist the museum in any way I can. I want to keep the museum on the map. I don't want the world to breathe a collective sigh of relief—whew, we solved that one, it's fixed now; let's move on to our next crisis. It's the same for the movie.
I made it clear I would not participate in any movie that engaged in reductive dualism, that engaged in politics. I have absolute contempt for people who attempt to politicize something as important as our shared cultural heritage, and I wouldn't participate in a movie that did that.
Warner Brothers' vision for the project is my vision, which is to create an awareness of the cultural devastation and to offer a different perspective on U.S.-Iraq relations and, to a lesser extent, U.S.-Afghan relations.
I guess that's the opening of Huckleberry Finn, where Mark Twain says something to the effect of, "Anyone attempting to find a plot in this story will be prosecuted. Anyone attempting to find a moral will be shot." That's how I feel about people who attempt to inject politics into something as crucially important as classics and antiquities.
Cole: You're not only talking Iraq, but you're talking about the plight of all these cultural patrimonies that are in danger.
Cole: Was there a hopeful moment there?
Bogdanos: Every moment. Every single moment. The people of Afghanistan and Iraq are extraordinary. Every moment we were there, we know in our hearts and forever and always that we were doing the right things for the right reasons. We were doing good things for good people, bad things to bad people. When your mission is to do the right thing for the right reasons, every moment is full of hope.
Cole: You're a man of action and of thought, and I think you made a real contribution to help rescue an important part of our civilization.
Bogdanos: Thank you.