Saturday, November 21, 2009

Digging the Middle East 2: Thieves of Baghdad

As a youngster in New York City, Matthew Bogdanos expected to go into his family's restaurant business. Then, on a whim one day, he tried to enlist in the Marines. The recruiter took one look at his test scores and said: no. He was going to enroll in college and the Marines would then be happy to accept him to the Officer's program

So Bogdanos became the first in his family to attend college. One result was that when 9/11 happened he was a prosecuting attorney in New York, as well as an Marines Reserve officer. Off he went to Afghanistan, among other places.

When the U.S. troops took Iraq and the museum in Baghdad was infamously looted, Bogdanos convinced his superiors that he - a lawyer/warrior with extensive knowledge of classical art and literature - was the perfect man to lead the team to get the stolen art back. And that is the main story of Thieves of Baghdad.

Like everything else in the Middle East, the theft was more complicated than it looked. For example, Bogdanos learned that many of the items were not really stolen. Some were taken by museum staff and others to protect them from the invading Americans. So he had to add diplomat to his job description: convincing Iraqis that the U.S. forces didn't intend to steal the relics for American museums.

The book is fascinating. I just opened at random and found this discussion between Bogdanos and a Lieutenant Colonel he liked:

"Matthew, would you like to join an experimental multiagency counterterrorism unit General Harrell is forming?"
"What is it?" I replied.
"I can't tell you. It's focal point." (meaning a security clearance above top secret, and -- like 99.99 percent of the people -- I didn't have that clearance).
"What will it do?"
"I can't tell you that either."
"You can't tell me where it'll operate either, can you?"
"Sounds good. I'm in."

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