A Rebuttal To “Trafficking In Antiquities During A Time Of War,” And Reply By Author


By Kurt E. Müller, Colonel (ret.)

Rebuttal to “Trafficking in Antiquities During A Time Of War”

Bruce Richardson raises an important issue regarding the protection, trafficking, and exploitation of cultural patrimony. Aspects of this issue range across research, polemics, and litigation in attempts to document loss, return treasures, or on the other hand prevent restitution or repatriation. Richardson properly decries cultural looting, but we must distinguish among causes to reach agreement on protective steps.

The most nefarious and destructive action is the result of cultural warfare, in which a belligerent deliberately destroys the heritage of another culture. Targets may be religious, literary, or linguistic artifacts, artistic styles, or even written human thought. South Asia has seen successive religious buildings destroyed and replaced by Hindu temples or Islamic mosques. In the Balkans, mosques were frequent targets of Serbian partisans, the sight of these ruins all the more poignant in their proximity to Orthodox churches. We see an older parallel in the conversion of the Greek Orthodox Hagia Sophia into a mosque before it became a museum. Within Christianity, destruction of saints’ images occurred in two waves, one early in church history, a second as a byproduct of the Reformation. The Abrahamic prohibition against graven images underlies both Christian iconoclasm and the Taliban’s destruction of the buddhas of Bamiyan.

A second threat, notable in conflicts to remove a repressive regime, is that the citizens of that regime see its fall as an opportunity to raid the symbols of oppressive power. That U.S. forces failed to protect Iraq’s national treasures from its own citizenry may be cause to indict the leadership that allowed these events to unfold, but holding senior civilian leadership accountable requires public pressure. The 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Patrimony asserts the responsibility to protect cultural artifacts, but it is telling that the U.S. Senate did not ratify this treaty until 2008. If one looks to WW II, there is little solace in recognizing that the British destruction of Dresden was a clear violation of a 1907 Hague Convention.

A difficulty in Richardson’s presentation arises in unsubstantiated allegations that American troops are protected by national-security arguments. Specialized Military Police Customs personnel screen returning troops, and from my experience, these agents are more thorough than tourists typically encounter. Moreover, officials in military post offices examine the contents of packages for contraband before they are sealed and mailed. The officials may not be as well trained as the typical Customs agent, which I suspect from two experiences: (1) a colleague was unable to ship home a jacket she bought in Afghanistan because she couldn’t prove the fur was not from an endangered species and (2) when I returned from Southwest Asia in 1991, I mailed a duffle bag that did not make it home. A postal inspector, who was also a reservist in my unit, explained that postal officials encountered enough contraband that they probably destroyed the bag in the fear that I was trying to send home something prohibited. Troops should be accountable, even if it takes years to discover their misdeeds. One of the great references to the protection of cultural patrimony is Lynn Nicholas’s Rape of Europa, which documents activities of U.S. and allied troops in discovering hidden art treasures and preserving monuments at risk from bombardment and exposure to the elements. In her recent review of William Honan’s Treasure Hunt, Nicholas notes “the virtually total absence of conscience in the art world,” with museums, dealers, and art auctioneers eager to profit from looted art. Honan sought to track the Quedlinburg Treasures, which then-U.S. Army Lieutenant Joe Tom Meador stole from a German cathedral at the end of WW II, and which finally returned home in 1993 from the small town of Whitewright, Texas. Richardson also decries destruction of cultural sites by U.S. aerial bombardment. I would ask for specifics on this claim, because Targeting Boards try to avoid destroying sites of cultural interest.

Countering the opportunistic looting of national treasures by local citizens requires an indigenous sense that these artifacts are worthy of reverence. In Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy has brought international scholars before Afghan audiences to make them aware of their own patrimony. This task is necessary in circumstances where a previous regime, the Taliban, did their best to destroy pre-Islamic artifacts as undermining their view of an Islamic Afghan society.

It may be that advocates of preservation must exert continual pressure on government agencies to address these issues. The U.S. began its effort in WW II as part of training civil affairs soldiers for occupation duty. But had it not been for a commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, we might not have had a spotlight to ensure we did not engage in the cultural looting that the Nazis did systematically, using as their model the Napoleonic Campaigns. Despite the excoriation heaped on the professionals who supported the rapacious artistic appetites of Hitler, Göring, et al., they may well have been less thorough than their Napoleonic progenitors. One might think that with the Senate’s ratification, a half century late, of the 1954 Convention, we are now poised to take the high road of moral authority and protect art, archives, architecture, and literature, but there are no longer billets in military organizations for personnel to address this topic specifically. In a time of Defense-budget austerity, there may well be arguments that we cannot afford the luxury of such personnel, but we have a treaty obligation to ensure we protect patrimony in future conflict.

Kurt E. Müller, Ph.D.
Colonel, US Army Civil Affairs Corps (ret.)

The author replies:

While many of the points articulated by Dr. Müller are well-taken, as history avers, however, infractions of international law, treaty and convention do occur.

Armed with a computer, an enterprising, curious and open-minded researcher while marshaling recognized Internet search engines and activist websites (antiwar.com , for example) and blunt, penetrating, sobering books by best-selling, fully accredited authors Peter Dale Scott, Eric S. Margolis, and Alfred W. McCoy, can easily document innumerable instances of breaches in international law, violations as documented by and derived from open multi-media sources attesting to the trafficking in cultural contraband and opium, air-bombardment and drone missile attack of Afghanistan’s cultural sites and dense population centers, notwithstanding that as noted by Dr. Müller, are proscribed targets under international agreement.

Disclosure of government wrongdoing, as we have noted when assessing reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, are initially denied by the Pentagon or other government spokespersons, or that those killed or injured are routinely cast as “militants and or terrorists.” Yet, thanks to a number of courageous investigative journalists writing for the Internet and print-media, these stories and other reports of illegal or unethical military activity in zones of conflict are often shared with the public as unvarnished renditions from the war front … much to the chagrin of officialdom busily engaged in marginalizing dissent while espousing the merits of war to the American people.

Regarding customs inspections, a look to history and the Vietnam War serves admirably as a template for Afghanistan, corroborating media reports of the likelihood of identical illegal activity in the Afghanistan theatre of war. According to numerous open multi-media sources, military aircraft routinely operate outside normal customs channels and have been and are cited for complicity in the trafficking of cultural antiquities, arms, and yes, even opium.

As historians’ works representing and encompassing the 19th century British Raj and the more recent Soviet/Afghan War have clearly articulated, is that these infractions of law during war are not without documented, historical precedent, and perhaps therefore folly to assume that the US-led NATO Contingent’s “war on terror” chapter in world history will read any differently.

As the history of war portends, the unseemly side of war is often kept secret and much has been kept hidden from public scrutiny and discourse for reasons of marginalizing dissent, political expediency and often under the sacred, inviolable rubric of “national security.” But thanks to an independent press and the Internet, public awareness of government malfeasance has increased dramatically.

Concern for Afghanistan’s cultural integrity does not necessarily reflect an indictment of the US Military or Government. Aberrations in policy decisions and their implementation in war do occur, but are rare. However, the public would be better served to be possessed of an open mind and remain cautious in assessing and processing government pronouncements from the war zones and demanding accountability therefrom. As the US is a signatory to a number of international instruments and codicils affording cultural protections for the Afghans, it is incumbent upon the world community to demand compliance and accountability for the continued preservation of international instruments and conventions upon which our sense of humanitarian concerns rest.

Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is sacrosanct, its historic and cultural DNA, and must therefore be afforded the utmost in international monitoring and protection from the unscrupulous for-profit dealer/collector/constituency.


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

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