Students applaud ‘Thieves of Baghdad’ author

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.


Aug. 27, 2013

By STARLA POINTER of the News-Register

Linfield College students applauded “Thieves of Baghdad” author Matthew Bogdanos twice during the school’s convocation Friday — once when he finished his gripping story of serving in Afghanistan and tracking down treasures looted from the Iraq Museum, and again after Linfield President Thomas Hellie thanked him for all he’d done to preserve priceless antiquities.

The students, mostly freshmen and transfers who were required to start their Linfield experience by reading Bogdanos’ book, also took to his messages to heart.

Don’t be either/or, the Marine veteran and attorney said. Combine intellectual pursuits with action and develop a broad perspective on the world, he said.

Make errors of commission, rather than omission. Don’t regret what you failed to do.

“Don’t be a half-formed person,” said Bogdanos, who holds a degree in classics from Bucknell University, along with a law degree from Columbia University, a master’s in classical studies from Columbia and a master’s strategic studies from the Army War College.

He addressed the new students, their parents, faculty members and Linfield supporters at the college’s traditional opening program.

The crowd also was greeted by Hellie, Dean of Faculty Susan Agre-Kippenhan and alumnus Susan Maben Davis, president of the Parents Council Leadership Team. Faculty members marched in wearing academic regalia.

At the end of the event, the faculty formed a gauntlet to greet students, who had just picked up acorns symbolic of the potential growth that awaits them over the next four years.

“Thieves of Baghdad” was chosen as this year’s book for the college’s PLACE initiative, PLACE standing for Program in the Liberal Arts and Civic Engagement. It will serve as a springboard for discussions and special programs all year.

In his Linfield address, as in his book, Bogdanos told the story of being called back to active duty with the Marines after 9/11. He was made part of a multi-agency counter-terrorism task force.

He spent time in Afghanistan, where he found the people remarkably warm and hospitable, but the Taliban’s atrocities even worse than he’d expected. “Islam is a glorious religion, but not in the hands of the Taliban,” he said.

Everything you’ve heard about the Taliban’s abuses of women is true, Bogdanos said, but it pales in comparison to its abuses of children.

As an example, he told of one girl, about 11 years old, who was whipped in the face as punishment for learning to read the Koran on her own. “Think on this when you don’t feel like studying,” he told the Linfield students.

In 2003, Bogdanos was in Iraq tracking down terrorist networks when he heard about the looting of the national museum. Like every other building and agency with ties to Saddam Hussein’s government, it was the target of horrific violence.

Iraqi people didn’t understand what the museum contained, he said. Rather than recognizing it as a repository of history, they referred to it as “Saddam’s Gift Shop.”

When he took on the job of tracking restoring the items to the museum, he implemented an amnesty policy, promising to ask no questions when Iraqis returned items.

But it took some convincing, he said. During Saddam’s reign, antiquities thieves had been beheaded.

Bogdanos drank a lot of tea and played a lot of Backgammon with natives in order to get to know them and win their trust. Even so, most of the people who returned items claimed they had simply taken them for safekeeping.

He recalled only one man admitting his guilt and apologizing — and the sculpture he returned turned out to be a gift-shop copy.

Eventually, Bogdanos and his team recovered thousands of priceless antiquities — plus some of Saddam’s more horrific treasures, such as solid gold AK-47s, plywood boxes of gold bars and $800,000 million in $100 bills.

Proudly, he showed photos of some of the most historically valuable items to the Linfield crowd: a golden bull’s head from 2,600 B.C.; the Mask of Warka from about 3,100 B.C., representing the first realistic depiction of the human face; the Bassetki Statue, cast from copper more than 2,000 years before Christ; the Sacred Vase of Warka, which was returned in the same 14 pieces it was discovered in back in 1940.

He also showed photos of the fabled Treasures of Nimrud, some 62,000 pieces of which were recovered. It’s an amazing, irreplaceable collection, he said — one that “makes the treasure from King Tut’s tomb look like it came from Walmart.”