Shoot 'n' Loot

— When cities and countries fall, looting is common. Students of history can cite the Rape of Nanking, the Sack of Rome, the burning of Atlanta. The difference between these conquests and the fall of Baghdad is that usually the looting was done by the conquering army. Historically, rape and pillage are perks of the job.

American armies have a good historical record in this regard, but even we have been known to pick up a few items from time to time. The last installment of Band of Brothers shows American paratroopers from "The Greatest Generation" systematically looting Bertchesgaden for mementos of the Third Reich. Guys were sending home paintings, silver sets, jewelry. Somewhere in Montana is an aging ex-paratrooper whose most prized possession is Hitler's photo album.

Among the GIs who went into Baghdad were members of the very same 101st Airborne Division featured in that great television miniseries. These guys didn't loot.

But nobody asked them to prevent anyone else from looting. My surmise is that the American military was so proud that it had taken significant steps to protect the infrastructure, it never occurred to them that the Iraqis themselves would destroy it.

We've been treated to a series of news and opinion articles slagging the Rumsfeld Pentagon for failure to protect the Iraqi National Museum. It has been pointed out, ad nauseam, that those stupid jerks in the military have no regard for culture, and the proof is that they allowed these precious artifacts to be stolen or broken.

I might be more sympathetic to that view if any of them had mentioned it beforehand. No one in the press, in Congress, in entertainment -- nobody who had the public ear -- sounded any alarm whatsoever that the Iraqi museum, or indeed Iraqi furniture and appliance stores, were in any danger from Iraqi citizens.

Several curators have pointed out that they both wrote to and visited the Pentagon beforehand in hopes of heading off this disaster. They expected the museum looting because the Iraqi museums had been looted before, after the Gulf War. The antiquities market was flooded with these items for years.

An old friend, a senior Special Forces NCO now in Kuwait, writes, "The Iraqi museum, as was reported/confirmed in the news yesterday, was looted by Iraqi elitists with the assistance of those in the know that worked there. This well before US/Coalition forces got to Baghdad.

"This is true. I was there during an escort two weeks ago and listened in on the conversations about this. The head curator was VERY nervous...and he should have been...he'd been in on both the looting and the whining/complaining/fingerpointing at the U.S. in its aftermath.

"Saddam & Company, as I told the New York Times, are the real looters of this country."

He goes on, "The Iraqi museum was likewise a Special Republican Guard command center. During fighting for the city, the Third Infantry Division saw serious RPG fire at our forces come from it.

"Like all other 'civilian' sites, to include mosques and schools, the hard-core forces of Saddam's regime simply moved into these places, lock, stock, and barrel, to protect themselves from bombing. The 'curators' well knew this and were, in many cases -- to include this one -- senior players in the Ba'ath Party and therefore hand in hand with the Special Republican Guard/ Special Security Organization and others within the inner circle.

"Essentially, 'they' looted the museum and then set up in it to conduct command and control, and, eventually, combat operations at the small unit level against our guys."

I'm guessing that the notion of personal responsibility does not loom large in Arab cultures. The ones at the bottom do what they're told; the ones at the top feather their own nests. When the pressure of Saddam's regime was lifted, people just went crazy. It was klepto Mardi Gras. Who knew?

Probably the Special Forces guys painting targets in Baghdad knew. But they had other worries, and they didn't get any letters from the curators. The first thing any Special Forces unit does when it receives a mission is to perform an area assessment. The SF Groups are targeted toward specific areas: the 10th toward Europe, 1st toward the Far East, 5th toward the Middle East, and so on. Each Group maintains a large library of books and films about their area. SF Operators are encouraged to read and view this stuff in their all-but-nonexistent free time. When an A-team, or cluster of teams, gets a mission, they are put in isolation for a couple of weeks and spend much of that time boning up on their specific area. Ideally, when deployed, they know the terrain, the socioeconomic picture, and the names and characteristics of all the major players they will encounter. Hopefully, they already speak the relevant languages, but if not, then they start learning how to be polite, which varies more widely from culture to culture than one might think.

My area was Southeast Asia. The only carryover from there to the Middle East is that Arab culture and Muslim culture are probably as different from ours as Thai culture and Cambodian culture, and those are very different from ours indeed.

But I spent a couple of months in the Mideast covering wars in Israel and Lebanon. Those are the two most westernized countries in the region, and even there the differences blew my mind.

When I first got to Beirut in '81, I asked Samir, a press liaison officer from the Lebanese Forces militia, what Arab people were like. His reply was that they were a very warm and embracing people, which I found to be true. I also found that their emotional range ran from warm to white hot. Several times, during the few weeks I was there, I saw Beirutis completely lose it in conversation and go into a raving, screaming fit that could last for as long as ten minutes. No one seemed to find this odd; everybody else would just sit quietly until the raver ran down. Then the conversation would go on as before.

Shortly after I left, I read in the paper where two guys in Beirut got into an argument over a parking space. Very quickly it escalated to the point that they went back to their cars, got their AKs, and hosed each other down in the middle of the street.

On the other hand, when it's over, it's over. When I met Sam he was fighting the Palestinians in Lebanon and allied with the Israelis. Now, his sympathy is totally with the Palestinians.

Wars in the Middle East are cruel in ways that seem almost incomprehensible to Americans.

And before I proceed, let me point out that Middle Easterners feel pretty much the same way about strategic bombing. Americans seem to feel that if you can kill a whole bunch of people from 30,000 feet, where you can't see them, that it's just some sort of snazzy video game. This view is not shared by those underneath.

On the other hand, personal torture is common. All sides insist the other side started it.

The very first Lebanese Forces agent I met in Cyprus, going into Beirut, told me, "Once we captured a Syrian. I tied him behind my jeep and drove him all over East Beirut. When I stopped there was no more left of him than this." We were having dinner at the time, and he held up his plate, a half-eaten seafood dinner. Couldn't have been more graphic. He went on, "I don't like to think I could have ever been like that. When I go home now, I don't even like the boys to tell me their stories." I'm sure he didn't. He was a nice kid with an engineering degree from Oklahoma State.

I once knew a mercenary named Bob. When he was trying to put together a merc op, I'd get wonderful cryptic letters from him, in the elliptical language used as code by mercs and dope smugglers. He'd say things like, "We've got a contract to go down there and do some things. I need a few guys with skills. Know anybody who might be interested?"

I was supposed to know where "down there" was and what "some things" meant. Sometimes I did. Last I heard he had escaped from prison in Brazil after having been busted in Venezuela with a boatload of arms he was taking to Ghana. Somehow -- actually I know how, but I ain't talkin' -- he escaped through Brasilia to Paraguay.

At one point Bob went to Beirut, looking for work. While he was there a Lebanese Christian girl got a crush on him. "She was attractive enough, but too giggly and silly," he said. That was his first assessment.

One night he was prowling the building, looking for her brother, who was his contact. He inadvertently opened the wrong door. Inside he saw a Palestinian militiaman chained to the wall, surrounded by several Lebanese Christians. Bob's giggly schoolgirl was cutting his fingers off with bolt cutters.

Bob left Beirut shortly after that.

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