NEW YORK *#8211; The man who led the investigation into the looting of Iraq*#8217;s National Museum in 2003, and was subsequently awarded the National Humanities Medal for his efforts, came from humble beginnings, and credits his passion for Ancient Greek ideals as the guiding light which led him to become a colonel in the United States Marine Corps and also a prosecutor under longtime Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
Matthew Bogdanos, the son of a now-retired Greek restaurateur, told the National Herald, in no uncertain terms, that pride in his heritage has been a driving force in his life. He also said good guidance helped him learn the art and virtue of obedience and create structure in his life, structure which ultimately helped him write his book, *#8220;Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine*#8217;s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World*#8217;s Greatest Stolen Treasures,*#8221; a firsthand account of his wartime experiences in Iraq, the royalties of which all go to the Iraq Museum.
*#8220;I got out of high school, and the plan was to work in the restaurant. But the one thing I really wanted to do was become a professional boxer. I wasn*#8217;t good enough to turn pro. But that was my plan: boxing and the restaurant. My life can be looked at as a series of things I wasn*#8217;t good enough to do. I wasn*#8217;t good enough to be a professional boxer, and I wasn*#8217;t smart enough to be a Ph.D. I would just hit the limit of my abilities, and I*#8217;d move onto another area,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;If I couldn*#8217;t be a boxer, what other Greek ideals could I live? So I turned to the Marine Corps. It was a challenge. It was an obstacle to overcome. I bought into all the ads about the few and the proud, and I viewed the Marines as the living embodiment of the Greek ideal of the warrior culture. The Marines pride themselves on honor, courage and commitment. If you read Thucydides and Herodotus, they wrote about the same ideals,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;The Corps has a required reading list for its officers. You must read certain books if you want to be an officer in the Marines. Thucydides and Herodotus are on that list. And the reason I went to college was because my Marine commander gave me an order. He said, *#8216;Apply to college.*#8217; And I said, *#8216;Yes sir.*#8217; I had no intention of going to law school when I got out of college, either. When I graduated, a different commander asked me why, with my grades, I hadn*#8217;t yet applied to law school, so I did. I went to college and applied to law school because a marine told me to do it. It*#8217;s not a very sophisticated story, but that*#8217;s why I did it. I had extraordinary leaders and mentors who guided me in what to do,*#8221; he added.
Mr. Bogdanos is a native New Yorker. His father Constandenos was born in the United States. His paternal grandparents, Tassos and Kyriaki, were originally from the island of Limnos. His mother Claire is of French origin. He has three brothers, Mark (his fraternal twin), Constantine and David, all of whom now own and operate restaurants in New Jersey.
Mr. Bogdanos started working as an assistant DA under Mr. Morgenthau in 1988. He and his wife Claudia reside in New York and have four children, Michael, Diana, Jason and Nicole, all of whom were baptized at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manhattan, the same church where he was baptized.
Mr. Bogdanos attended Don Bosco Preparatory High School, and waited tables in his family*#8217;s Greek restaurant while growing up in lower Manhattan.
He graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Classics from Bucknell University in 1980, *#8220;the only school I applied to.*#8221; He also holds a Recognition of Achievement in International Law from the Parker School of International Law, a law degree and a master*#8217;s degree in Classics from Columbia University, and a master*#8217;s degree in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.
He had previously gained national attention in 2001 for trying the case against Sean *#8220;Puff Daddy*#8221; Combs on weapons and bribery charges in relation to a 1999 nightclub shootout. He still boxes *#8211; for charity *#8211; for the New York City Police Department*#8217;s Widows *amp; Children*#8217;s Fund, and his nickname is *#8220;Pit Bull.*#8221;
Mr. Bogdanos was on active duty in 1980-88 and 2001-05, and was a reservist from 1988 to 2001. He served his country in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and was awarded a Bronze Star. He is still in the Reserves.
During a very candid interview, the Herald learned Mr. Bogdanos thinks Shakespeare is the world*#8217;s second greatest poet *#8211; *#8220;Homer is unquestionably the greatest, just like the New York Yankees are unquestionably the greatest team in sports history*#8221; *#8211; that he deeply reveres Aeschylus and Socrates; and that Winston Churchill is one of his heroes.
He also discussed his experiences during his tours in Iraq, and talked about the connection between the recovery of stolen antiquities in Iraq and the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
In Iraq, he said, the looting, smuggling and trafficking of antiquities were a source of revenue for the insurgency, as well as a crime against the country*#8217;s cultural heritage.
*#8220;I*#8217;m always leery of putting percentages or dollar amounts on illicit activity because, by its very nature, it*#8217;s clandestine. Every time I see something like *#8216;$6 billion in heroin trade,*#8217; my response is, how do you know? If you really know how much it is, then you*#8217;d know where it is and what routes it*#8217;s traveling through, and you*#8217;d put a stop to it,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;But if you*#8217;re going to put antiquities trafficking in the top three sources of funding for insurgents in Iraq, it*#8217;s probably third. That*#8217;s pretty arbitrary, though. Just because it may rank third, it doesn*#8217;t mean antiquities trafficking generates one third of the revenue. And don*#8217;t forget, you still have Iranian funding,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;Having said that, antiquities are available in almost limitless supply in Iraq, just like opium is in Afghanistan. The Taliban use opium. It*#8217;s their cash crop. At one point, when we first discovered the connection, it was the Sunnis and al Quaeda who were using antiquities, and that has more recently transitioned to Shi*#8217;ite militias *#8211; radical fundamentalists who use antiquities as a source of financing,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;Again, antiquities trafficking is not their number-1 source of revenue. Extortion in the form of protection payments and kidnappings for ransom are still their main sources of funding. But since the more traditional sources *#8211; sham charities and Internet collections *#8211; have been dramatically reduced, antiquities trafficking in Iraq, and more recently in Lebanon with Hezbollah, has filled the vacuum,*#8221; he added.
Mr. Bogdanos said he became more sensitive to the significance of stolen antiquities and the adverse impact the looting thereof has on a country*#8217;s cultural heritage after 2003.
*#8220;Prior to 2003, I really did fall prey to the prevalent view of what is now considered looting. I*#8217;d go to the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art), or I*#8217;d read about Heinrich Schliemann, the German treasure hunter who discovered Troy, but I didn*#8217;t look at the looting component to it. Looting is just another term for stealing, and we shouldn*#8217;t lose sight of the fact that what we*#8217;re talking about is stealing. It*#8217;s fair to say that prior to 2003, to my shame, I didn*#8217;t really view the removal of cultural heritage from its country of origin as stealing,*#8221; he said, noting that the looting of the Museum in Baghdad was the definite tripping point which sparked his interest in combating the problem.
When he was asked to recount some of his more memorable experiences about the antiquities-recovery effort of his task force, Mr. Bogdanos recalled how he had to persuade his men about how crucial their mission really was; how they eventually came to the realization that, yes, it was very important; and that being of Greek heritage and playing backgammon with locals helped him cultivate relationships and form bonds with Iraqi people, bonds which were instrumental in the antiquities recovery effort.
*#8220;I spent years in Iraq, so it*#8217;s hard to narrow it down, but when we first began recovering looted antiquities, my team and I were in southern Iraq. I was heading up a task force. These were seasoned, combat-hardened veterans, some of whom had fought in Vietnam. The youngest guy on the team was probably 35. I didn*#8217;t have an archaeologist or an academic on the team. Many were from the same team I had in Afghanistan. We had counter-terrorism experts from a dozen different agencies *#8211; CIA, FBI, DEA, Customs and others *#8211; as well as all four branches of the military. Tracking terrorist activity was our job. And we were pretty successful in what we were learning as we were tracking down terrorists and capturing them,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;When the looting of the Iraqi Museum occurred, I decided that, since I had cops on my team, I needed to convince them this was something important. We didn*#8217;t know about the insurgency-financing connection at the time, and I couldn*#8217;t use that as an example, so I tried the important sweep of history; the fact that we*#8217;re talking about the cradle of Biblical civilization. That didn*#8217;t resonate very well initially. Then I tried using the argument about the good will we would be generating among the Iraqi people when they saw we were putting our lives on the line for their cultural heritage, and that worked a little better,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;As we were moving north from the Basra area to Baghdad, we passed Babylon. So I took my team for a slight detour through Babylon and showed them around for a couple of hours. I took some literary license, but I said to my men, *#8216;Guys, you understand that we*#8217;re standing on the site of the Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar. This is the spot. The Code of Hammurabi, an eye for an eye (Exodus 21.23-27), the Old Testament *#8211; you*#8217;re looking at it right here.*#8217; Then I stood on another spot and said, *#8216;Do you understand that, in 323 BC, Alexander the Great died right here in Babylon?*#8217; That*#8217;s when the expanse and relevance of history started getting to them. They started getting onboard. They weren*#8217;t just following my orders. They started to genuinely care. And seeing the difference in their attitude and behavior after Babylon was an eye-opening time for me because I realized, *#8216;Wow. Some of these guys have never been to a museum in their life, and here they are willing to risk their lives for another country*#8217;s cultural heritage,*#8217; whereas previously they were referring to antiquities as antiques,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;So we get to Baghdad, and one of the first recoveries we made *#8211; I think it was our second day there *#8211; was a Sixth Millennium BC clay pot, something that predates the wheel by 2,500 years, and yet it was perfectly and gorgeously round. It had this geometric, linear design on the outside *#8211; burnt okra in straight diagonal lines forming something like tiger teeth *#8211; and I handed it to my second in-command, a customs agent who had fought in Vietnam *#8211; this guy had seen it all, right? *#8211; and told him that pot is 7-8 thousand years old, and that it might just be the first pot of its kind ever made. *#8216;Steve, You*#8217;re holding it in your hand.*#8217; All of a sudden, he looks at it and starts holding it like he was cradling a newborn baby. And you could see his eyes opening wide. He was turning it gently, looking at all the sides. And he called the other guys, telling them to take a picture of him with it really quick. And then the guys started lining up saying, *#8216;me next, me next.*#8217; Can you imagine? Here were 45-50-year-old men saying, *#8216;Me next. I want to hold it.*#8217; And you could actually see the transformation, the metamorphosis, taking place. From that moment on, many of them got it. And I needed them to get it because they were going to engage in actions that were going to place their lives at risk for a piece of alabaster,*#8221; he added.
Mr. Bogdanos and his men also made a point of convincing the residents of Baghdad that they really do care about the Iraqi people because they care about Iraq*#8217;s cultural heritage. In the process, they found common ground.
*#8220;We lived at the Museum. I was almost a permanent resident there. One of the first things we did was to announce a countrywide amnesty program. We went over the radio, television and newspapers; we went to every mosque in Baghdad we could find. Sunni, Shi*#8217;ite *#8211; every single sheik and imam we met offered to help us. That*#8217;s extraordinary when you think about it. We sent out a simple message: These living, breathing testaments to a shared cultural heritage predate the split between Sunni and Shi*#8217;ite Muslims. They predate the split between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Abraham is the patriarch of all three major religions, in whose name so much blood is shed, but Abraham himself is yet another reminder of how much we all have in common. Our shared cultural heritage is universal. It*#8217;s transcendent. The Golden Bull*#8217;s head from the city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham (now in southeastern Turkey), is not Jewish; it*#8217;s not Christian; it*#8217;s not Muslim,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;Again, the simple message was, this matters; we are going to help you preserve it; and the Iraqi people are the rightful owners and caretakers of it today. If you bought it; if you found it; if it accidentally found its way into your possession; or even if you stole it, bring it back. No questions asked. The response was truly overwhelming. From the first of April until early November of 2003, almost 2,000 different pieces were returned by almost 2,000 different people for almost 2,000 different reasons,*#8221; he said.
GRAD SCHOOL WITH BULLETS
*#8220;We also went to every teahouse and coffee house we could find. I drank more tea than I thought humanly possible in six lifetimes (chuckles). Being Greek helped me very much. I was in uniform. My name was on the front of my shirt, and the locals could see my name. I would introduce myself as a U.S. Marine colonel, and then they would invariably see my name, and could identify that I was a Greek American. And this indicated to them that I had a genuine appreciation for their cultural heritage. I enlisted the aid of Iraqis to teach me about their culture, and many of them did. In effect, one way of looking at my whole first tour in Iraq is to call it *#8216;grad school with bullets.*#8217; I learned as much or more from my time in Baghdad than I did at Columbia,*#8221; he said, adding that he elected to demonstrate he was willing to trust the local populace by not wearing a helmet, and thereby earned their trust.
Mr. Bogdanos also played backgammon with shop owners and their customers. It was all part of an effort to relate to people on a human level, a move which paid off, even to the extent that he and his company would get tipped off about locations to avoid.
*#8220;We became very well known in Baghdad. I refused to wear a helmet. It was a personal choice. I don*#8217;t have any interest in dying, and I understand helmets save lives. But I don*#8217;t like the mixed message a helmet sends, and General Petraeus doesn*#8217;t wear one, either. It was a calculated decision on my part. I wanted to show the Iraqi people that I trusted them. When we received intelligence from a local Iraqi about where we might find weapons and antiquities, I would wear a helmet during a raid. But otherwise, I didn*#8217;t,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;It paid off in different ways. There were times when we received advance warnings about various locations we shouldn*#8217;t go to because of a possible ambush or kidnapping attack. We were very visible. We lived at the Museum. We traveled in white civilian SUV*#8217;s. And I walked a lot. I*#8217;m not a fan of vehicles when you*#8217;re talking about combating urban insurgencies. I believe in walking *#8211; the cop on the beat; learning the rhythm of the neighborhood; who belongs where; which family has how many kids; and how long that caf*eacute; has been in the family business. Or why are there no people on the street today when there were several hundred yesterday? That*#8217;s bad juju,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;One of the best things about being Greek relates to the fact that they play a lot of tavli (backgammon) in Iraq, and so I would go into a place and say, *#8216;The Greeks invented tavli, so I*#8217;m sure I*#8217;ll be able to beat you.*#8217; Actually, the Persians invented it, but we would have very spirited games, sometimes lasting for hours, all the while developing bonds of trust and exchanging information,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;While playing tavli, an Iraqi would often tell us under his breath that the guy across the street on the second floor had a stash of antiquities and a box of AK-47*#8217;s. It was all about doing what any good investigative journalist or cop would do, only we were doing it in Baghdad. I wasn*#8217;t stupid about it. I never went anywhere unarmed. I always had my rifle and my pistol with me. I drew the line there. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald says, *#8216;It*#8217;s not always easy to do away with the necessities of life.*#8217; As a soldier in the U.S. military, my necessities included weapons,*#8221; he added.
Asked to connect the effort to recover antiquities in Iraq with efforts to have the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, Mr. Bogdanos said the Greek Government*#8217;s momentous decision to build the New Acropolis Museum helped put the issue squarely back into the lime light, and has taken the wind out of the British Museum*#8217;s sails.
*#8220;The Greek Government*#8217;s decision to build the new Acropolis Museum *#8211; arguably the most gorgeous museum in the world *#8211; before the sculptures are returned was a brilliant move, for a host of reasons. First, It put the issue right back in the spotlight, and brought it back to the forefront of public awareness. Second, it highlights the emptiness. I*#8217;ve been to the Parthenon many times. But I never realized how indiscriminate Lord Elgin had been until I saw the exhibit in the New Acropolis Museum. I hadn*#8217;t realized that he took one leg here, a torso there or a foot there. It wasn*#8217;t as if he took entire pieces. Rape is the only verb that comes to mind when you walk away from that,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;The exhibit is brilliantly curated because you see portions of things Elgin did not take, and then you see what*#8217;s missing in-between. You see the lower leg of one piece; the thigh is gone, but the torso is there. The one thing I would have done differently is color-code it by location *#8211; tell people where the missing pieces are now *#8211; and increase the pressure on the other museums to start returning them more vigorously,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;By building the new Acropolis Museum, Greece continues to keep the issue in the news cycle, and it highlights for the world what the real ramifications are for robbing a country of its cultural heritage. It also takes away one of the British Government*#8217;s main arguments: *#8216;We can protect it better.*#8217; That argument is well-taken. If you look at the sculptures that were left on the Parthenon, you see that they*#8217;re pitted. They*#8217;ve been exposed to oxidation. Gas fumes, air pollution and acid rain have all taken their toll over the centuries. You can*#8217;t get around that. You can*#8217;t disregard that argument. You have to accept it. But it*#8217;s no longer a valid argument because the New Acropolis Museum is a state-of-the-art facility,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;The other argument that more people see them in London than they would in Athens *#8211; well, that*#8217;s not true. Maybe more British people do. And even if it was true, so what? Then why don*#8217;t we take everything from Iraq and put it in the British Museum, too? I was asked to speak at the British Parliament in March of 2004 *#8211; to both the House of Lords and the House of Commons *#8211; on the Iraq Museum, and what lessons it had to offer us about the Elgin Marbles. And I told them, it*#8217;s a mirror that puts Elgin*#8217;s actions in a different light, and shows what Elgin*#8217;s actions really represented. It was not some kind of beneficent or victimless safekeeping, but a real theft which, arguably under the mores of the time, had some justification,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;As a lawyer, you could certainly argue in court that there was some*#8230; minor justification*#8230; but whatever those justifications were are long gone now. One example that comes to mind is, I live in Manhattan on the Lower West Side. It*#8217;s a nice building. Nothing special. And crime is way down now. But 10-20 years ago, there was a lot of crime in my neighborhood. It wasn*#8217;t particularly safe. Fifteen years ago, I bought a stereo. It wasn*#8217;t very nice, but it was all I could afford at the time. I brought it into an apartment building that had experienced a rash of burglaries. I*#8217;m absolutely certain that that stereo would have been far safer in Orange County or Greenwich, Connecticut. But did that justify anyone breaking into my apartment, or even being invited in, and taking my stereo? No, of course not. If it*#8217;s not justified on the personal individual level, how can it possibly be justified on the national sovereignty level, while at the same time professing respect for national sovereignty? So for all those reasons, the British Government no longer has any valid basis for maintaining the Parthenon sculptures,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;Let me qualify that. There are several strategic approaches that need to be taken. Number one, the British can*#8217;t be castigated or lionized for what they did. There has to be recognition on the part of the Greek Government, and even the international community, for what they did. They deserve to be thanked for preserving those priceless works of art. Forget whatever else you think, just say *#8216;thank you from the bottom of our hearts for preserving them.*#8217; Number two, there has to be some kind of reasonable assurance that this isn*#8217;t opening Pandora*#8217;s Box; that this isn*#8217;t the beginning of the unraveling of Penelope*#8217;s spool of wool. It has to stop somewhere because the fear is that every single major museum in the world can also be denuded of anything it may possess. What are you going to do? Are you going to take back everything Napoleon took? Everything Rockefeller bought? From a strategic perspective, there has to be some level of assurance that this isn*#8217;t going to precipitate a death by a thousand cuts. Number three, if the British Government were to require, for its own legal and face-saving measures, that they retain ownership, and that the Greek Government gets it on permanent loan, take the deal. Cut the Gordian Knot and just move on. Or even have some kind of loan program in place, where Greece can have some of the collection some of time, and have another portion of it another part of the time. There are lots of ways to make everybody happy,*#8221; he added.
Asked to describe the response he received from the British Parliament after delivering his remarks four years ago, Mr. Bogdanos said he thought it was encouraging.
*#8220;It was quite favorable, but the purpose for my being there was for Parliament to consider legislation on banning the purchase, importation and exportation of any Iraqi antiquities in the United Kingdom. I spoke for two hours on the Iraq Museum, Iraqi antiquities and the state of international smuggling and illicit trade of those antiquities. I only spent a few minutes on the Parthenon Marbles. I was invited by Lord (Colin) Renfrew, who is like a demigod in the world of cultural heritage. He ran down the list of what he wanted me to discuss, and he said he wanted me to add a section on the global trafficking of antiquities. I talked to them for over an hour and a half, and I started apologizing for speaking so long, and one of the lords in the front row turned to those sitting behind him and said, *#8216;Listen to the Yank. He thinks an hour and half is a long time.*#8217; We all laughed. Then we had a question and answer session, and the issue of the Marbles came up,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;Afterwards, I was invited to one of the bars in Parliament. Do you realize what would happen if we had a bar in Congress? We might actually get something done (chuckles). They asked me which bar I wanted to go to, and because Winston Churchill is one of my heroes and, in my view, one of the finest statesman who ever lived *#8211; in addition to being a Nobel Prize winner and phenomenal author, he was also a highly decorated combat veteran of the Second Boer War (in South Africa), and fought hand-to-hand against the Dervishes in the Sudan *#8211; I asked if we could have a drink in his favorite bar. Their response was, *#8216;Well, Colonel. That doesn*#8217;t narrow it down, at all. He liked all of them,*#8217; *#8221; he said, adding that everything he has managed to accomplish in his life can be traced to the fact that he is of Greek heritage.
*#8220;The fact that I was invited to speak at the British Parliament on this subject; the fact that I pursued the path I took and followed it to where it has led me is a direct effect of my having been raised Greek,*#8221; he said.
Asked to explain what he meant by that, Mr. Bogdanos referred to his love for, and devotion to, Classical Greek ideals, and said he strongly identified with one ideal in particular.
*#8220;Aeschylus was one of the greatest playwrights of all time. He wrote his own epitaph. He could have written, *#8216;Here lies Aeschylus, who wrote these great masterpieces, and who won the laurel seven consecutive times,*#8217; or something like that. But he didn*#8217;t write any of those things. Instead he wrote, *#8216;Here lies Aeschylus, the long-haired mede who can speak of his bravery on the battlefield.*#8217; That*#8217;s what mattered to Aeschylus. He considered his contributions as a playwright and the father of tragedy to be secondary. Socrates, the father of Western thought and philosophy, was also known for his bravery on the battlefield and his ability to withstand extreme temperatures,*#8221; he said.
*#8220;Being a brave soldier was part of the Classical Greek ideal. Look at Alexander, the greatest general the world has ever seen. He memorized the Iliad, and Achilles was his hero. The Classical Greek ideal of arete (virtue) was to be both a warrior and a scholar. Those two things are not in conflict with each other. They are two halves of the same whole,*#8221; he said.*#8220;In the Hagakure, a 16th Century Samurai code, it says a Samurai who does not know poetry is a Samurai of little worth. The Samurai were as revered for their calligraphy as much as they were for their swordsmanship. And Sir William Butler, a 19th Century British general who was knighted for bravery, and who was also a poet and a painter, said *#8216;those countries that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man are likely to have their fighting done by fools and their thinking done by cowards.*#8217; For me, the Samurai and Butler signify a return to the Classical Greek ideal of warriors and scholars being two halves of the same whole. I also view the importance of the military recognizing the significance of cultural heritage, and the importance of academics recognizing the important role the military can play in preserving cultural heritage, as a return to that ideal,*#8221; he said, adding that he is still trying to persuade archaeologists to make greater efforts to reach out to the general public; to step outside of their insular academic borders and invite more people to their conferences and seminars in an effort to help educate the average person.