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Posted on Dec 16, 2005 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Thieves of Baghdad – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

thieves_cover.gifThieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures
Matthew Bogdanos with William Patrick
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005

I can just imagine the first time Matthew Bogdanos talked to a prospective publisher. Perhaps, it went something like this: "I have this idea for a book, no make that several ideas for a book. I want to tie in my family’s experience on September 11th, interject some stories on my career as a District Attorney in New York City and as a Marine Reserve Officer fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and intersperse dozens of historical quotes throughout the book. Oh by the way, did I mention that I’d like to discuss the theft and retrieval of ancient treasures from the Iraq National Museum (after the fall of Baghdad) in which I led the investigation."


Following this, there would be a moment of silence. Finally after taking it all in, the publishing representative asks, "Do you really believe you can put this all together in an interesting, coherent manner?" Not knowing Bogdanos, but based on perceptions from the book, Bogdanos confidently answers "Yes, I can make it work!"

Enough with my fictitious scenario, let’s talk reality. The reality is Bogdanos has certainly made it work. He has crafted a book that is one of the most unique and interesting books I have read in recent memory. It is part memoir, part "CSI" mystery, part history and cultural lesson and all good. It is certain to get your undivided attention and keep it.

In discussing the book, it is best to start with its author Matthew Bogdanos (he is assisted by William Patrick). There can be no denying that Bogdanos is a captivating person. In the civilian world, he works as an assistant District Attorney (DA) in New York City. During his tenure, he has prosecuted several hundred cases including the high profile Sean "Diddy" Combs case. Since the events of September 11th Bogdanos has spent the preponderance of his time as a called to active duty Marine Colonel. While activated, he served extensively in both Afghanistan and Iraq in duty positions truly out of the ordinary. Throw in an amateur boxing career, a passion for classical history and literature, and varied array of war stories and you have a strong foundation for the memoir piece of the book.

However, it is the mystery part of the book that is the thread that ties the other pieces together. As in seemingly everything else regarding Bogdanos, his venture into the mystery is intriguing. In March 2003, he arrived into Iraq as the Deputy Director for the Joint Interagency Coordination Group and began operating in Basra. This organization was responsible for investigating terrorist cells and activities in Iraq. A few weeks later, after the fall of Baghdad, the press began reporting that the Iraq National Museum was looted of thousands of priceless antiquities. With the press placing the blame on the United States for the incident, Bogdanos offered his team’s services to investigate. After much discussion and trepidation by senior leaders, his team received the mission and Bogdanos entered his true element.

Bogdanos (with assistance from Patrick) spends the remainder of the book describing the planning, preparation, and execution of his mission. It is fascinating reading to see how Bogdanos utilizes his DA and Soldier Skills and knowledge of antiquities and the culture to determine how the looting took place and ultimately recover many of the pieces. Readers will find it particularly interesting how the team dealt with the numerous security, cultural, political, and logistical issues throughout the investigation. As with the preponderance of missions in Iraq, there was no blueprint or doctrine for Bogdanos or his team to follow in solving these complex issues.

Near the conclusion of the book, Bogdanos discusses several of his investigative findings. These include: 1) What were the actions of U.S forces while the looting took place? 2) Who is truly to blame for the tragedy? 3) How many actual pieces were stolen from the Museum? 4) Who actually stole the Museum pieces? 5) Where are the stolen pieces today? 6) What is the market for these antiquities? Again, I hate to use the same words, but it is all fascinating stuff!

Perhaps, the one characteristic of the book that may turn some readers off is the author’s frequent use of quotes in the book. Throughout the pages, you will find Bogdanos uses dozens of historical quotes to reinforce his thoughts or opinions. Personally, I found the quotes refreshing and relevant to his subject matter. In my opinion, anyone who can utilize the words of Lawrence, Sophocles, Chesty Puller and particularly Field Marshal William Slim is all right in my book. However, I can see where this may detract or annoy a small number of readers.

In summary, Thieves of Baghdad is the perfect volume to pick up if your recent reading material has placed you in a bit of a rut. It is one of those rare books that will keep you guessing as to what lies ahead on the next page (or even paragraph). It is a book that will inform, entertain, and make you think. Is there anything more you would want from a book?

Perhaps, the most appropriate way to complement Bogdanos and Thieves of Baghdad is to use some words from the past. As Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Truly, Thieves of Baghdad is a book to be chewed and swallowed!