The Monuments Men are Still at It

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by Melik Kaylan,

from The Wall Street Journal,

The U.S. military’s effort to protect the cultural treasures of the world continues even in today’s war zones.

Playing cards distributed to U.S. forces relay messages about conservation awareness.

Americans have good reason to be proud of the World War II officers played by George Clooney and his co-stars in the new movie “The Monuments Men.” They genuinely recovered a vast trove of Europe’s looted art treasures, some five million objects according to accepted estimates—a rare act of impartial decency in the annals of combat. Less well known, however, is the fact that Americans in the military and in civilian life are still busy protecting the world’s cultural heritage in war zones. The tradition of monuments men (and now women) isn’t just a thing of the past.

In the chaos after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad—renowned for its ancient Mesopotamian artifacts—and stole and smashed thousands of objects. It was a global scandal, and the U.S. was widely blamed for its failure to protect this cultural patrimony.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Even as the invasion of Iraq was unfolding, the U.S. military had an extensive “no strike list,” which mapped out large areas of the country that were to be exempt from bombing because of their cultural importance. The list originated with Arthur Houghton III, a foreign service veteran who had served a stint as antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif.

Leading up to 2003, Mr. Houghton says, “I sensed the Iraq war looming.” He put together a team of experts and got a hearing at the Pentagon.

Within a month of the fiasco at the Baghdad Museum, Marine Capt. Matthew Bogdanos was put in charge of a team to investigate the thefts. Thanks to his early efforts and those of his later colleagues, some 6,000 of the almost 15,000 stolen objects had been recovered by the time the museum reopened in 2009, including most of the top pieces like the 5,000-year-old Warka Vase, one of the earliest known instances of narrative relief sculpture.

And in 2007, Laurie Rush, an archaeologist employed by the Army, began a project at Fort Drum near Syracuse, N.Y., to distribute to U.S. forces some 40,000 packs of playing cards depicting historic ruins in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea was to educate soldiers in conservation awareness. “Since military personnel spent so much downtime handling them, they served as the ideal teaching tool” she says.

Why has such present-day conservation work received so little attention? Author Robert Edsel, whose 2009 book “Monuments Men” inspired the new movie, says that it is a matter of public recognition: “President Eisenhower explicitly tasked American troops with respecting and conserving heritage abroad. It gave them, and the nation, an added sense of pride and purpose…. Our current presidents go into wars without that public avowal. Astonishing. We still do it but nobody knows about it.”

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