It’s no secret that the war-ravaged nations where American soldiers have been enmeshed in conflict for nearly two decades are home to many of civilization’s oldest and most prized antiquities and cultural treasures.
But in the heat of battle in Afghanistan or Iraq, how are troops to know whether they are taking their positions behind mounds of insignificant rubble or inside the precious remains of a 3,000-year-old temple complex?
The Pentagon’s answer, to be announced on Monday at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, is to take a page from one of World War II’s most storied military units, the teams of art experts known as the Monuments Men who recovered millions of European treasures looted by the Nazis.
The Army is forming a new unit with a similar mandate to be composed of commissioned officers of the Army Reserves who are museum directors or curators, archivists, conservators and archaeologists in addition to new recruits with those qualifications. They will be based at the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Scott DeJesse, a Texas painter and lecturer at the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., and an Army Reserve colonel who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the new unit’s mission is not to hunt down missing works of art in castles and salt mines, as the World War II force did. Instead it is to provide a scholarly liaison for military commanders and the local authorities to help secure the cultural heritage of the regions involved and rebuild civil society in war and disaster zones. Colonel DeJesse and Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, developed the unit together. Ms. Wegener, formerly a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is a retired Army reservist.
Ultimately, Colonel DeJesse said: “We want the host nation to protect their heritage. They’re the heroes. They save their own day.”
The new unit will also aim to inform the United States military and allied forces of sites to avoid in airstrikes and ground fighting, and places where it should try to forestall looting. Those prevention and detection efforts conform to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, which the United States first joined in 2009
Officials say the new force will start training at the Smithsonian Institution over five days in March of 2020, and that they hope to have about 25 experts ready to be deployed immediately afterward.
The training will encompass military doctrine as it relates to cultural protection, no-strike lists, and procedures to work with host nations to evacuate and safeguard museum collections.
The initiative comes at an urgent time for a region where human settlement dates back as far as 10,000 years and includes the remnants of Mesopotamian, Sumerian, Persian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures. Afghanistan has been pillaged and desecrated by the Taliban for two decades; the Islamic State has wrought destruction and looted artifacts in Iraq, Syria and Libya; and rebel factions have sacked museums and mosques in Yemen.
While American forces are hardly expected to defend cultural treasures everywhere there is conflict, the military field manuals indicate that preserving artifacts “is not only a legal obligation but also plays a vital role as a force multiplier, winning the hearts and minds of the local population.” It also sends “a strong message that the U.S. military is respectful and professional,” the manuals say.
The United States suffered a black eye during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it was faulted for failing to protect the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad from plunder amid the chaos of the city’s fall. Archaeologists and State Department officials had warned that the museum’s tens of thousands of ancient objects were vulnerable, but the military had no equivalent of the monuments team at that point.
After that ransacking, Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the Marine reserves and classics scholar, formed an ad hoc group that took charge of protecting the museum and hunting down its stolen items. He wrote a book on his experience, “Thieves of Baghdad” (2005). He serves as chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the only such department in the nation.
Of the new unit, he said, “It was a great idea when I first proposed it in back in 2003, and it is even more crucial in today’s world where antiquities trafficking often funds terrorism.”
Reserve leaders working on the project were eager to evoke their forerunners in wartime Europe. “It’s like going back to our history,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey C. Coggin, deputy commander of the civil affairs command, largely staffed by reservists, who is to run the unit with its commander, Maj. Gen. Darrell J. Guthrie.
The announcement Monday, in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art housing the records of the Monuments Men, is meant to recall the 345 people — mostly men but also several dozen women — who donned uniforms and applied their art expertise overseas from 1943 to 1951. In the end they tracked down and recovered four million of some five million paintings and other artworks, books, Judaica and valuables stolen by the Germans in wartime. Two lost their lives.
A 2014 George Clooney movie, “The Monuments Men,” was based on work by Robert M. Edsel, a longtime champion of the Army art-hunters.
As reservists, the team will not be deployed full time, but will be attached to military units as conditions dictate, including in war zones where they could come under fire. The age limit for joining the Army reserves is 35, but that limit is often waived for specialists, and organizers of this unit say they are confident they will be permitted to recruit experienced professionals.
The United Kingdom has also formed a contingent of art reservists, the Cultural Property Protection Unit. Colonel DeJesse just returned from training with the British unit under Tim Purbrick, a lieutenant colonel and Gulf War veteran.
“The idea will be to identify sites so that we don’t drop bombs on them or park tanks on top of them,” Colonel Purbrick told journalists.
The new unit’s role will extend beyond war zones, said Richard Kurin, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, who is to sign the document authorizing the Smithsonian’s participation on Monday. In Haiti after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, some 35,000 cultural treasures were rescued from the ruins, he said.
“Saving culture is not just the icing on the cake,” he said. “It’s the key to people’s identity, who they are.”