Protection of Arts and Antiquities during Wartime: Examining the Past and Preparing for the Future

By Cogbill, James B. | Military Review, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Protection of Arts and Antiquities during Wartime: Examining the Past and Preparing for the Future


Cogbill, James B., Military Review


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Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers that symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.

--General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a message to troops on the eve of the Normandy Invasion

ON 10 APRIL 2003, one day after the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdaus Square, representing the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, looters plundered Iraq's National Museum. By taking advantage of the rapid collapse of the state's security apparatus and the chaos that ensued, thieves were free to take what they wished. While initial reports that 170,000 artifacts were stolen have turned out to be wildly exaggerated, experts generally agree that at least 15,000 objects, representing priceless treasures and an integral part of Iraq's cultural heritage, were carried off without significant intervention by the U.S. military. The U.S. failure to prevent this disaster raises questions about the extent to which the military integrates cultural considerations into its planning. Historical examples from World War II demonstrate that in the past, planning for protection of arts and antiquities was an important part of U.S. military planning. Since World War II, broader cultural considerations such as language and customs have been and continue to be incorporated into military planning, but specific planning for protecting cultural objects has been conducted only on an ad hoc basis. Although there have been some recent successes in safeguarding cultural treasures during wartime, the failure to protect the National Museum of Iraq clearly demonstrates the need for a more permanent and capable mechanism to effectively integrate cultural protection measures into U.S. military campaign planning.

Protection of Cultural Treasures: World War II

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, America totally mobilized for war. All instruments of national power, both public and private, joined forces to contribute to the war effort. One example of this was the university-government cooperation that occurred with the goal of protecting arts and antiquities. (1) In 1942, George Stout, of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, raised the issue of vulnerable cultural sites in wartime Europe, and in January 1943, the American Council of Learned Societies convened a committee to discuss it. The committee incorporated noted intellectuals such as Columbia's William Dinsmoor, president of the Archaeological Institute, Francis Henry Taylor of New York's Metropolitan Museum, David Finley of the National Gallery, and Paul Sachs of Harvard. Responding to this group of academic and artistic scholars, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, and appointed Dinsmoor and Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts to lead it. The military then created its own organization--the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Service (MFA&A)--which would be responsible for limiting war damage to cultural artifacts and sites and returning any looted objects found during the course of military activities.

Officers from the MFA&A were integrated into the force as early as the invasion of Italy, in September 1943, and were successful at minimizing damage to Italy's artistic treasures. For instance, MFA&A members persuaded allied commanders to avoid combat inside Florence, a city that many consider to be the cultural capital of Italy. In addition, MFA&A personnel were present for the invasion of Normandy on D-Day to ensure that cultural treasures would be safeguarded, sorted, cleaned, and restored. Later, at the direction of President Harry Truman, the United States repatriated these cultural treasures to their rightful country of origin. …

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