Cultural Property Protection as a Force Multiplier in Stability Operations: World War II Monuments Officers Lessons Learned

By Rush, Laurie W. | Military Review, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

Cultural Property Protection as a Force Multiplier in Stability Operations: World War II Monuments Officers Lessons Learned


Rush, Laurie W., Military Review


THE MONUMENTS OFFICERS of World War II have captured the imagination of the popular press, and many professionals in the fields of archaeology, architecture, and art history revere them as legends. However, the challenges these military officers faced and their accomplishments in the face of overwhelming odds offer critical lessons to today's full-spectrum and stability operations warfighters. It is easy to forget that in situations of conflict and natural disaster the preservation of cultural property, sacred places, and objects of value rank behind only protecting human life and safety as the top priorities. Recognition of, respect for, and preservation of items and places of cultural importance in a community are extremely valuable to stabilizing and reconstructing the social fabric. (1)

Few contest the long-term value of cultural property protection during full-spectrum operations. However, one might reasonably question its immediate benefits to Western military personnel facing hostile engagements in today's complex conflict situations. One immediate response refers to the media battle that is an inevitable part of all modern conflict. Just as the Italians and Germans used propaganda effectively to advance their causes during the African and Italian campaigns, the terrorists and insurgents of today are often on the scene with video cameras. The British monuments program in 1943 began in part as a response to an Italian propaganda effort centering on the ancient Roman city of Cyrenica in Libya. After the ancient site changed hands from the Italians to the British and back to the Italians, the Italian government put together a propaganda campaign with the message that the British had shown no respect for the glory of ancient Rome. The Italians faked damage to the museum, photographed statues under reconstruction and added captions accusing the British of deliberately breaking them, and offered examples of graffiti written in English. (2) The power of these materials was manifest. They helped convince the Italian people that the British had no respect for any element of Italian or Roman history and culture.

Similarly, during the German retreat in Italy, the Germans accused the Allies of stealing paintings and Italian artwork and sought to enrage Italian radio listeners by telling them that the Allies were offering the pick of Italian artwork to their generals for their personal collections. In this type of operational environment, it is critical that friendly forces follow strict behavioral guidelines so that the local population does not believe that military personnel are engaging in theft, damage, or disrespectful acts.

In the spirit of the axiom, "Those who fail to study the past are doomed to repeat it," I offer some lessons from the World War II cultural property protection efforts in North Africa and Italy.

Cultural Property Protection Requires Support and Direction from the Highest Levels

During World War II, in response to concern expressed by highly placed academics and professionals, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the Commission for the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas, now commonly known as the Roberts Commission, in honor of its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. The British had a similar commission in the War Office in London. The two commissions recommended that military officer subject matter experts become cultural property advisors to combat commanders in the field. These officers became members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Section. Political leaders and military strategists understood the public relations value of engaging and succeeding in these efforts and the propaganda value to the enemy if they did not. General Dwight D. Eisenhower personally set the tone, issuing the following order on 26 May 1944:

   Shortly we will be fighting our way across
   the continent of Europe in battles designed
   to preserve our civilization. … 

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