Last year, it was the looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, then the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo. Then followed destruction, first of the Tomb of Jonah and then at Hatra. Now, we face the apparent loss of the 2,000 year old Baal Shamin temple at Syria’s Palmyra World Heritage site. These and other depredations against the world’s memory cut to the core of our common humanity. Secretary of State John Kerry has rightly called this unfolding tragedy one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime.
But what to do, beyond condemnation? With an existential sense of urgency, cultural heritage experts from around the globe have used every tool they have, from satellite documentation to recovery operations to looting interdictions to training for heritage “first responders.” Of course, these efforts are at best triage. Western condemnation feeds the attacks. UNESCO’s #Unite4Heritage effort wisely focuses on supporting an Arab backlash but its capacity is limited, particularly while the US foolishly refuses to fund UNESCO, eroding our national security in the name of protecting it.
And, it goes without saying that heritage lacks an army. The US, on the other hand, does not. In a provocative and timely new article appearing in The Global Post, the Secretary of the US/ICOMOS Board of Trustees, Mr. Ronald Lee Fleming, has challenged the United States military to help lead the response. His proposal is not without precedent. Until 1951, the US Army had its own “Monuments Men” unit, a special army unit of curators, scholars, museum directors and archivists that performed similar roles. In his piece, Mr. Fleming calls for new, nimble US military teams designed to halt destruction and, where possible, bring in the expertise to rebuild.
The idea is not that farfetched. In today’s Army, cultural heritage savvy comes from so-called “functional specialists” in Civil Affairs units, a network which the Army has publicly acknowledged is inadequate. As part of a broader modernization, it has assigned its Institute for Military Support to Governance (IMSG) to recruit a new cadre of civilian experts in fields like cultural heritage preservation, to fill a new officer designation in the US Army Reserve, known as a “38G”. A recent recruiting call can be found here: http://www.aiamilitarypanel.org/…/seeking-uniformed-cultur…/,
Fleming and his co-author Anthony Flint undoubtedly imagine a more robust role for the US Military than the current IMSG initiative contemplates. Given current events, every option should be on the table. At a minimum, their cri de coeur expresses the hopes of many that the US Special Operations Command and indeed the Secretary of Defense himself will give their full attention to these critical IMSG efforts as an important first step to enhancing the US military’s capabilities regarding cultural heritage during military operations. The fate of our world’s heritage, located s in potential host countries across the globe, hangs in the balance.