Thursday, April 24, 2008

LCCHP Program on the Fate of Cultural Property in Times of Armed Conflict -- Interesting, but Incomplete

What do you get when you go to a program sponsored by an interest group founded by a well known lawyer for the archaeological community, a law firm that specializes in restitution of Nazi spoils and a well known and respected historical preservation group? Answer: a well done, but incomplete view of cultural property issues and conflicts from WW II to the Second Gulf War.

The underlying theme of the program put together by the Lawyer's Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation was one of contrasts. Unlike our nation's heroic preservation efforts in WW II, Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration dropped the ball in protecting Iraq's cultural artifacts in Gulf War II. We, therefore, need to make preservation of cultural property in conflict a high priority. In particular, the US must accede to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.

Certainly such a narrative has some popular appeal, but I am not sure it is entirely accurate. To the sponsor's credit, they did invite several panelists associated with the military who did question aspects of it. Sure, the "monument men" (and women) of WW II did a good job of gathering artifacts looted by the Nazis, but they were very few in number (only about 50), particularly given the immense size of the invading force and the territory they needed to cover. Moreover, the WW II military benefited from being able to draft knowledgeable people, particularly from the museum world. In contrast, today's military is much smaller and there does not seem to be many academics willing to volunteer to serve as modern "monuments men" or women.

The military panelists were somewhat less forthright on issues of targeting. Sure, they highlighted the fact that US forces did their utmost to avoid targeting cultural treasures in Gulf War II. On the other hand, they failed to acknowledge that WW II is filled with examples of priceless cultural treasures being bombed to oblivion. Monte Cassino and Dresden are only two such architectural and artistic treasures that have been forever changed as a result. Thus, in my opinion, our armed force's record in WW II is simply not as good as was advertised nor is the record of our forces in Gulf War II anywhere as bad as is often portrayed.

While all this is well and good, the program predictably glossed over any fact that might call into question the archaeological community's support for the cultural nationalism of source countries. Thus, no one dared suggest that the looting of the Iraq Museum may have been at least in part motivated by the Shia majority's desire to strike at the Baathist regime's blatant use of the symbolism of Iraq's past to justify its tyrannical rule. Moreover, while one panelist spoke eloquently of the destruction of Croat and Bosnian cultural monuments in the Balkans in the 1990's, no one connected these depredations to the hyper-nationalism of the Serbian government. One instance recounted was particularly vicious. Serbian militia blew up a historic mosque in Foca, Bosnia and used the rubble to cover a mass grave of Bosnian Muslim victims from the town. The intent was clear. Ethnic cleansing topped off with cultural cleansing. With such facts, it is hard to ignore the way governments use and abuse artifacts of the past for their own political purposes. Yet, the program managed to do just that.

No comments: