"To safeguard these things will not affect the course of battles, but it will affect the relations of invading armies with those peoples and [their] governments…To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. [...] These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man’s creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God. With conviction that the safeguarding of monuments is an element in the right conduct of the war and in the hope for peace, we…wish to bring these facts to the attention of the government of the United States of America and to urge that means be sought for dealing with them.” These words were written by George Stout, the man who more than anyone else conceived the Monuments Men operation, in 1942, but they would no doubt be the preamble to what Stout would write to President Donald J. Trump today were he alive to do so.
President Trump's statement last Saturday, January 4th, that “sites […] important to Iran & the Iranian culture […] will be hit very fast and very hard” caused outrage around the world. Many critics quickly cited the 1954 Hague Convention, which established that crimes against cultural sites are crimes against humanity. Some also cited the unanimous condemnation by the Security Council of the United Nations in 2017 of the intentional destruction of cultural sites in Syria and Iraq by ISIS.
During World War II, United States and United Kingdom established the gold standard for the protection of cultural heritage. General Eisenhower made the protection of cultural heritage a priority, by ordering prior to the D-Day landing at Normandy “…every commander to protect and respect these symbols [monuments and cultural centers] whenever possible.” Today, seventy five years later, it is the responsibility of our elected leaders to preserve and build on that legacy; not to ignore and destroy it.
In 2003, the United States paid a high price in the court of public opinion for its failure to protect key cultural treasures in Iraq. Today, President Trump, and other world leaders, have a chance to demonstrate that the lessons of the Monuments Men and Women have not been forgotten, and that the preservation of a people’s culture transcends religious, economical, and political differences.