Monday, January 13, 2014

Soldiers learn to protect Cultural Property

This past summer I wrote about the concern over looted antiquities being traded and sold for weapons (see "Looting antiquity for Arms?" dated July 10, 2013).  Over the years I also expressed concern in graduate school over whether the destruction of sites in warfare and conflict could negatively affect the local populations.  This idea branches from Benedict Anderson's theory of local communities and nationalism.  Anderson wrote that nations are imagined communities because people form a sense of kinship and belonging with others without ever meeting each other (hence the imagined) (Anderson 2006).  Nations are formed out of symbols and most of the time these symbols arise from historical objects and important places:

Nations are imagined communities because members of a nation have an image of a community, even though they will never meet everyone in their community. Regardless of never knowing everyone in their community, members of a nation have an image in their minds of their communion (Anderson 2006). As an imagined community, a nation defines itself in opposition to others, or by creating a unique identity. Nations create a unique identity through the use of symbols and signs to bring people together out of a sense of kinship (Castro 2011).
Soldier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Taken from (Williams 2014)
My worry over looting during crisis comes from the looting of the Iraq National Museum in 2003, and came to fruition in Syrian when the Syrian forces began destroying sites, and rebels began looting others. War offers many opportunities for both antiquities and arm dealers (Baker and Anjar 2013).  In Syria, antiquities can go for a few thousand dollars on the black market, and many are found in the black markets of Beirut across the border in Lebanon.  A dealer in Lebanon, Abu Khaled expressed that "[w]e [the dealers] buy antiquities cheap, and then sell weapons expensively" (Baker and Anjar 2013). 

This fact worries the U.S. armed forces.  Given the recent events in Egypt, Syria, and again in Iraq and other archaeologically rich countries, the U.S. is taking steps to teach soldiers to understand the importance of cultural property and to keep an eye out for looting and looted antiquity.  The Army's Civil Affairs Command recognizes the following:

  • the destruction of archaeological sites can damage the morale of the local population (destruction of national symbols)
  • the potential destruction of archaeological sites by allied armed forces can be used as a form of propaganda by enemies to turn local support away from allies
  • terrorists groups use antiquity to trade for weapons (Williams 2014)

In his article Sargent Gregory Williams (2014) quotes Staff Sargent Martin Sierra with the 353rd Civil Affairs Command as saying that "[a]rtifacts can be used as leverage in negotiations and extortion, the failure to safeguard and secure these items can cost lives and place the lives of both soldiers and civilians in jeopardy".
Al-Shorfa (2014) writes that Al-Qaeda linked groups desecrate ancient churches and other sacred places and convert them for military use.  This practice has spread through other countries such as Egypt as I described in "Egyptian History Destroyed by looters" dated December 30, 2013.
I stress the importance of allies to protect cultural sites because they are extensions of humanity and culture, and I am happy that the U.S. Army is making a point to become culturally aware of the populations that they will come into contact with during conflict.  We often go into a country and fight, but when the fight is over the local people are left alone to rebuild their culture.  Corine Wegener, a cultural heritage preservation officer with the Smithsonian Institute, stated that "[i]f you walk into a situation where you don't understand what's going on with the civilian population, to include things that will make them angry like the destruction of a cultural site, then you're not doing the full spectrum of what you could be doing to make the mission successful" (Williams 2014).

Do you think that the U.S. Army should train soldiers to recognize antiquity? Do you think soldiers should be culturally aware?  What positives outcomes could we see from training cultural sensitivity?


2013. Al-Qaeda-Linked Groups Desecrate Churches In Syria., accessed January 13, 2014.
Anderson, Benedict
2006 Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso
Baker, Aryn and Majdal Anjar
2013. Syria’s Looted Past: How Ancient Artifacts Are Being Traded for Guns., accessed January 13, 2014.
Castro, Jennifer
2011. "An Analysis of Repatriation: A Study of the 'November Collection"'At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Master's Thesis, Department of Anthropology, George Washington University

Goldberg, Mark Leon
2013. UNESCO Sounds Alarm on Looting of Syria’s Cultural Heritage. , accessed January 13, 2014.
Williams, Gregory
2014. Civil Affairs Soldiers learn to become guardians of history., accessed January 13, 2014

All images taken from  (Williams 2014)