Looted artwork, destroyed artifacts and damaged historical sites are often overlooked casualties in war zones. Now the U.S. military has taken concrete steps to protect those antiquities by creating the Cultural Heritage Task Force.
It's a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. The idea is to find Army Reserve officers who also happen to be museum curators, archaeologists and other specialists in conservation and assign them to the unit. Task force members would then deploy with and advise troops during fighting on how to protect local sites. Colonel Scott DeJesse helped develop the new program, and he joins us from his office in Fort Bragg, N.C., to tell us more.
SCOTT DEJESSE: Good afternoon.
FADEL: So most listeners are probably familiar with the success that a similar unit had protecting historical sites and returning stolen artwork during World War II. So how will today's cultural heritage task force be the same or different from the Monuments Men?
DEJESSE: What we're going to do is provide a new capability - basically, civilian expertise that cannot be generated in the Department of Defense. And the difference between the Monuments Men of World War II and the cultural heritage preservation officers of today is the way the conflicts have recently been fought. So World War II was about capturing cities and defeating armies. Recent conflicts have been more about the populace. So cultural heritage - it's kind of tying more into how it relates to people.
FADEL: Right. So it happens that the U.S. has been in conflict for some two decades now - first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, troops in Syria.
FADEL: And these are places with centuries of history - Iraq and Syria referred to as the cradle of civilization. So how much did those settings have to do with the desire to form this new unit?
DEJESSE: Yeah. It played involvement because there was a lack of capability there. And a lot of times, the government would turn to the Smithsonian. Or, you know, there's elements of the State Department that deal with this. But when it's combat, those type of institutions and organizations can't enter in that space. There's got to be uniformed personnel. So over the years of conflict, this capability has been missed.
FADEL: Right. What are some examples of historic sites, artifacts, works of art that have been lost in conflict that you're thinking of when you think about this capability going forward?
DEJESSE: You know, 2003, the looting in the Museum of Baghdad. Looting - since the history of warfare, this has taken place. It's a resource. It can be traded on the illicit market. The museum in Kabul lost a lot of its collections. The building was - 50% of it was destroyed. Wherever there's conflict, cultural property is being destroyed and being looted. Once the civil society starts breaking down and conflict becomes an issue, cultural property - it gets illegally transferred, or it gets destroyed.
FADEL: I just think about history as identity and part of the history of a nation. And that's a loss you can't get back, really.
DEJESSE: Yeah. A keen interest of mine is intangible cultural heritage, the idea that this is directly connected to our hearts and our minds, and this is the beliefs that we carry with us. There are social practices. And with people that are displaced in conflict, they kind of get separated and moved around, and you start losing a lot of that heritage that defines us. What we're saying is protect cultural heritage, it actually helps to get to peace and stability and making that argument more relevant to military commanders.
FADEL: These are zones that are dangerous that would be difficult for civilians to go into. Will the members be soldiers first, conservators second? How would that work?
DEJESSE: Well, first and foremost, we're soldiers. But our expertise in the area of cultural heritage supports the mission commander. We wear the uniform. We serve the mission of whatever is dictated and directed by the commander.
FADEL: Now, you're an artist yourself. How did that inform your work in developing this team?
DEJESSE: I went to art school to get a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and then I was doing ROTC separately. And to think that these worlds somehow have merged back on each other is incredible. What we want to do is work with the local countries and make them the monuments men and women of their own country. That's really what we're trying to get to.
FADEL: That's Army Reserve Colonel Scott DeJesse, who helped develop the military's new Cultural Heritage Task Force.
Thanks so much, and good luck.
DEJESSE: Thank you.