NEW YORK—In February 2014, Columbia Pictures will release the movie “Monuments Men” starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, which tells the story of allied Soldiers working to save artwork in Nazi Germany.
During a recent trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art here, Hollywood came to life as more than 40 Soldiers with the 353rd Civil Affairs Command learned how to become modern day guardians of history.
“Preserving history is not only important for any society but also in the wrong hands artifacts can be used to fund terrorism,” said Staff Sgt. Martin Sierra, a civil affairs noncommissioned officer with the 353rd. “They 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.”
“Definitely this trip provided situational awareness and added a different element on how we fight wars,” Sierra said. “There is so much value in this type of training because it’s important to train in this area and deploy with the ability to identify, secure, and protect historical artifacts.”
Soldiers learned how to preserve sensitive sites during the presentation about archaeological considerations during military operations, which taught Soldiers examples of regional burial grounds, aerial imagery, and how the protection of cultural property could help strengthen force protection.
Col. Mark Yanaway, chief of operations for the command, said Soldiers didn’t realize that cultural protection is a civil affairs mission but his unit is slowly starting to realize the importance of preserving history while developing relationships with non-government agencies that protect artifacts.
“Culture is important to people and their cultural property is important to them,” Yanaway said. “People and their cultural property represent them, their ethnicity, their nation and how they think of themselves. If it is destroyed then it’s like you’re attacking them and when you attack people they don’t like it, so by protecting it we’re protecting the people.”
Corrine Wegener, a cultural heritage preservation officer with the Smithsonian Institute, and former U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer, briefed the unit on the 1954 Hague Convention and shared her personal deployment experiences with the Soldiers.
During her military career, Wegener deployed with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command to Baghdad during the height of looting. Wegner and her team worked to stabilize the collection of items taken from the Iraqi Museum.
“If 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,” said Wegner.
After Soldiers finished the in-house presentations, they toured the Departments of Islamic Art, Ancient Near Eastern Art, and the Armor gallery where museum curators shared their favorite exhibits with the unit. Later, the Soldiers were taken underground to the laboratory at Sherman Fairchild Center for objects conservation. During the lab visit, Soldiers went over periodic tables, an electromagnetic map, and artifact preservation techniques.
“Civil affairs Soldiers don’t receive enough hands-on training from professional curators on identifying, packaging, and handling artifacts so this trip allowed us to see first-hand what to do, and not through the usual death by power point, “ Sierra said. “We operate in various environments which can impact the way we handle artifacts so knowing the chemical makeup of the artifacts or at least given a general idea of the chemical make up will help us to properly handle objects without affecting them.“
As museum curators and conservators shared their historical knowledge with the group they offered future assistance to Soldiers in hopes of enhancing the unit’s readiness. “Now our Soldiers know which organizations to reach out to, which will ease worries on who they should to talk to,” said Yanaway. “In return, now these people know the Soldiers and can build relationships so our Soldiers can perform future missions no matter where we go.”
After a day filled with presentations and tours, Soldiers were reminded that past acts of historical preservation not only saved lost artwork, but built the foundation of the modern day civil affairs mission.
“I’m not only glad those group of Soldiers were able to discover the importance and need to recover the stolen artwork during WWII, but more importantly for the U.S. military to recognize the value in formulating special units, such as Civil Affairs, to continue the mission,” Sierra said.