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  • Robert M. Edsel

The Power of an Idea: United States Army Announces the Training of a Modern-Day Monuments Men Force

My quest began with a seemingly simple question: “How did so much of the world’s shared art and cultural heritage survive the most destructive war in history, and who were the people who saved it?”

Curiosity – and twenty years of research that included finding and interviewing twenty-one Monuments Men and Women – charted a life-changing path for me. As I listened to these men and women describe their wartime experiences, I resolved to see these heroes honored and thanked for their military service, and the standards for the protection of our shared cultural heritage that defined their remarkable legacy reestablished by our fighting forces today. A few scholars had written about the Monuments Men. Long-established archives had housed some of their records for decades. Missing was an advocate, someone who could introduce these men AND women’s legacy to the general public and explain the contemporary relevance of what they had achieved. Seeing the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad in 2003 during the American-led invasion of Iraq only strengthened my resolve. The announcement this past week that the United States Army will soon begin formal training and support of military personnel responsible for protecting cultural property during armed conflict marks the latest major milestone in the work of the Monuments Men Foundation. Forming such a group is a long-overdue decision that creates the possibility, if executed properly, of perpetuating the unique legacy of these World War II veterans.

On June 6, 2007, the sixty-third anniversary of the “D-Day” landings in Normandy, I proudly approached the lectern in our room at Congress and announced the creation of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. We had an ambitious, some said “impossible,” mission statement: Honor the Heroes, Complete their Mission, Preserve their Legacy, and Reestablish the Standard for the protection of cultural property that defined their military service. Several members of the House of Representatives and the Senate participated in the ceremony and spoke to the importance, then and now, of what these heroes of civilization had accomplished. Ambassadors from each of the fourteen nations of Monuments Officers attended. Four Monuments Men sat on stage, in varying states of disbelief that everyone present was so interested in what they had done so many decades earlier. Later that day, both houses of Congress passed Resolutions that, for the first time, thanked and paid tribute to the 350 or so men and women who served as “Monuments Men” in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Army’s Civil Affairs Division.

Achieving these goals depended on enlisting the support of the public. Without knowing who these men and women were and what they did during the war, we didn’t stand much of a chance. By my way of thinking, the endgame of our efforts had to result in a major Hollywood film about these heroes and their story. Like it or not, no other medium conveys a message to a global audience more effectively. That in turn meant we had to condense this massive story into a book that would captivate the public, one that would take readers, especially those not interested in art, on the greatest treasure hunt in history. In fact, it took two: The Monuments Men, and Saving Italy. During the ten years of research and writing of those books, Foundation staff gradually gained the support of members of Congress to pass a bill that would award the Monuments Men with the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

The Foundation regularly made highly visible announcements about cultural objects, and some works of art, that it had located and returned to individuals, museums, and archives, in the United States and abroad. Each of these announcements served as a clarion call to enlist the public’s help in finding other missing objects, oftentimes brought home by soldiers as souvenirs of war. Through partnership with the National WWII Museum, the Foundation announced the building of a permanent Monuments Men Gallery that would be a vital part of the Museum’s capstone building, the Liberation Pavilion. Today, that building is under construction with a planned opening in 2021. Speaking engagements, some nationally televised, brought the story of the Monuments Men to some 65,000 people who attended, and millions more who watched on television. Some of those engagements took us on bases from Ft. McCoy to Ft. Meade to meet with men and women in uniform currently serving in Civil Affairs, all eager to know more about the work of their predecessors. Each of these 150 or so engagements provided an opportunity to publicly lobby for the re-creation of a formal Monuments Men force.

Twelve years later, many of the Foundation’s achievements are well-known. Academy Award recipient George Clooney assembled a stellar cast for his film, The Monuments Men, which premiered in early 2014, and was ultimately screened in more than 100 countries. The book has been translated into thirty-plus languages. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the bill that awarded the Monuments Men the Congressional Gold Medal. Four Monuments Men and Women attended the 2015 Congressional ceremony to receive this great honor on behalf of all those who served in the MFAA. These highly visible successes opened other important doors that furthered the mission of the Foundation including an invitation from President Obama to screen The Monuments Men film at the White House. In attendance were leaders from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and most of the major museums, archives, and cultural institutions in Washington, D.C. Never again could anyone in government, military, or the diplomatic corps say they were unaware that the United States and its British allies had established the highest standard in history for the protection of cultural treasures and works of art during conflict, a high watermark that up to that point had been lost to the fog of history. That “Monuments Men” is now a ubiquitous term used by people in the far reaches of the world is not an accident. That irreplaceable and priceless name recognition is the consequence of years of work by the Foundation, and others who played essential parts in helping us make these heroes’ story known to the world. (A special shout-out must go to George Clooney and his partner, Grant Heslov, who spent three years of their lives making and promoting the film and its message.)

During the post-war years, the Monuments Men expressed their opinions on early drafts of the document that today we know as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. Possessing more experience on the subject matter than anyone else, their views varied from skeptic to hopeful. One Monuments Officer effectively summed up the hopefulness of his peers: “The main thing is that it plots a chance for marked improvement.” But another wisely noted, “The particular nature of the undertakings will have much to do with the vital question of their discharge by military commands and personnel.” That was true then, just as it is now. The success of this new Monuments Men force, in the United States Army as with their counterparts in the United Kingdom, which was announced last year, depends on lasting and committed leadership. For that, they need look no further than Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, who saw his role in helping to preserve civilization’s great cultural heritage as a privilege, not a burden.

Monuments Officer Lt. George Stout, whose thinking more than anyone else’s, led to the creation of the Monuments Men, acutely understood a nation’s responsibility to civilization to protect the very cultural achievements that defined it. His words inform and guide the ongoing work of the Monuments Men Foundation, just as they should our elected and military leaders, here and abroad.

“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. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations. 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.”

For additional details about the creation of a modern-day Monuments Men force, please click on this link to The New York Times article:

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