It may not surprise you that a well-known Hollywood movie, Monuments Men, is based on a book by the same title. Both chronicle a team of officers and soldiers who were specifically tasked with protecting historically significant buildings, monuments, and works of art during World War II. The book Monuments Men by Robert Edsel chronicles their contributions to history.
The imperative to protect cultural icons exists today as much as ever, and it has come closer to home. My current assignment in the U.S. Army is to assist in re-creating a 21st century version of the Monuments Men. It’s among the most interesting and rewarding assignments in my 15-year Army career.
During World War II, the destruction of buildings and art was the result of Germany’s insatiable war machine, greed, and hate. Hitler had set out to amass Europe’s greatest works of art in order to form his own collection of art in his hometown of Linz.
Long before Hitler became a butcher of mankind he was an aspiring artist who was rejected by art school. He went on to oversee the destruction of art and centuries-old buildings because they were the work of “degenerates” in his mind such as Catholics and Jews. And of course, many of Europe’s priceless works of art were simply stolen by greedy senior German officers to fancy their own taste or pad their wallets.
Monuments Men—both the book and the team it describes—is a gift to history and highlights that America’s military does much more than just blow things up and kill bad guys. This group of officers fought Nazi efforts to not just slaughter people, but to destroy those peoples’ cultural heritages and erase their history.
The importance of defending cultural heritages is as important today as it was during World War II, as we’ve seen by more recent attempts by totalitarians to destroy their enemies’ cultural heritages.
One of the travesties during the Iraq War was the looting of the Baghdad Museum. Artifacts dating all the way back to ancient Babylon were looted and sold on the black market, and many to this day are still not recovered. The consequence was another log on the fire of distrust between the Iraqi population and Coalition forces, which created a more fertile ground for future insurgent activities.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed Buddha statues that dated back 2,000 years. The Buddhas were not only a religious shrine for millions, but also served as a tourist destination that was vital to Afghanistan’s ability to attract visitors and much needed economic activity.
ISIS was even more effective in their systematic efforts to erase history in the world’s cradle of civilization, most infamously the destruction in Palmyra of relics dating back to the second century.
I began my work on this revived Monuments Men project knowing the mission was important, but I am now convinced that this work is critical to America’s long term interests.
As Frank Stokes—played in the film by George Clooney—said, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.”
The destruction of cultural heritage by our enemies isn’t just breaking nice things. It’s an effort to eradicate the record of a peoples’ existence and rewrite history, and it has always been the vehicle of tyrants. Our enemies destroy cultures as a means of control. Look no further than China’s systematic oppression of their ethnic minority Uyghur population to see that totalitarian regimes use the destruction of culture to repress liberty and freedom.
America is not sinless in this fight. America has intentionally, and more often unintentionally, inflicted damage on the world’s treasures. Some of the most infamous examples being during America’s western engagements with Native Americans and the near total destruction of Monte Cassino by the Allies during World War II.
Fortunately, the U.S. is learning from these mistakes. This is why a key task of the 21st century Monuments Men and Women will be to properly identify, with key international partners, cultural heritage sites around the world so those sites are not targeted unless it’s an absolute military necessity.
This brings me to one of the great ironies of this assignment. As a proud part of this Monuments Men effort, I am very aware of the cultural heritage denoted by the monuments that used to sit outside my Senate office—and which are now gone, torn down by mobs over the summer and not yet replaced.
One of those monuments is the “Lady Forward” statue, a tribute to women’s suffrage. Wisconsin was among the first states to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1919, a milestone moment in our state and national march toward equality.
Another is a monument to Colonel Hans Christian Heg, quite literally a Civil War superhero who gave his life in the fight to free the slaves and abolish the evil institution of slavery. Like Wisconsin’s leading role in the fight for women’s suffrage, Heg is a Wisconsin hero and the statue reminded successive generations about why he was important.
The efforts of totalitarians overseas to erase their enemies’ cultural heritage is concerted, while these statues at home were torn down in a fit of ignorant mob outrage. Nonetheless, the monuments are today nothing more than boarded-up pedestals—pieces of our history that are gone, at least for now.
For those tempted to dismiss these monuments as pure symbolism, Monuments Men along with my own experience exploring how to protect cultural heritages—and why we should—tells me otherwise. As the original Monuments Men understood, those interested in revolutionary upheaval know that the key to erasing the past and re-writing history is to destroy monuments to the past and erase historical touchstones.
I’m proud to be a part of this important effort in the Army. I’m also grateful to be in a unique position to defend cultural works here at home. You read the book, and we will make sure Lady Forward and Colonel Heg are returned to their places of honor.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.