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“Protecting cultural heritage, like protecting civilians directly, had strategic import.”
How does the presence of a cultural heritage site on the battlefield change wartime decision making? In 1944, as Allied generals postponed an attack on an Axis stronghold—located at the culturally important Catholic abbey Monte Cassino—they had to consider the potential for loss of life, the cultural significance of the abbey, the negative propaganda they would face for attacking a religious site, and the possible strategic alternatives to an all-out attack. Political scientists Ron E. Hassner and Scott D. Sagan make the case that the presence of cultural heritage sites is always an important consideration for troops in both offensive and defensive positions—even in cases where those sites are ultimately destroyed.
In this episode, hosted by former Getty President Jim Cuno, Hassner and Sagan discuss battles from WWII through the current war in Ukraine to explore how politicians and military officials think about cultural heritage sites during times of war.
Ron E. Hassner is Chancellor’s Professor of Political Science and Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Scott D. Sagan is the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science and senior fellow and codirector at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University. Hassner and Sagan are contributors to the recent publication Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, edited by Jim Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss and available free of charge from Getty Publications.
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Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on the need to protect cultural heritage during times of war and mass atrocities.
SCOTT SAGAN: Protecting cultural heritage, like protecting civilians directly, had strategic import.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Scott Sagan and Ron Hassner about battlefield decisions on cultural heritage preservation
During times of war, armed forces must make decisions about how to balance the value of cultural heritage sites with other tactical considerations. Armed forces have often destroyed cultural heritage by targeting it directly, or by allowing it to become collateral damage. At the same time, responsible militaries have also advocated for better rules to govern the protection of such heritage.
In my recent conversation with Scott Sagan, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University addressing and Ron Hassner, Professor at the University of California Berkeley, we discussed historical case studies, in particular from World War II, to understand how decisions to protect or destroy cultural heritage sites have been made in the past. Both Scott and Ron are contributors to the recent book Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, which can be downloaded free of charge at getty.edu/publications/. This episode is part two of a three-part series with authors of this volume.
JAMES CUNO: Okay, thank you, Scott and Ron for speaking with me on this podcast episode. You’ve brought a fresh perspective on a research project, Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, one that focuses on protecting cultural heritage on the battlefield. So let’s begin with Ron. Ron, you begin by recounting the circumstances of Allied troops bogged down in fighting in 1943-44, at the foot of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the oldest monastery in the Western world. Describe the situation for us and the range of decisions a military leader has to make at times like this.
RON HASSNER: Thank you, Jim. So as you’ve said, it’s the winter of 1943/1944. Allied forces have arrived at the southern tip of Italy and are working their way of north. And they’re encountering this very formidable Axis defense line called the Gustav Line. And in the middle of that line, at a sort of critical point, sits this abbey, the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the oldest abbey in the Western world.
And that’s where they’re going to stay for three months, as they’re being shelled from the hills above. They’re not returning fire directly at the abbey, even though the Allies are convinced that the Germans are using the abbey both to shell them and as an observation post. This becomes a real problem, as winter progresses.
And by the time February 1944 comes around, losses at the base of the Abbey have reached—exceeded, in fact—10,000 troops. So there’s a real dilemma here, which Allied Commander Eisenhower captures very beautifully, and I’ll read that quote out.
“If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more, and the building must go,” So that sounds like a straightforward sort of realpolitikal pragmatic logic. But the quote does not end there. Eisenhower continues to say, “The choice is not always as clear cut as that. In many cases, monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs The phrase military necessity is sometimes used when it could be more truthful to speak of military convenience.”
In other words, the dilemma is a real dilemma. It turns out it’s not just a dilemma for Allied forces, who wait three months before they ultimately attach the abbey; it’s also a dilemma for German forces, who, contrary to expectations, are not using the abbey as an observation post. They have created a large circle outside the abbey, where Axis troops are prohibited from entering. They’re not using the abbey to shell at the Allies below, for the same reason—out of respect.
They then evacuate the abbey and its residents and all its artwork, so that when the Allies do decide to shell the abbey—and they annihilate it; they completely destroy it—the Germans can use this as a propaganda coup. And it really damages efforts by the Americans to signal to Italians—the Italian people, but perhaps even Catholics worldwide—that they respect Christian culture, that they come to protect the Italians from German occupation, that they mean no harm.
So in the end, despite this tremendous deliberation, the abbey is destroyed and the Allies feel a propaganda backlash that’s quite serious.
CUNO: How long did it take them to come to terms with the importance of the Monte Cassino and the decision to destroy it?
HASSNER: So I think the importance of the abbey was known to them from the get-go. The grappling with the decision took about three months. And there were countervailing opinions. There were people who spoke up about the utility of the abbey to the Germans—or so they thought. There were counter voices that talked about the long-range impact that this would have on the trust relationship between the occupied Italians and the Allies. And in the end, the former side won out.
CUNO: Was there a precedent set by this that hadn’t been there before?
HASSNER: I think the conclusion was that it would be good to foreground some of these deliberations and get them out of the way long before they become an issue. So there was never quite another situation like this that I can think of, in Europe, where a site of religious and cultural significance was really the lynchpin of an attack and stood in the way of success; but there were certainly thousands of cases—and I’m happy to talk about these later—in which attacks were hampered by the presence on the ground, of such places.
And in most of these cases, especially by mid-1944, the Allies already had, prior to their attack, maps, photos, detailed lists, so that first of all, they knew where those holy places were—cultural institutions, museums, galleries, statues; and second, they had prepared the means to protect or repair them, should they be damaged in an attack.
CUNO: Scott, why don’t you follow up on Ron’s points with an account of the circumstances from Kyoto and the decisions they made to protect that site?
SAGAN: Well, Ron Hassner’s description of the war and decision made in Italy has a interesting parallel in 1945, with respect to the decision to spare Kyoto and to attack Hiroshima instead. Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan. And the Manhattan Project leader, General Groves, had deliberately spared Kyoto, along with a number of other Japanese cities, from conventional destruction, in large part, because he wanted to have some large cities to use nuclear weapons on, to shock the Japanese.
But when Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, went over the target list, with Kyoto at the top, he told Groves that he wanted to have Kyoto taken off the target list. And there are two reasons that a political military leader would want to protect cultural heritage in that way.
One is strategic. You wanna influence an adversary—especially an adversary’s population—that perhaps you are trying to protect their heritage, and that will help in the postwar settlement.
And the second one is ethical. It’s just the right thing to do. Now, they’re obviously related. But in his conversation with Groves, Stimson made the argument, first, that this was ethical. It’s a beautiful city. It would just be wrong for us to destroy such a site of beauty and culture. And then he added that if we did that, that would make it much harder to bring the Japanese along after the war.
And over the conversation, Groves noted that, as he would he nod his head and shake his head, that Stimson kept emphasizing more and more the strategic, and less and less the ethical argument. And in Stimson’s diary, when he actually made the same argument with Harry Truman at Potsdam, once we knew that the bomb worked and Truman was giving the final okay to drop it, he actually only emphasized the strategic argument. That’s what Truman ended up going along with.
So had Stimson not had his ethical concerns about protecting cultural heritage as the right thing to do, my guess is that Kyoto would have been on the target list and would’ve been destroyed. Hiroshima probably would’ve been destroyed as the second one on the list; Nagasaki, probably not. At the same time, had there not been a strategic argument that protection of cultural heritage helps you win wars or helps you maintain the peace afterwards, Stimson’s arguments may have fallen on deaf ears.
CUNO: Ron, many people have heard of the Monuments Men. They’ve been celebrated in book form and in film. But we don’t all know about the Roberts Commission. So could you take us just through that briefly, to help us understand the context?
HASSNER: Right. So the Roberts Commission comes by different names. The official name was the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments. And we know its sort of operatives on the ground as the Monuments Men.
They had different tasks, each more complicated than the next. The first was to sort of assemble lists of cultural treasures and monuments that should be kept out of harm’s way. And what’s interesting about these lists, to me at least, as a scholar of holy places, is that so many of them are religious sites, and not just cultural and artistic sites. So in the end, once you look at all the lists—and they sort of marked with stars, almost like a Michelin tour guide, whether they were sites of interest or sites of value or sites of tremendous value—you find 5,466 sites of particular value. They created these handbooks and atlases.
So in excess of 5,000 sites around the world, in all theaters of the Second World War. Of those 5,400, more than half—2,269—were churches, monasteries, or abbeys. And that’s the largest category of particularly valuable cultural sites. Compare those more than 2,000 religious sites; there were only 580 museums on the list. That’s only 10%. So they recognized the value, not just of artistic artifacts, but also of sort of cultural and religious buildings.
They provided maps, 786 maps. They provided instruction booklets, explaining about each and every one of these sites—why it’s valuable, what can be found there, a little bit of historical background. They then engaged in an effort to persuade, especially pilots, to try to spare those sites—which it sometimes was possible and other times was less possible. And then when the sites were damaged, they were the primary body responsible for A) repairing destroyed sites, and B) trying to repatriate and return to its owners, looted artifacts.
So it was a massive enterprise. And it started relatively late into the war—the British had a parallel institution—and accelerated as the Allies recognized the significance of this effort.
SAGAN: If I can jump in here, Jim, and Ron, I’d love to have Ron tell the story of the saving of the cathedral at Chartres. ’Cause to me, that’s the most moving part of your chapter, Ron, and one that shows not only that institutions matter, but sometimes individual moral choices made by soldiers makes a difference.
HASSNER: Right. So that came in two parts. The first was an effort to identify Chartres on both maps and aerial photographs, captured both before and after the bombing of Chartres. Before, to identify where the Axis airfield was. Luckily, not too close to the cathedral. And then photos after— And you see this in many other cases, as well, where photos after are circulated internally, in part in order to persuade ourselves and show ourselves how good we are at this and how important this is to us. It’s a kind of, you know, slapping ourselves on the shoulder in pride, to show, ‘Look, we really did take out the target that we intended. And there’s the cathedral, still standing on the riverside, unharmed.’
But then the second stage had to do with ground forces, who were coming at Chartres from the West. The cathedral, like many cathedrals in Europe, was used as a lookout position. In part, in order to target artillery. So again, was very, very tempted to take out the belltowers. And anybody who knows Chartres knows that these belltowers are perhaps the most significant cathedral towers anywhere in Europe because Chartres is built exactly on the cusp of transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic period. And so Chartres is the only cathedral I know of, at least, that has one Romanesque tower and one Gothic tower, side by side. It’s sort of a hybrid cathedral, in that sense. And so sparing those towers was very important.
And then it turned out that the Germans had rigged the cathedral with explosives. And so an American soldier showed tremendous courage, and crossed into enemy lines and he disarmed these explosives. Which is why one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world is spared and available to us today.
CUNO: Now Scott, in your essay, you describe the role of law in the cultural heritage protection in four historical case studies. Take us through them, beginning with the 1954 Hague Convention and continuing until today.
SAGAN: Well, international law is a set of agreements that states make. And states follow the agreements to the degree that they think that they are in their interest. And when the original Hague Convention was put together in 1954, the United States did not want to sign, and refused to.
So law can constrain a state to a more significant degree if the state believes that it is in its interest. What law also does, however—and this is the negative side—is that it can create what lawyers call lawfare; that a government can try to use, in this case, cultural heritage sites, as a kind of human shield, a cultural heritage shield, behind which it can take military actions and try to discourage its adversary from targeting those sites.
Ron mentioned that with the suspected use of the monastery on Italy. During the 1991 war, for example, Saddam Hussein placed fighter jets near the Temple of Ur, in a deliberate effort to try to stop the Allies from attacking that site. It’s a common phenomenon with human shields in many conflicts today, where people will place the offensive military force next to a temple or a mosque or a church, in order to try to discourage the adversary from attacking.
In 1991, the United States, even though it had not signed the Hague Convention, made a decision that the targeting of those fighter jets was not so important that it would justify hitting the temple, ’cause that would destroy the temple, as well. So Saddam’s warfare or lawfare policy actually helped him, in some ways.
But that was an example of how military commanders, looking at the law of armed conflict, thinking about proportionality, and what’s also called the rule of precaution— Even if you have a legitimate target, you have to use the lowest level of military force, to try to take feasible precautions to reduce collateral damage. So throughout these wars. The United States faced this kind of issue.
Finally, in 2009, we ratified the Hague Conventions. But the most important thing, I think, was an increased recognition that protecting cultural heritage, like protecting civilians directly, had strategic import.
So during the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the highest-level commanders—in this case, General Stanley McChrystal; later, David Petraeus—had a policy that they called courageous restraint. They would encourage officers not to call in airpower strikes, air support, and not to themselves order attacks, if ISIS or Taliban fighters had placed themselves into a area in which our response would destroy cultural heritage. And if you took some risk yourself, or your command took some risk, you would actually be issued a commendation.
This was controversial because it meant, for some, that you are risking American soldiers’ lives for the sake of protecting cultural heritage. But McChrystal argued—and the evidence ends up, I think, suggesting that he was right—that protection of cultural heritage, like protecting foreign civilians, is a way to encourage the local population to support you and oppose the rebels.
So that’s how law and decisions at the higher level can influence the tradeoffs made in the difficult dilemmas of protecting cultural heritage versus protecting your own troops.
CUNO: Yeah. Ron, describe the four lessons learned by Allies in seeking to preserve and protect sacred places during times of war.
HASSNER: So I’d say the first lesson is—and maybe this is a surprise and maybe it isn’t—that even under the most extreme case, decision makers do try to protect sacred sites. And that’s why I find the cases in World War II instructive. This is not a minor skirmish. These battles, these victories, matter tremendously, including in Monte Cassino. One would not have expected ex ante that a place like that would be spared for three months, at the cost of many, many thousands of lives. You visit Monte Cassino today and the first thing you see is this massive Allied cemetery at the foot of the monastery.
So parties do try to protect them, they do take this into account. Which should not be interpreted to mean that they always spare them. Sometimes the result of taking something into account means deliberation; sometimes it means hesitation; sometimes it means sparing; sometimes it means some form of restraint or other. Almost never are these places recklessly destroyed, with commanders saying, you know, ‘We just don’t care. War is war.’ So I think that’s lesson number one, is that there’s always some effort made, at least in the form of deliberation.
Conclusion number two is that these cultural sites are treated more cautiously the greater their audience. So if a site matters to a local audience, you can imagine that this would have a minimal effect on million operations. But if it matters to a regional or a global audience, then a good deal of restraint comes into play. And again, Monte Cassino is instructive here. It’s not just a matter of the residents of the town of Monte Cassino; it’s not even just a matter of Italians watching the progress of the battle. Catholics worldwide are watching.
And similarly, with the examples that Scott Sagan gave in Iraq, here the audience is not just Iraqi, or even necessarily people of the Middle East, but Muslims worldwide, who might take tremendous offense if one of their heritage sites or one of their religious sites is destroyed.
The third thing I’d say is that the religious identity of the participants matters, especially in relationship to the local population. So observers are sometimes more tolerant of damage to holy places, or even cultural sites, if they share a religious or cultural identity with the people doing the attacking.
To put it more simply with an example, there were many cases, many hundreds of cases, in which US troops conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan gave chase to insurgents, and the insurgents sought shelter in a mosque. And now a firefight starts. The insurgents are inside the mosque, shooting out; the counterinsurgents are outside the mosque, shooting in. And there’s a certain hypocrisy here, in that the insurgents are treated with greater deference than the counterinsurgents, for the simple reason that the insurgents are Muslim and this is a mosque.
And the counterinsurgents tend to be not Muslim. And so their attacks on the mosque, even though they did not initiate, even though they did not take the fight to the mosque, their damage to the mosque is read more critically. And so I think that’s one thing to take into account.
When the Americans threaten to bomb Kyoto, this crosses religious lines and it crosses cultural lines and is, therefore, read as particularly offensive, by the Japanese. In the case of Italy, in contrast, this is a majority Christian military attacking majority Christian sites. And I think that that lends itself to somewhat more understanding and patience on the part of observers.
The final thing I’ll say—and that is something that Scott Sagan alluded to—and that’s this logic of moral hazard. If we constrain ourselves in attacking sites of cultural and religious significance, we cannot be surprised that our opponents will exploit our reluctance, and will use these sites of cultural and religious significance as bases, as locations for storing ammunition, as hideouts. That creates a difficult dilemma. It’s a strategic situation. It’s not just us restraining ourselves, but it’s us restraining ourselves and our opponents knowing that we are restraining ourselves, and adapting their behavior accordingly.
SAGAN: The most extreme example of this in the modern world, I believe, is the Iranian decision to place one of their two major nuclear materials production sites next to the city of Qom. And that was, in my judgment, deliberately done, using Qom, the most religious city in Iran, as a human shield, or as a religious shield. And it restricts the US willingness or the Israeli willingness to attack that site, fearing that it would have broader collateral damage against cultural heritage.
CUNO: Now Scott and Ron, just before our book was put to print, Russia and Ukraine went to war, putting millions of people and countless numbers of prized works of art and architectural monuments at risk. What did these new circumstances mean for Ukraine’s soldiers, civilians, and cultural heritage?
SAGAN: Well, maybe I’ll start just by giving the most prominent examples. I do not know of cases in which the Russians have used cultural heritage sites in occupied portions of Ukraine as shields. Maybe Ron does know of examples. But what they have done is to take cultural heritage from occupied areas. When Ukraine is coming back to take its territory back, the Russians have stolen materials, like the Nazis did in World War II, and taken it back to Russia. The most prominent example were the bones of Potemkin, but also other sites from museums in occupied Ukraine.
What the Russians have been doing, in this sense of using a protected site as a shield to try to reduce the willingness of the Ukrainians to target their forces, is places forces and artillery around nuclear power plants. That’s not cultural heritage, but it’s an important thing that we need to protect. SAGAN (Cont.): So the IAEA has gone in—the International Atomic Energy Agency—has gone in to try to create zones of protection around those particular energy production nuclear power plants.
Right now, they’re still in negotiation; but it looks possible that the Russians may pull their troops out of those areas and give them to the IAEA, because they, I think, are aware that it could be a environmental disaster if those power plants or the storage, the fuel ponds with spent fuel in them, are destroyed by Russian or by Ukrainian artillery.
CUNO: And Ron?
HASSNER: The Russian example in Ukraine is very interesting. I wrote in my chapter, that what complicates the calculus here is not just the identity of the occupier, but also the intentions of the occupier. And that occupiers that are engaged in a sort of hearts-and-minds campaign, envisioning, perhaps, a prolonged occupation, in which they claim to rid the local population of a prior occupier— ‘We come in peace; we are here to reestablish your country and put it back on its feet,’—that those kinds of hearts-and-minds campaigns showcase particular sensitivity to cultural and religious sites.
And that’s what the Russians are claiming, but that’s not what the Russians are doing. So it’s, in a way, a good indicator of what Russian intentions are. If the Russians really were, as they claim, coming in to liberate the Ukrainians, who they think of as Russians, from a local oppressive regime, as they often refer to them as Nazis, then they would not be looting these artifacts and taking them back into the Russian heartland.
So I think that, to my mind, speaks volumes about their intentions. But it’s complicated by the fact that the Russians think of these as Russian artifacts, not Ukrainian artifacts, and could make some claim that they are salvaging these because there’s gonna be war and who knows how this war’s going to end? ‘And we’re really acting in the best interest of the artifacts.’
The other aspect that makes this war fascinating, but no less tragic, is that the two sides of the conflict share a religious proximity. They’re not entirely identical. There are lines drawn between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, but they are close enough in religious proximity that the Russians have been, to my mind, pretty careful about not targeting churches, which I think they otherwise would have done, had these churches been the churches of a different religious movement. So there, one sees some restraint. I cannot say whether it’s intentional or not.
CUNO: Scott and Ron, thank you for taking us through the military responses for the safety of the world’s cultural heritage for much of the past seventy-five years. It’s a complex and important set of relationships that has to be maintained and carefully sustained over time, if only because cultural heritage and mass atrocities matter; and we think they do. So thank you both very much for your contributions to this program.
SAGAN: Thank you.
HASSNER: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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Thanks for listening
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on the need to protect cultural heritage during times of war and mass atrocities.
SCOTT SAGAN: Protecting cultural heritage, like protecting civi...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824