When the U.S. Army invaded Sicily in 1943, Lt. Col. Mason Hammond raced around the island in a beat-up Jeep, intent on preventing its cultural heritage from becoming a casualty of war. Discovering that the National Library in Palermo was damaged by Allied bombing, exposing its collection of rare books to looters, he had American troops assigned to guard them. Other GIs were sent to string barbed wire around Sicily’s ancient temples.
Before World War II, Hammond was a professor of classics at Harvard University, a position he returned to after the war. His treatise “Latin: A Historical and Linguistic Handbook” has long sat on my bookshelves. Last week, I needed to hold it in my hands.
It witnesses how far we’ve come from a president who gave Hammond his wartime assignment to President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. has selected 52 targets “important to Iran and Iranian culture” to hit if there is a violent response to our assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The British government, generally our most reliable ally, quickly said it wanted no part of such a barbarous strategy. Even more remarkably, Defense Secretary Mark Esper distanced himself from Trump by noting that “the laws of armed conflict” prohibit striking cultural sites.
But in responding to his critics, Trump doubled down on his threat, asking: “They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to torture and maim our people, they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites?”
The answer is—or should be—“Yes.” Not because it’s forbidden by international law, but because that is not who we are. Vandals destroy other people’s cultural heritage. Civilized nations don’t.
That’s why Hammond and other American professors traded tweed jackets with leather patches for Army uniforms and served in the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas during World War II.
One moment they were teaching Art History 101 or submitting a Ph.D. thesis to a scholarly journal. The next, they were tagging along with infantry units and tanks on European battlefields. Some were hardly spring chickens. Hammond was 40 when he safeguarded Sicily’s priceless heritage.
Some of his colleagues’ exploits were celebrated in George Clooney’s 2014 film, “Monuments Men.” It follows members of the Historic Monuments commission as they try to stop the Nazis from stripping French museums of artistic masterpieces. Adolf Hitler wanted them for the colossal memorial to himself that he intended to build in Linz, Austria, close to his birthplace.
Though the Historic Monuments Commission largely stymied Hitler’s plans, its establishment was opposed with an argument similar to Trump’s justification for holding hostage Iran’s cultural heritage: War takes precedent over cultural niceties. But the U.S. then had a president committed to preserving, not targeting, the great monuments of civilization.
When America entered WWII, the presidents of the Archeological Institute of America and the College Art Association, the directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, told Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone that masterpieces of Western art were at risk. Of its own accord, the Army couldn’t be expected to protect them. Its priority was defeating the Nazis.
Stone wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to proclaim “to the world, friends and enemies, our government’s practical concern in protecting these symbols of civilization from injury and spoliation.”
Myriad memos marked “urgent” were landing on the president’s desk. Our battleships lay on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese defeated our army in the Philippines. But Roosevelt read Stone’s letter, and thus the Historic Monuments Commission was created.
Its front-line troops had to be one of the oddest military units ever created: a phalanx of art historians. Word went down the chain of command to scour the ranks for soldiers with needed skills. Others such as Hammond volunteered. Former professors gave ordinary GIs a quickie course in Western civilization, and the artistic casualties of World War II were less than they could have been.
At this point, the consequences of Trump’s declaration of war on Iranian civilization are up for grabs. Maybe he will quietly shelve it, just as he did his bid to buy Greenland. Or maybe there could be a tug of war between Trump and his advisers and Secretary Esper and the generals.
If so, someone should read Trump a letter that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower sent to his field commander when U.S. troops were battling the Nazis in Italy during World War II:
“Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments as far as war allows.”
Let’s hope and pray that Trump would listen to Ike’s words and come to a similar conclusion about Iran’s heritage.