Ukrainian Heralds of War need a new Delayed Monument Officers Unit

For months before the bombs started falling, Hayden Bassett watched over Ukraine’s cultural riches – the cathedrals of Kiev, the historic buildings of Lviv, museums across the country and the ancient burial grounds that dot its steppes.

Using satellite imagery, Bassett, 32, an archaeologist and director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Laboratory, has monitored and mapped much of the country’s national heritage as part of an effort civilian to mark sites that may be devastated. by war.

It’s the kind of job envisioned for a US Army unit created to succeed the legendary World War II Monuments Men, who salvaged millions of Nazi-looted European treasures. But more than two years after the military, to much fanfare, announced the new effort, inspired by the old, of dedicated art experts working in a military capacity to preserve treasures of the past, the program is still not not operational.

“There are a lot of growing pains,” acknowledged Corine Wegener, director of the program’s partner Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.

“There’s this capability,” she said, “that the military should have that isn’t available to commanders right now.”

The lack of this capability has become pressing as Russia invades and explosions threaten the golden domes and ancient frescoes of Ukrainian cities. The pandemic has certainly played a role in the hiring delay, but candidates seeking to join the unit, and the leaders training it, have also pointed to a host of other issues.

Some applicants describe a tortuous process in which applications were misguided and Army review boards were slow to decide whether to hire the many civilian archaeologists, curators, museum specialists and archivists who showed interest.

One of the leaders of the effort, Col. Scott DeJesse, an Army Reserve officer and painter from Texas, said the Army was determined to make it happen, but a large bureaucracy – including critical missions include emerging military threats – is requested for the first time. mandate civilian cultural heritage specialists directly in the military ranks. During World War II, Monuments Men were soldiers who had already enlisted and had a background in art history or other specialized fields.

“Listen, I intend to change the world with these people, and yes, I wish it was done sooner,” said Colonel DeJesse, who does not lead the hiring process but focuses on the operational side of the new unit. “Are people dragging their feet? No. Is this a major priority? No. It’s just the speed of a large organization like the military.

The new unit reflects a recognition that the military needs a force of academic experts to advise U.S. commanders and local authorities on how to protect cultural heritage, a recognition that intensified after the destruction and looting of ancient objects during and after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unit will, among other things, delineate sites to be avoided during airstrikes and ground combat, and mark places such as museums to be protected from looting.

Beyond the intrinsic value of such preservation work, officials say efforts to protect cultural heritages have the power to bind local people together and foster peace, once the shooting stops. And when it comes to diplomacy and soft power, the sight of American forces helping to save other countries’ cultural treasures can be a powerful tool in the battle for hearts and minds.

“Monuments Men is one of the best images of World War II,” said Andrew Kless, director of the global studies program at Alfred University in upstate New York, a new body candidate who learned in 2020 that he had been selected. for an officer position; he is still awaiting news of his final appointment.

“It takes longer than anything I’ve experienced,” he said. “It didn’t change my mind to join. I have a long-term view. It’s a new program.”

Col. Marshall Straus Scantlin, director of strategic initiatives, US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), said the pandemic has hampered the ability to convene review boards, which usually take place in person. “It just takes time and we want to make sure we get it right,” he said.

Several people who went through the hiring process said they feared some qualified applicants were turned away. And several civilian applicants have been given a rank and then demoted, perhaps reflecting institutional resistance to accepting newcomers at ranks that might antagonize career military officers. Two candidates wrote to their senators to complain.

Col. DeJesse said he was told by Army personnel that it was sometimes difficult to equate the seniority and work experiences of civilian applicants to the military rank, and that the ranks assigned to civilian hires were under review.

But he defended the quality of the candidates selected so far. As for those who were rejected, he said some applicants did not address specific job requirements in their resumes. Others had good experience, but not as stated in the army specifications, which require 48 months of work experience in a specialized field after obtaining an advanced degree.

In October, during a virtual meeting that included applicants for cultural heritage assignments, Col. DeJesse expressed frustration with the length of the process.

“We are here with you and we appreciate your patience,” he said. “It’s so important that you stick with it as best you can.”

The cadre is part of the Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Colonel DeJesse, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the unit could have up to 33 specialists, “the most number of monument officers since the late 1940s”, he said. he declares.

He said several experts who were already reservists had been successfully transferred to the new unit and some were already on the job – for example, training units deployed in Central America, Africa and other regions on the how to help countries identify and preserve their cultural heritage.

He said 12 more outside nominees had been shortlisted and hoped the top five of them could finally be “pinned” – be officially named – at a scheduled event at the Smithsonian in August.

Another 12 would have their applications reviewed by a review board in May, he said.

In the meantime, candidates have continued to submit documents and prepare for the army physical test, which they will take once commissioned. (It involves six exercises – lifting a 60-pound weight three times; throwing a 10-pound medicine ball; doing consecutive push-ups for two minutes; sprinting and dragging and carrying a weight; bend the legs or planks; and a course of two thousand lessons.)

Elizabeth Varner, a specialist in museum administration and cultural property law, who was selected as the candidate, said she was delighted to qualify for a “desperately needed” service.

“The protection of cultural property is an ongoing process,” she said. “It takes a long time to prepare to react and once events happen you are late if you haven’t already prepared.”

This type of specialized preparation for Ukraine is currently being carried out on a civilian basis by experts such as Mr. Bassett, who himself has been selected as a captain in the new reserve unit, for when the officers of the monuments will finally begin to work.

For a year and a half, the team in his laboratory in Virginia, which is part of a larger network of about 10 people, has been training soldiers deployed in East Africa to preserve the cultural heritage of a region and used satellite imagery to monitor sites affected by disasters in Honduras and Haiti, and by armed conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Tigray region of Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, surveillance by Bassett’s team had included sites in the east of the country and in Crimea, areas then already occupied by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. Mr Bassett said the team found not only destruction caused by the conflict, but also the construction of new monuments. For example, Savur-Mohyla is the site of a Bronze Age burial mound, or kurgan. A World War II memorial that the Soviets built on the site was destroyed during the fighting in 2014. This monument is now being rebuilt with help from Russia.

It is among more than a thousand sites that could be damaged by the widening conflict, according to the lab’s growing database, the type of resource that Bassett hopes could potentially play a role in the work. of the army unit when it becomes active. .

“This will allow me and other incoming monument officers to get started immediately,” he said of the lab’s work in general. “I’m looking forward to that moment. Once we’re in uniform, we’ll do that job in the United States, but we’ll also have the ability to do it with boots on the pitch in a meaningful way.

Comments are closed.