Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Saving cathedrals... and oil wells

I watched a talk on C-Span yesterday by Robert Edsel, discussing his book Rescuing Da Vinci. The book is about a group of men and women in WW2 who performed heroically during the war in finding, preserving and returning works of art to their original owners, works that had been stolen by the Nazis. The group was known as “The Monuments Men” because they were originally formed to preserve fixed monuments, but their mandate was very quickly expanded to include all works of artistic value.

The group was formed by FDR before the beginning of the war. (Will I ever quit finding reasons to believe that he was the greatest president we’ve ever had?) The quotation that Mr. Edsel cited when FDR created the group was typical of the great man, almost moving me to tears. As he spoke it, I remembered seeing it inscribed in stone in the “fourth room” at the FDR Memorial in Washington DC.

The effort had the fullest support of Generals Bradley, Patton and in particular Eisenhower. The latter spoke to that point on the eve of the Normandy Invasion, reminding the armed forces that monuments and works of art must be preserved insofar as was consistent with the needs of war. At one point during the conflict a PFC of the Monuments Men overruled Patton when he wanted to use a building in Munich for his headquarters; the Monuments Group had taken the building for its own use and Patton conceded their PFC’s authority to do so.

I had known of this group before, sort of in passing, but I learned much more from listening to this talk by Mr. Edsel and it is quite a powerful story. I forget now how many men and women were involved, but it was a fairly sizeable group and more than a few lost their lives in the process of saving so many works of art.

One of the stories that Mr. Edsel told was, that while interviewing those few people remaining who had participated, he asked each the question, “Is art worth a life?” They were unanimous in believing that it was, but one responded with a single word, “Cathedrals!” he exclaimed. When Mr. Edsel pursued an explanation the man, a Frenchman, explained that the daylight bombers flew lower over the cities with cathedrals and accepted heavier losses from antiaircraft fire so that they could see the cathedrals and not hit them with their bombs.

The force doing daylight bombing during WW2, the only one to the best of my knowledge, was the United States Army Air Corps using B-17’s. While many cathedrals were damaged and some destroyed completely, after the war there were more than just a few cities where everything around a cathedral was rubble and the cathedral itself was untouched.

On a personal note, my father was a member of that Army Air Corps. Like many of his time and age, he never talked about the war at all, but flying low to save cathedrals is something that he would have done, and he would not have needed orders to do it. Dad will probably never be nominated for sainthood, but he earned his resting place at Arlington National, he was a good man and I am proud of him.

Anyway, that’s how we fought the war that Bush and company are so fond of using as their model for this conflict.

Compare that to the sacking of the Iraqi National Museum in 2003 while our troops stood by and did nothing to stop it. The only plan that our government had made in advance of that invasion for saving anything was a plan regarding oil wells. Forces were assigned to protect oil fields from being destroyed, everything else in the country was on its own.

I do not really fault the individual troops involved. I cannot know, but I suspect they were not as uncaring as their actions would suggest. I suspect, rather, that there were simply too few of them and they were in a situation for which they had received no prior instructions. That latter is, of course, the whole point: they had received no prior instructions.

The response of our present government, the Secretary of Defense being the only person that spoke to this loss of priceless artworks, was,
“Oh well, shit happens in war.”

One government saves priceless works of art, the other saves oil wells.

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