21st Century “Scholar Warriors” Carry Legacy of Monuments Men & Women into Ukraine

Posted on: July 17, 2023 by

In the last several years, the U.S. Army has been raising up a generation of modern-day “scholar warriors” to follow in the pioneering steps of WWII-era Monuments Officers. These warriors are Army Reserve Civil Affairs Soldiers who, like their predecessors, have a range of specialties that they can utilise to advance the mission of defending cultural freedom. These are the individuals who will help deter culturally-erosive dangers like “misinformation, limited resources [and] theft” that too often occur in times of conflict and war, including the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Training to Assist in Preservation of Ukrainian Cultural Heritage

In June 2023, Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative Director and retired Army Reserve officer Corine Wegener led approximately twenty soldiers from the 353rd Civil Affairs Command in a workshop on the preservation of Ukraine’s tangible cultural heritage. While UNESCO’s assessment of the damage since 24 February 2022 gives the raw numbers – 260 Ukrainian sites damaged by Russian war tactics that include “112 religious sites, 22 museums, 94 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, 12 libraries, 1 Archive”, Heritage Emergency Response Initiative co-founder Ihor Poshyvailo attended virtually to offer trainees his account of the situation in Ukraine.

St. Catherine Church of Chernihiv, one of the damaged cultural sites in Ukraine

Hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met’s curatorial and conservation staff instructed trainees on measures for “disaster response, protection and restitution of artworks” and the importance of preserving undisturbed evidence through photography for future criminal proceedings (“‘Monuments Men’ Rise Again to Help Ukraine” The Art Newspaper, No. 358, July/August 2023). The Met’s Associate Curator of European Paintings Alison Hokanson advised on an unfortunate truth – that “weaponization of art history” includes “the weaponization of objects” and “the weaponization of the stories that are told through these objects”. This was exemplified in the era of the Monuments Men and Women, and is necessary information for these current soldiers as they prepare to assist in Ukraine with what has been described as “one of Europe’s deadliest conflicts” since World War II with “disturbing echoes of the 1930s”.

U.S. Army Monuments Officers Training Programme

The first formal step to bring about this new wave of Monuments Officers officially began in late 2019. It was then that the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding “to increase collaboration in protecting and preserving cultural property in armed conflict and develop a training program for Army Reserve Civil Affairs Soldiers.” While the Smithsonian had previously trained Army soldiers, this marked a moment of “real long-term capacity” that resulted in the Army Monuments Officers Training (AMOT) programme.

Once trained under the AMOT programme, modern soldiers become “Military Government Specialists, a separate area of concentration (38G) under the Civil Affairs officer branch that is available only to traditional Army Reserve officers.These 38G Military Government Specialists are tasked with assignments that can range from ethnographic research to advising on the obligations of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The breadth and importance of this work can be seen by a review of the cultural objects that fall under the 1954 Hague Convention’s protection – “monuments of architecture, art or history, archaeological sites, works of art, manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest, as well as scientific collections of any kind regardless of their origin or ownership”.

Capt. Rose Valland

The AMOT programme began virtually in 2020 and has continued since with trainees who include archaeologists, educators, museum and cultural programme management professionals, data scientists, art historians, artists, provenance researchers and environmental management professionals.

Guides for Current and Future “Scholar Warriors”

The 348 multi-national men and women who distinguished themselves as the original Monuments Men and Women proved that diverse skills like that of museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, librarians and educators are pivotal in the theatre of war. The grit and creative tenacity of these individuals also offers a wellspring of motivation – from Capt. Rose Valland who spied on the Nazi-looting machine at the Jeu de Paume to Capt. James Rorimer who applied a Rothschild wax seal to the entry of the Neuschwanstein Castle to ensure the safety of Nazi-looted treasure and records within. There is no doubt that these cultural preservation giants will serve as guides to embolden current and future generations of “scholar warriors” in the ongoing work of protecting our global heritage.

Image Credits: 

St. Catherine Church of Chernihiv, photo taken 2011, Siarhei Lozikau via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0 – File:St. Catherine Church – panoramio.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Capt. Rose Valland, c. 1930, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Archives diplomatiques (La Courneuve) via Wikimedia Commons – public domain