Memo to Trump: Targeting Cultural Sites is a War Crime. And It Doesn’t Even Work


The United Nations Security Council condemned the “intolerance, violence, and hatred” demonstrated by the Islamic State’s destruction of Roman temples in Palmyra, Syria. The Islamic extremist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is currently serving a nine-year sentence for smashing centuries-old tombs in Mali.

He did it in the name of Al Qaeda, and so the International Criminal Court convicted him as a war criminal. And the world continues to mourn the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up by Taliban forces nearly 20 years ago.

No wonder that, as a guide for soldiers prepared by the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School puts it, those who violate the laws protecting cultural property during conflict “will be prosecuted in court and in the blaze of media attention.”

The guide goes on to say that it is “critical that all commanders up and down the chain of command receive a briefing… on the laws governing cultural property.”

Currently, the commander most in need of this briefing is our Commander-in-Chief.

On Saturday, our president tweeted his intent to target 52 Iranian sites, “important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” if Iran should strike any Americans or American assets.

To do so would be a war crime.

U.S. forces have considered themselves bound to protect culturally important monuments, places of worship, and works of art since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln commissioned the Lieber Code, a set of rules of combat for Union soldiers.

Under the Code, harm to cultural property was permitted only when “indispensable for securing the ends of the war.”

This principle of military necessity continues to apply in the modern law of war, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, which the U.S. ratified in 2009. As a signatory to the convention, the U.S. is obligated to require its troops to protect monuments, sites, and objects “of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” from destruction during combat, unless compelled by military necessity.

For example, if enemy soldiers are using a minaret as a sniper post, this might justify the bombing of a mosque.

But Article 4.4 of the 1954 Hague Convention specifically prohibits signatories from “any act directed by way of reprisals against cultural property.” Article 4.3 prohibits any acts of vandalism against cultural property. And the Department of Defense Law of War Manual notes that these are absolute prohibitions. There is no waiver for military necessity.

There is no excuse for taking revenge by bombing sites important to an enemy’s culture, like some of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites found in Iran.

Why is there such universal agreement in the law about prohibiting the destruction of cultural property during conflict? Are all those flinty-eyed war hawks secretly dedicated weekend museum-goers? Perhaps. But the real reason is that destroying culture is a really good way to lose a war.

Soldiers deployed to culturally rich areas like Iraq and Afghanistan are trained by the Department of Defense and United States Central Command that they don’t merely have a legal obligation to protect cultural property. Instead, this protection is important because of its role as a force multiplier, “winning hearts and minds among local populations by sending the message that the U.S. military is the most respectful and professional fighting force in the world.”

We learned this lesson the hard way.

During the Iraq War, Coalition forces were blamed for preventing the looting of the Bagdad Museum and for damaging the site of ancient Babylon by turning it into a military camp. Actions like these reduced trust from local populations and gave propaganda talking points to the enemy.

And peace is exponentially harder to achieve if cultural sites have been destroyed. Civilians who can no longer make a living in the hotels, restaurants, or other business that depended on the flow of tourists to an important site are more likely to become disaffected and turn to insurgency.

For these very reasons, late last year the Army launched a new initiative to train museum directors, curators, and archaeologists, among others, as commissioned officers of the Army Reserves to be deployed to war zones to secure cultural heritage.

The Kennedy Special Warfare Center’s guide for soldiers explains that cultural property is vulnerable in times of conflict for many reasons, including that combatants might want to “exact political retribution by targeting symbols of their enemies’ “cultural identity” or fall prey to the “temptation” to destroy for the sake of power.

The authors of this guide surely did not imagine that these unscrupulous combatants might be Americans, especially not the president.

Respecting culture wins wars. And as those who have stooped to the deliberate destruction of cultural monuments have learned, the more important these monuments are to their cultures, the greater the chance that they will rise again.

The shrines, mosques, and ancient sites destroyed by the Islamic State were recreated digitally almost as soon as the bombs exploded. The historic center of Warsaw, methodologically destroyed by the Nazis with explosives and flamethrowers as part of a planned Germanization of Poland, has been meticulously reconstructed.

Erin Thompson, antiquities crime expert.

And Malians rebuilt the shrines destroyed by jihadists before al-Mahdi was even convicted for smashing them.

Destruction of cultural property is not only illegal. It’s also dishonorable, self-defeating, and ultimately futile.

Erin L. Thompson is a professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice She welcomes comments from readers.

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