WASHINGTON, DC -- When civil affairs Marines come upon an imperiled trove of fine art or ancient books in the field, the last thing they should do is the first thing that might come to mind — scoop everything up and pack it safely away.
“Treat it like a crime scene,” Deborah Hull-Walski, acting collections manager at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., told a group of about 30 civil affairs Marines who toured the museum on Nov. 13.
Using the example of Wally, a beaver killed in traffic, stuffed by a Virginia couple and now sitting on a table in the museum’s north attic, she said the specimen wouldn’t be worth much without documentation of where it lived, when and how it died, and other information that places it in context.
“If you don’t track your stuff from the very beginning, and you bring it home without documentation, all you’ve got is a beaver,” Hull-Walski said. Instead, everything should be photographed where it lies and then shot again with a white backdrop, a color checker and an object that can be referenced for scale.
In February of 2014, the world will be treated to the story of the Allied Armies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, established in 1943 to rescue cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis and spread across Europe. The movie “The Monuments Men,” based on a 2009 book by the same name and boasting an all-star cast, tells a story that was little-known outside the museum community until recent years.
Nor has much ink been spent on the Marine Corps civil affairs’ Arts, Monuments and Archives program.
The Corps just established its own civil affairs school at Marine Corps Base Quantico four years ago, and it became the Marine Corps Civil-Military Operations School in 2011. Until the school was created, Marines who went into civil affairs had to get their training with the Army or the Navy. Now, they spend four weeks at the school at Quantico, learning to influence relations between the military and local governments and civilians in the field.
About 20 hours of that instruction is on the preservation of the culturally and archaeologically important sites and objects that “symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve,” as then-Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower put it when the original “monuments men” were put into service.
The training involves much higher-profile items than stuffed rodents.
Some of the books the Marines saw in the museum’s Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, for example, dated back to before Christopher Columbus set foot in the western world.
The written word, said Leslie Overstreet, curator of natural-history rare books, transmits a people’s history and culture across space and time. But the books that contain the word are decidedly low-tech and vulnerable to damage by fire, water, mold and insects.
The most common destroyer of books is water, from floods to humidity, said Katie Wagner, conservator with the Smithsonian.
In the event of wet books, the Marines learned, rescuers should not open them up to dry, as they would risks damaging the pages. Instead, they should be put in a freezer.
“If you can freeze it, you can, one by one, go through and determine what materials are involved,” said Vanessa Height Smith, senior conservator.
The collection included a nondescript set of four books whose significance would escape anyone who didn’t find a title page hidden in the third volume indicating the first writings of Charles Darwin.
“This is an extremely important book, however unassuming and unimportant it may look,” Overstreet said.
Lt. Col. Lou Simon, director at the civil affairs school, pointed out that this is why the Marines should let the locals decide which books and other items should be given high priority.
Through their relationships with the locals, Marines are often the ones who secure safe passage for the specialists to get into imperiled cultural sites, said Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer with the Smithsonian and founder of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting cultural property during wartime.
Unlike the monuments men of World War II, most of whom were curators, scholars and artists with little or no military training, civil affairs Marines are trained warriors with relatively cursory cultural preservation guidance. However, they are often the first on the scene.
“With the little training they get, they’ll be the duty expert when they get there,” Simon said.
For the 900 or so civil affairs Marines, most of whom are reservists, civil affairs is not a primary billet. Simon is a helicopter pilot. Others are aircraft mechanics and infantrymen. The work just opened up as a primary military occupational specialty for reserve and enlisted Marines on Oct. 1.
One reservist who plans to fill one of the 300 civil affairs billets that just became primary duties is Staff Sgt. Jaime Varillas, an antitank gunner stationed with the 4th Civil Affairs Group in Hialeah, Fla., who was on the museum tour.
In the third week of civil affairs school, he said the experience had opened his eyes to a way of winning battles other than sheer military might. “This training has given us another view of civilian military operations,” he said. “As an infantryman, I had another vision of civil affairs. I thought we just go in, pay off whatever we destroyed and move on.”
Varillas said learning of the cultural property lost to warfare in Baghdad during the war in Iraq had left him impressed with the weight of the responsibility the military has to prevent such destruction.
“By taking care of their culture, their beliefs, anything that has to do with their history, we gain their trust, and then we have them on our side,” he said. The phrase “winning hearts and minds” is also familiar to the infantry, he added. “But it’s not just handing out candy bars and soccer balls.”
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