The treatment of cultural heritage during armed conflict has received an unwelcome wave of attention after President Trump made the decision to threaten Iranian cultural sites with an attack over the weekend. In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump stated that “if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets,” that the United States has targeted 52 Iranian sites. This troubling threat would violate the Pentagon’s own War Manual, and the 1954 Hague Convention on Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Article 4 of the 1954 Convention requires Parties to respect cultural property by refraining from using such property or its surroundings for any purpose which may lead to its damage or destruction.
This is the kind of shortsighted and callous thinking I never thought I’d see displayed by an American President. But sadly President Trump has joined many of the absolute worst leaders in history in choosing to threaten the culture of another people. The threat marks a sharp reversal of decades of work done by the State Department and others in American public life to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of all nations. What a disgrace.
It might be useful to compare the current President’s callous indifference to culture with that of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1943, during the Second World War, General Eisenhower issued an order to his commanders to protect monuments and culture on the eve of the allied invasion of Italy:
Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.
If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase ‘military necessity’ is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.
Note that there was no hint of military necessity in Trump’s words.
A wave of sharp condemnation has followed the President’s threats, more than I can catalog here. The Archaeological Institute of America called “upon President Trump and the U.S. Department of Defense to protect civilians and cultural heritage in Iran, and to reaffirm that U.S. military forces will comply only with lawful military orders.”
Brian Daniels and Patty Gerstenblith in a letter to the New York Times argued:
The world community, including the United States, has rightly condemned the intentional destruction of cultural heritage for decades. Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria intentionally destroyed cultural heritage in the absence of any military necessity. If Mr. Trump carries out this threat, the United States will join the ranks of these destroyers of the world’s cultural legacy.
Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy for fighting ISIS tweeted that “American military forces adhere to international law. They don’t attack cultural sites.”
In an OpEd in the LA Times Prof. Sara Bronin argued “A nation that willfully destroys another country’s heritage would be no better than the criminals who have destroyed irreplaceable sites in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in recent years.”
Writing for the Guardian, Simon Jones argued that the “threat to destroy the sites of ancient Persia should send a shiver down the spine of any civilised person.”
Writing in the Art Newspaper, Francesco Bandarin, a former senior official at UNESCO rightly pointed out that “[t]he territory of modern Iran has been home to some of the greatest civilisations of mankind from prehistory to classical antiquity down to modern times. Iran today has 24 sites on the Unesco World Heritage List. A deliberate attack would presumably target historic cities and monuments or archaeological areas.”
On Sunday, John Bellinger III, a legal advisor for the State Department under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009 called on Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Millet to publicly affirm that the United States will still comply with the 1954 Hague Convention. He also argued that the White House should learn the domestic and international law rules that govern the use of military force.
One of those reasons that ignorance is so costly of course is that when a culture is targeted, that makes any mission or conflict existential, and makes an ultimate victory more difficult and costly to achieve. Any thinking leader would appreciate this simple fact.
Zack Beauchamp, Trump’s threat to commit war crimes by bombing Iran’s cultural sites, explained, Vox (Jan. 6, 2020), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/6/21047720/trump-iran-war-cultural-sites.
Simon Jenkins, Donald Trump’s Belligerent Threats to Iran’s Cultural Sites Are Grotesque | Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, Jan. 6, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/06/donald-trump-threat-iran-cultural-sites-grotesque-war-crimes.
Philip Kennicott, Perspective | The president didn’t threaten just Iran’s culture sites. He threatened culture., Washington Post (Jan. 6, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/the-president-didnt-threaten-irans-culture-sites-he-threatened-culture/2020/01/06/704e1ed4-30a0-11ea-91fd-82d4e04a3fac_story.html.
Steve Rose, Here’s What Could Be Lost If Trump Bombs Iran’s Cultural Treasures, The Guardian, Jan. 6, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/06/the-iranian-cultural-treasures-targeted-by-trump. If the US destroys Iranian cultural sites, President Trump will be criminally liable by international law (Jan. 6, 2020), http://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/if-the-us-destroys-iranian-cultural-sites-president-trump-will-be-criminally-liable-by-international-law.
News—AIA Statement Condemning Intentional Targeting of Iranian Cultural Heritage Sites, Archaeological Institute of America (Jan. 6, 2020), https://www.archaeological.org/aia-statement-condemning-intentional-targeting-of-iranian-cultural-heritage-sites/.
Opinion | A Threat to Iran’s Rich Cultural Heritage, The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/06/opinion/letters/iran-culture-war-crime.html. Opinion: Destroying cultural heritage sites is a war crime, Los Angeles Times (Jan. 6, 2020), https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-01-05/iran-donald-trump-cultural-sites-war-crime.
Top GOP lawyer: Attacking Iranian cultural sites would breach Hague Cultural Property Convention, Washington Examiner (Jan. 6, 2020), https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/top-gop-lawyer-attacking-iranian-cultural-sites-would-breach-hague-cultural-property-convention.
Trump Reiterates Threat to Iranian Cultural Sites, Hyperallergic (Jan. 6, 2020), https://hyperallergic.com/535876/trump-reiterates-threat-to-iranian-cultural-sites/.
Trump Says He’ll Target Iran’s Cultural Sites. That’s Illegal, NPR.org (Jan. 6, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/01/06/794006073/trump-says-hell-target-iran-s-cultural-sites-that-s-illegal.
US and Iran must protect cultural sites, UNESCO says after Trump threat, Gulf-Times (Jan. 6, 2020), https://gulf-times.com/story/652669.