In 2004, early in the War on Terror, Laurie Rush, cultural resources manager and U.S. Army archeologist at Fort Drum, N.Y., recognized that U.S. military personnel from her base could benefit from a deeper understanding and greater respect for the historic regions in which they were operating. She produced an innovative training tool to raise awareness among deployed troops—three sets of playing cards highlighting the cultural treasures of Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt. Rush later became the first Department of Defense employee to win a scholarship to the American Academy in Rome, a 124-year-old research institution with a strong focus on historic preservation. She recently spoke with Military History about the importance of cultural preservation in combat zones and how archaeology degrees prepared her for a job with Army.
What first drew you to archaeology?
It goes back to high school. I started with an interest in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What especially interested me was whether you could find evidence in the landscape that would support legendary stories. I became interested in British archaeology and excavations related to the ancient kings of Britain. I caught the bug then and have had it ever since.
Why educate deploying military personnel about cultural heritage?
Fort Drum is the home of the 10th Mountain Division. Back in the early 2000s our archaeology team realized we were sending our soldiers to some of the most important archaeological regions of the world—ancient Mesopotamia and the Silk Road in Afghanistan. We also realized how important it would be for them to have a more thorough understanding of the host nation’s heritage.
Has the federal government supported cultural preservation in conflict zones the way it did during World War II?
The support for preservation during World War II was unprecedented and really has not re-emerged. I’ve written about the lessons of the World War II Monuments [Fine Arts and Archives section] officers—people with backgrounds in art, history, architecture and similar disciplines—that apply directly to our U.S. missions today. But no, the program was extraordinary and has not been duplicated since.
What prompted you to focus on cultural preservation?
I spoke with 10th Mountain Division soldiers who were between deployments to Iraq about the importance of ancient Mesopotamia and of respecting cultural property in the host nation. One of the soldiers pointed out that some of our adversaries were using cultural property as cover for offensive action. He basically said, “They’re shooting at us from the cemeteries—what do we do?” That’s when I realized this was an issue of deployment readiness, that unfortunately we need to be prepared to encounter adversaries willing to use cultural property in these terrible and tragic ways.
What is the U.S. Army position?
We don’t store weapons in sacred sites, thereby setting a standard in terms of respect for others. But one of the challenges is that while all American soldiers recognize what a Western cemetery looks like, a cemetery in Afghanistan may be a collection of piles of stone. That’s where we work on our education issues, so we’re able to identify and respect cultural sites as we operate in other people’s communities. We don’t want to ever accidentally park a military vehicle in a cemetery because it doesn’t look like a cemetery to us.
What sparked you to create the sets of cultural preservation playing cards?
When I first came to work at Fort Drum, we had decks of playing cards to educate soldiers about Iraq, but only two cards about respecting the nation’s archaeology. I thought, We can do better than that. That’s when we decided to make our own playing card decks dedicated to archaeological awareness. Of course, cards are a wonderful education tool. The soldiers have really embraced them.
Has awareness spread among other nations’ military forces?
I’ve had the privilege of meeting with various heritage and cultural representatives of the Iraqi and Afghan governments, but my international efforts have focused on the NATO alliance. I was a co-director for the recently completed NATO Science for Peace and Security program, which has funded a whole series of advanced research workshops to develop cultural property protection policy doctrine and best practices for the alliance. We’ve been working very hard to establish the international framework for implementing even more robust and meaningful military cultural property protection programs.
Do you collaborate with other segments of the armed forces?
The soldier preparation I do is all about 10th Mountain. But the Department of Defense has an extraordinary cultural resources protection program. Hundreds of archaeologists work for DOD and the services. Our primary job is protecting the archaeology and heritage of our home bases. That said, we are also heritage professionals and very aware of the military personnel our bases are supporting. I have lots of colleagues that care about these issues, but they work in different ways with the military personnel they support. There’s a “coalition of the willing” out there spending a tremendous amount of time and effort applying our expertise to getting this job done, whether it is the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.
What did you learn from the American Academy in Rome?
It was an extraordinary opportunity. The Booth Family Rome Prize in historic preservation enabled me to spend a year in Rome. Initially, my project proposal was to develop military education curriculum for cultural property and protection and propose it to the NATO Defense College in Rome. It turns out the Italians have the best military cultural property protection program in the world—the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. That year in Rome gave me the opportunity to job shadow with them.
What’s next for your program?
I’m continuing even more proactively to educate and train with the division. The 10th Mountain is the first division in the modern U.S. Army to add cultural property protection scenarios to its field exercises. We have an outstanding civil affairs team, and we’re very, very proud that we’ve taken this step forward to educate our soldiers about these important issues. MH