U.S. To Troops: Play Cards, Protect A Culture

U.S. To Troops: Play Cards, Protect A Culture
October 4th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: U.S. To Troops: Play Cards, Protect A Culture

U.S. To Troops: Play Cards, Protect A Culture
Wall Street Journal
October 4, 2007
Pg. D7
By Melik Kaylan
Fort Drum, N.Y. -- The "Monuments Men" of World War II dashed around Europe saving humankind's historical and artistic heritage from destruction. They were American soldiers tasked with a mission that didn't benefit the U.S. in any direct way, yet they performed it unsparingly and with unprecedented honesty. This June, Congress officially honored their memory, and more recently PBS ran a documentary, "The Rape of Europa," telling their story. In the era of chaos in Iraq, it has been all too easy for the world to airbrush out of mind the longstanding record of American custodial service to other people's cultures. A salutary reminder of that tradition is being unveiled in a more modest way this week with a pack of playing cards featuring the monuments and antiquities of Iraq and Afghanistan, with exhortations to military personnel to safeguard them. The packs will be distributed to U.S. troops in the region throughout the autumn.
It's hard not to let out an involuntary chuckle when you first see the cards: They're so literal and well-intentioned, so perky and bright and functional, that they defy all cynicism. Like the Saddam "Most Wanted" cards, they achieve instant pop-culture status, but without knowingness or sly postmodern winking at the cultural mirror. They hark back to the early, unself-conscious time of pop-artifacts, when chewing-gum wrappers and pin-up posters were merely, effectively, themselves.
In some ways they're too innocent -- they will surely raise hostile questions that they make no attempt to deflect up front: Why now, after four years? What was being done until now? In what state are the depicted sites, and whose fault is it? Meanwhile, the cards get on with the business at hand: to alert average, card-playing G.I.s to the sacred terrain around them and their responsibility to it.
The same motif is featured on the packet and the back of every playing card, a terracotta Assyrian tablet with cuneiform markings on a black background. Below that runs the logo "Respect Iraqi and Afghan Heritage," which is repeated, around the pictured tablet, in Arabic and the Afghan languages Darri and Peshto. At bottom in English is "Support the Mission . . . Show Respect." On the front faces, the cards feature artifacts, ancient sites, or G.I.s on location.
The five of clubs, for example, depicts a U.S. soldier in desert fatigues walking over dusty mounds in Isin, Iraq. The caption reads, "A looted archeological site means that details of our common past are lost forever." The six of hearts shows a Babylonian bas-relief with the caption, "The world's oldest complete legal document is found on a stone carved with an image of Hammurabi . . . King of Babylon, ca. 1760 B.C."
The seven of clubs features a postcard-perfect picture of the Ctesiphon Arch in Iraq. The caption: "This site has survived for centuries. Will it and others survive you?" A number of cards with differing images exhort you to stop digging under certain conditions, such as when "you find buried walls." The jack of diamonds shows the Statue of Liberty and asks, "How would you feel if someone destroyed her torch?" The king of clubs introduces you to the blue-on-white inverted rhomboid sign that warns of a "PROTECTED CULTURAL SITE." Atop all the cards runs the instruction "ROE first!" -- telling you that Rules of Engagement, namely not getting killed, precede other considerations.
In the background of each card is a ghostly fragment of a graphic, like a watermark, which clicks into a complete image when all the cards in one suit are pieced together. The clubs, for example, unite to form an image of the spiral minaret of the Grand Mosque of Samarra. The underlying message? That one missing piece ruins the whole, as with all archaeological finds. In the end, whatever your political bent may be, sifting through these hand-sized, luminously clear artifacts-depicting-artifacts induces a kind of lapse back to childhood -- at least it did in this reporter -- one that combines the boyhood delights of card games, puzzles, ancient treasure and adventure.
The project grew out of the Defense Department's Legacy Resource Management Program, which employs archaeologists on military bases within the U.S. to preserve Indian burial sites and local ruins. It was launched by Laurie Rush, archaeologist-in-residence at Fort Drum, the Battalion HQ for the 10th Mountain Division, some miles north of Syracuse, N.Y.
Early on in the occupation, Dr. Rush heard a critical NPR report on helicopters unwittingly landing around Babylon. The report featured U.S. Mesopotamia experts who voiced worries over the damage to antique sites. She wanted to help but knew little of Mesopotamian history and found the historians to be skeptical of the military. So she contacted an old high-school friend, Roger Ulrich, now teaching at Dartmouth, who knew the academics. "I offered to be a conduit for them," she says, "because I figured they wouldn't know how to go about approaching the DoD. Writing letters to the secretary of defense, for example, was not going to yield quick results."
She and Dr. Ulrich worked on a proposal, which became today's pilot project. Besides the cards, the project includes several specially constructed faux-sites at Fort Drum, such as mock-cemeteries and an Arab village, around which soldiers will train. It also includes a restricted Web site the troops can consult, and a laminated pocket-card for them to carry with a menu of do's and don'ts, such as "report evidence of looting" and "fill sandbags elsewhere."
On a day of visiting Fort Drum with Dr. Rush, we drove through a number of the isolated exercise areas -- the base is some 10,000 acres square -- flanked by roadside ambush spots and fake IEDs. We arrived at an aerial bombing target zone with a would-be SCUD missile launcher and antiaircraft gun and two old tank turrets. Beside them lay a series of concrete blocks laid in rows like a cemetery. The helicopters, said Dr. Rush, use angled fire to avoid damaging them. "They gave us rave reviews on the authenticity of the cemetery when viewed from the sky," she said.
At another site -- the mock-mudbrick village, made of khaki-colored ship containers -- we encountered Arab-costumed extras and platoons learning how to approach the habitations amid recorded sounds of explosions and gunfire. One of the officers in charge of training the recruits had recently returned from active service. In his experience, he said, the Iraqi road-building contractors in Iraq were often the worst offenders when it came to the looting and damaging of sites. "We are trying to teach the locals that the uniform brings with it duty, not privilege," he said. In a recent exercise at Fort Drum, said Dr. Rush, "our guys were engaged by would-be bad guys from the cemetery. Our guys had gone to investigate reports of a weapons cache. They went in carefully, without kicking over tombstones. The danger was that al Qaeda would be using it as a film-op. If it was trashed, that would be propaganda points for them."
According to Dr. Rush, the project is in the initiative stage still and the Defense Department will be monitoring its progress. The training techniques have yet to be codified. Different bases have different ideas that will need to be pooled and coordinated. At Fort Carson in Colorado, for example, they enact scenarios on how to handle looters, and some units train with archaeologists present. The decisive test of what works or doesn't will be the reaction of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as the project unfolds. In the meantime, the queen of hearts will be reminding them that "Ancient sites matter to the local community. Showing respect wins hearts and minds."
Mr. Kaylan writes about culture for the Journal.

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