George Clooney's Art of War

Monuments Men recalls fight at the museum

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Rush can name troops who helped protect Iraqi sites like the ziggurat at Aqar Quf, the Baghdad zoo and the ancient city of Hatra. Rush also points to Corine Wegener, an Army Reserve major sent to the Iraq National Museum after looting began because of her civilian training as a museum curator. Wegener has retired from the Army--she works for the Smithsonian now--but is serving as an adviser for a new military initiative that recruits people with art history and archaeology skills. If that sounds like a modern take on the Monuments Men, that's because it pretty much is.

It's not just the Army. UNESCO, the U.N. group that oversees the implementation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, has its eye on the strife in Syria and Mali. Its officers know they cannot save everything--Jan Hladik of UNESCO gives the example of the 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban, a case in which the parties in conflict were not interested in international conventions--but they do help make sure troops and officials know how to protect cultural artifacts where bullets are flying.

No matter how great the art, cultural commandos aren't expected to exchange their own survival for that of paintings and sculptures, but there is always risk when operating in the midst of violence. Two of the Monuments Men were killed during the war, and more recently, Bogdanos recalls, one of his men was shot dead by a sniper outside Iraq's museum. So whether it's a portrait by Gustav Klimt or a Mesopotamian relic from the birthplace of Western civilization, the same central question lies at the heart of each case, and it's a lofty one: Is a work of art worth a human life?

Those in the fictionalized version of the story thought about the question too. "It's not up to me to answer, but it's certainly worth asking," John Goodman tells TIME. "If the person's willing to sacrifice their life--and they were--then it must be [worth it]. Wiser people than I did sacrifice their lives to preserve something they thought was worthwhile."

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