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NEWS | April 22, 2021

When what seems right is wrong – Civil Affairs and cultural heritage preservation

By Sgt. 1st Class Lisa M. Litchfield U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne)

You’ve probably watched one of those home improvement shows on television where the couple goes in, looks at the hideous state of a house and within the scope of the episode, has a beautifully restored home with magazine worthy quality. But did you know that in some cases restoration of an object does more harm than good?

Soldiers from the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, Kalamazoo, Mich., are preparing to deploy to Eastern Europe in support of Atlantic Resolve later this spring. To get ready for deployment, they took part in a virtual deep dive training with cultural heritage experts in support of the 38G functional specialty teams and the upcoming mission.

Training for nearly a year, the unit focus has included a variety of Soldier tasks and
theater specific training, such as reviewing country engagement plans and other regional documents, engaging with subject matter experts from a variety of areas including David Andelman (Eastern European focused journalist), and understanding what role Cultural Heritage plays in regional operations.

Col. Caroline Pogge, Civil Affairs Planning Team (CAPT) chief, 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, recently joined the team, and was instrumental in arranging additional focused training for the unit.

“it's really been a holistic approach, from traditional individual and team battle drills, to an academic deep dive into the region's history and actors,” Pogge explained.

Gracie Golden, University of Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center, is an SME on cultural heritage erasure and destruction in Georgia, and was able to draw attention to the practice of “rehabilitation damaging” of cultural heritage.

Surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia is an independent nation with an interior border situation. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both inside the country of Georgia, are de facto independent areas, backed by Russian military control. Georgian historical sites inside these areas are being “renovated,” but the renovations erase Georgian historical influence by whitewashing and plastering over ancient iconography within the structures, repainting in Russian color schemes, and modernizing windows.

“This is an example of rehabilitation where the local Abkhaz government and Russian officials who paid for this renovation project can pass this off as something they’ve done to benefit the cultural heritage of the region,” said Golden. “They are ‘preserving’ the site, they are ‘fixing it up,’ fixing any damage that was existing, but in the process of doing that, they’re actually removing the traces of Georgian history on the region which bolsters the Abkhaz claims to these territories,” she concluded.

Maj. Michael Butler, CAPT plans officer, 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, found the class by Golden particularly useful.

“The illustrations provided by Gracie Golden of the Russian efforts to erase Georgian cultural and religious influence in Abkhazia were very helpful,” he said. “She was able to distinguish how subtle the Russian efforts were. This is something I feel much better equipped to spot in the future.”

Although knowing when renovations are hurting rather that helping a culture are a critical component to the success of the missions at hand, there was more information to be had over the course of the trainings.

While the unit will be scattered in teams across the locations from the Baltic to the Balkans, Pogge and the CAPT will be located in Wiesbaden, Germany, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve and the United States Army Europe-Africa Lines of Effort (LOE). The main responsibility of the CAPT will be to translate these LOEs into actionable tasks for the CA teams.

“Our role is to support Operation Atlantic Resolve by understanding the USAEUR-AF Lines of Effort, and translating them into actionable tasks for the CA Teams across Eastern Europe,” said Pogge. “The CAPT will also be responsible for ensuring we have the right complement of CA Soldiers and teams placed in the most effective locations
or recommending changes for future teams,” she explained.

Col. Scott DeJesse, program director for the 38G / 6V Heritage and Preservation branch, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), spent his time with the Soldiers instructing on the difference between tangible and intangible cultural heritage. While the tangible includes actual spaces, buildings and objects, it’s often the intangible that fails when these items are destroyed. Without a church, the ability to gather and share is also destroyed.
“Obstacles to the stability of a country are heavily tied into their heritage,” said DeJesse. “The insurgent force is heavily invested in removing the ties that bind people together, thus making them easier to separate and use. Destroying cultural property also destroys social cohesion and disrupts the ability of a people to come together for basic social functions.”

How individuals connect to their group, their group’s attitudes toward participating socially, economically and politically with other co-located groups. Groups who are inclined to the exclusion of others form social barriers and mistrust which often leads to isolation. Militaries who rampage throughout the country without regard for collateral damage destroy more than just the cultural artifacts.
“Destroying cultural heritage in the name of ‘military necessity’ loses the war because you are degrading trust,” said DeJesse.

In a unit where winning “hearts and minds” is a major concern, degraded trust isn’t an option, and although DeJesse doesn’t expect each of these Soldiers to become cultural history experts over a weekend of training, he does expect that they build reach back contacts for their time in country.

“From day one of Civil Affairs training we hear of the value of reach back,” agreed Master Sgt. Larry Lloyd, 353rd Civil Affairs Command. “The importance of this training is it established avenues for reach back, as well as an opportunity to talk through immediate issues at hand within the AOR we are headed to.”

Gathering such a diverse group of subject matter experts together for these in-depth training sessions was actually easier than it might have been in a non-Covid environment.

“The virtual environment has become a great resource and allowed for training to happen on more than just a BA weekend,” said Pogge. “It has forced us to be more creative, and also enabled us to schedule speakers that may not have otherwise been possible, such as David Andelman (NY Times and CNN Correspondent and author of A Red Line in the Sand), or the Cultural Heritage Team; because traveling for a few hours with the teams may not be cost effective. Overall, we've really been able to leverage technology and not let COVID stall us.”

Pogge was fortunate to have connections from a prior mobilization to help facilitate training for this deployment.

“I reached out to retired Maj. Corine Wegener to speak to our mobilizing. She and I serve together on the Civil Affairs Association Board,” Pogge explained. “I reached out to see if there was anything European focused and she let me know about the new 38G led training that the Smithsonian and USACAPOC are working together on … After hearing about their training, it seemed like a great fit to integrate cultural heritage into our operations and ensure we are bolstering the long-term relationship of our teams and their host nations.”

Although her Soldiers had been the primary focus of the training, Pogge herself found the detailed information and focus of the 38G Functional Specialty Teams to be enlightening.

“I had not considered how we integrate cultural heritage into our operations, or maybe more importantly, how others such as Russia might,” said Pogge. “The training provided another lens through which the teams can look at situations and/or activities when they conduct Civil Reconnaissance … are populations, intentionally or unintentionally, targeted, and for what purpose. And how does this information fit into CA's goal to support USAEUR-AF's Lines of Effort?”

“It's really rewarding to see the teams come together and develop their individual and collective skills,” she continued. “I can't say enough about the Soldiers we brought together for this mission. From the CA Teams through to the CAPT and CIM Teams; it really is a strong group. I anticipate a very productive year at all levels.”

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