Antiquities and Conflict: Changing Military Strategy

Special Publications | National Security


Wednesday, December 14, 2016
by David Grantham

Once treated as purely a criminal problem, the looting and sale of illicit antiquities has recently become matter of national security. The frequent contact between the U.S. military and non-state actors, namely Islamic terrorist organizations, demands a doctrinal change in how military strategy accounts for cultural heritage. The U.S. government and the Department of Defense should give greater precedence to the protection of movable cultural heritage in wartime in order to diminish the capabilities of terrorist organizations who remain the preeminent threat to the safety and security of the United States.

Set against the backdrop of cultural identity in the Middle East, this work establishes the nexus between movable cultural heritage and the success of military strategy by retracing the historical role antiquities plays in warfare and their current use as a funding mechanism for Islamic terrorist organizations. The thrust of this piece aims to demonstrate why antiquities, traditionally a criminal matter, should take greater priority within military circles. Safeguarding a community’s historical sites and movable cultural heritage in conflict provides U.S. forces an operational advantage in securing the support of the local population and preempts the theft of priceless antiquities that fund adversarial organizations. Preventing cultural heritage from entering the illicit market diminishes the financial capabilities, and thus, the operational effectiveness of terrorist organizations.

Narrow in scope, this piece is not intended to answer lingering legal questions of private property and national antiquities. Nor to address due diligence issues surrounding the legal sale and purchase of antiquities in the U.S. market. Instead, my project contributes a precise examination on the implications of trafficked, movable cultural heritage to U.S. national security and military doctrine.

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