The Washington Post featured an interesting article on recovering art in Afghanistan this week, called “For real ‘Monument Woman,’ saving Afghan treasures is unglamorous but richly rewarding.”  What caught my eye was a section on the Marines damaging ancient ruins in Babylon.  The former chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said:

[Col. John Coleman] said occupying the site was better than leaving it to looters in the chaos of postwar Iraq.

It kind of sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s probably more of a tap-dance to explain something about soldiers that is hard to explain to people not immersed in the culture.

The Washington Post article on recovering art adds another puzzling piece:

Rush’s programs have dual missions: the Army teaches troops about the ancient histories of Iraq and Afghanistan and that they might encounter ancient artifacts or sites that should be treated with care in conflict. At Fort Drum, 10,000 deploying soldiers each year get to practice bedding down on a 19th-century archeological site that Rush oversees. The Army is also investing in mapping initiatives to keep track of archeological sites in regions where troops are deployed. Rush hopes the Army’s program, which has been replicated throughout the military, reminds troops that preserving cultural heritage is a valuable part of their mission.

Probably everyone who read the original stories about this were outraged. How can anyone not know that ruins and antiquities is important? How could the officers, who are supposed to be in charge, let it happen? Moreover, why should the soldiers need extra training? Shouldn’t it be obvious?

Well, it’s not quite that easy of an answer.

It starts with how a soldier is trained and why the culture seems so strange.  Every part of the soldier’s training is to prepare for war.

Twenty miles down the freeways is the Manasass Battle Field, where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. The Union and the Confederates recruited men from all over, but a lot of them were farmers. They went to this battle thinking that it wasn’t going to be a big deal — so much so that in a local town (not sitting on the battle field as some claim) an audience gathered to watch, like it was movie with popcorn. No one expected what happened.

It turned into a very bloody and horrific battle. So much so that even the hardened veterans who later saw even worse battles like Wilderness still remembered it. War when you’re not prepared is unforgiving. War when you’re prepared is still not forgiving, but maybe if you have training, you might survive.

This is what the military teaches. Training has a focus on “Accomplishing the mission,” because if you can’t accomplish the mission, you lose the battle, maybe the war itself, and maybe your life or the life of the person standing next to you. It’s serious business with serious consequences.

So, when a soldier is told to go do something, such as build an ammunition point on a particular spot, she launches into “Accomplish the mission” mode. It doesn’t matter where she is or what’s around her; only that the mission gets accomplished. The result is that she may need rocks to build something and tear down an ancient wall, or use part of a historic building as a defensive position. It’s what’s available, and in accomplish the mission mode, everything becomes a tool.

And yeah, it looks callous and disrespectful. But when a soldier is thinking about the enemy coming over the horizon, it’s very different perspective.

I’m taking a class now, which is on Genre Structure. The purpose of the class is actually a lot like the reason the military needed training on ruins. The idea is that you have this knowledge in the back of your mind so when you start writing, you’re already shaping the story to fit in with the requirements of the genre and what’s the most important. If the soldier receives the training, it’s now in the back of her mind, so when she sees that rock wall, she’s now thinking about a mission just as important as the immediate one: Preserving the area.