Americans have good reason to be proud of the World War II officers played by George Clooney and his co-stars in the new movie "The Monuments Men." They genuinely recovered a vast trove of Europe's looted art treasures, some five million objects according to accepted estimates—a rare act of impartial decency in the annals of combat. Less well known, however, is the fact that Americans in the military and in civilian life are still busy protecting the world's cultural heritage in war zones. The tradition of monuments men (and now women) isn't just a thing of the past.
In the chaos after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad—renowned for its ancient Mesopotamian artifacts—and stole and smashed thousands of objects. It was a global scandal, and the U.S. was widely blamed for its failure to protect this cultural patrimony.
But that wasn't the whole story. Even as the invasion of Iraq was unfolding, the U.S. military had an extensive "no strike list," which mapped out large areas of the country that were to be exempt from bombing because of their cultural importance. The list originated with Arthur Houghton III, a foreign service veteran who had served a stint as antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif.