02/18/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Beyond The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men, based on the Robert M. Edsel book, is about a time when specialized military units had a direct role in filling the gaps of governance in war-torn countries and making peace out of war. If there's anything that moment in history teaches us, it's that we had the foresight to have a national strategic capability for this less than obvious function.

As a result, the United States was able to save around five million works of art and cultural objects stolen from museums, churches, universities, and homes hoarded by the Nazis -- the greatest art theft in history. By rescuing a huge part of humanity's heritage, the Monuments Men helped generate some what would later be called "soft power," strategic capital that would contribute decisively to the demise of the next foe -- the Soviets.

World War II is the reference point in American martial memory for a lot of reasons. For one, we tend to think it is what all wars are supposed to look like. It explains, in part, our lack of enthusiasm for more of the kind of adventures seen over what the Pentagon called a "Decade of War" and David Rothkopf dubbed a "Decade of Fear." Still, our newfound aversion to intervention such as last fall's near-miss regarding Syria should not be immediately construed as neo-isolationism.

Big wars are fortunately not coming soon to a theater near you. "Absent an immediate threat to the United States," forwarded former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "the use of military force should be a last resort, not a first option." Besides, "for the next decade and beyond," said Joseph J. Collins in the Armed Forces Journal, "the strategic environment will be a favorable one. Major war with a peer competitor is nowhere on the horizon, and deterring or fighting regional aggressors is well within our capabilities." Realist thinker John Mearsheimer added that the U.S. is "the most secure great power in world history [and] has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time..."

But it's the wars we don't prefer to fight that we often end up fighting. While counterinsurgency may be shelved as it was after Vietnam, or re-scaled to "counterinsurgency lite," books like David Kilcullen's Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla remind us of a "lesson" we keep learning over and over again: We have done conflict more on the retail level than we have wholesale. The Monuments Men, in turn, reminds us that there' s much more to conflict than just fighting wars -- it's perplexing, indeed, that it's taken nearly 70 years to tell their story.

Even if we're not talking about terrorists, "the problems that called forth those ambitious solutions won't disappear, and the world's greatest superpower is not about to simply wave goodbye as fragile states collapse. It will, rather, make a virtue of necessity." The Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees: The U.S. will "find itself involved in... addressing new forms of violence, not from wars, but from criminal elements and transnational actors." Since 1993, the U.S. has responded to between 20 and 30 foreign internal conflicts and twice as many humanitarian crises every year.

This is not going away -- unless, of course, we're willing to give up all the perks and bennies that go with being the Chairman of the Board of Planetary Management.

Besides, if we're clever, we'll learn how to prevent or mitigate conflicts by the ounce to avoid intervening in them by the pound. The challenge is not the wars we must fight as much as the peace that we have to build in order not to fight them anymore or in the first place.

The Decade of War and Fear exposed this pathological American problem - as de Tocqueville observed, we know well how to get into wars, and fight them, but not how to end or prevent them. In addition to what Goldwater-Nichols architect and former Project on National Security Reform head James Locher has called a chronic "strategy deficit," Uncle Sam is not structured for success in peacemaking, which is now largely a civilian commission compared to the days of the Monuments Men. "The question no longer is whether to strengthen diplomacy and development," posits the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, "but how to best shape, elevate, and reform U.S. civilian agencies."

Compared to a military industrial complex that is overwhelmingly predisposed for going after bad guys in a big way, civilian national capabilities to foster peace and prevent conflict remain a cottage industry.

Beyond the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), the only non-defense facility dedicated to transition management from conflict to peace is the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) at the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Our country's gap is strategic and institutional -- we have most of the tactical capacities we need," Eric Wolterstorff of the Coalition for Stabilization Reform told me. However, "stability operations require comprehensive planning and coordinated action, which are all but impossible within our government's current structure."

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) and others in Congress, in response to this need for "smart power," called for the establishment of the United States Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO) under the Stabilization and Reconstruction Integration Act of 2013. They have a steep uphill climb. In an era when both will and wallet are thinning, anything like USOCO is not happening soon, despite that the CSO and OTI together are still smaller than the one of the Army's more than 40 Civil Affairs units of less than 200 each. For the time being, the Civil Affairs units of the Army, Marines, and Navy are the only serious national strategic capability we have to end as well as prevent wars. Even they are not optimal.

Civil Affairs represents most of only about 1 percent or so of the force structure dedicated to something other than war fighting or supporting war fighting. Starting out as military government units more than a century ago, it later featured functional specialists like the Monuments Men. Despite (or perhaps because) they are the low-tech solution to the low-tech problem, Civil Affairs since the end of the Cold War has not been very well managed or resourced. For one, most of it has been in the Reserves. And for good reason -- that's where you find the mind sets and skills sets to deal with civilians. But the Reserves have always been seen as second-class soldiers.

As a result, executive or congressional constituency has been at best episodic. In addition to not being well understood by most of the active conventional military, being a small war capability in a big war institution, Civil Affairs has also been the redheaded stepchildren of Special Operations -- they don't do sexy stuff. As the Monuments Men were in World War II, they've been the odd persons out. Over the last decade in particular, the Civil Affairs mission has given way to a predominantly tactical, enemy-obsessed focus on getting to know the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker in order to help find bad guys and kill them.

Unlike their World War II predecessors, Civil Affairs today performs much more indirect tasks in supporting governance and civil society. That's mainly for two reasons. Beyond U.S. civilian agencies, the United Nations, NGOs and other civil society organizations are not only more capable of performing nation-building tasks, they are also more appropriate -- most pathways to peace call for Birkenstocks rather than boots on the ground. The other reason is that nation-building has fallen out of favor.

The Monuments Men mission of the preservation of cultural and historic artifacts in conflict areas is a good example of this evolution to address a problem that won't go away. Other than the similarly untold story of Civil Affairs in helping to save the cultural treasures of the Iraq National Museum in 2003, there is the partial destruction of artifacts during the Arab Spring in Cairo in 2011, the destruction of ancient documents in Timbuktu by Islamic terrorists in 2012, and inestimable losses of cultural artifacts in Syria.

Now organizations like the U.S. Committee of Blue Shield and others are at the forefront in safeguarding such treasures. But there is still a role for the military, and Civil Affairs must coordinate with such organizations, advise their commands, and educate and train U.S. as well as foreign military personnel on actions to prevent destruction. Civil-military coordination has become more -- not less -- imperative.

That's because, as Presidential Policy Directive 23 on Security Sector Assistance frames it, "the diversity and complexity of the threats to our national interest require a collaborative approach, both within the United States Government and among allies, partners, and multilateral organizations." Such multiyear investments in "building partnership capacity" and institutions in maintaining security, law, and order, and applying justice as well as participating in international peacekeeping operations, done the right way, "can yield critical benefits, including reducing the possibility that the United States or partner nations may be required to intervene abroad in response to instability."

In general, the U.S. military has been changing "from a force of confrontation to one of cooperation. The military has learned that partnership is better than clientism and is adapting its command structure once optimized for waging major combat to one that is focused on conflict prevention." The Army's new mission bumper sticker of "prevent, shape, win" and its Regionally Aligned Forces also suggest a re-ordering of priorities.

Considering the complexity and comprehensiveness of today's environments, as well as the importance of understanding culture, the military must enable rather than perform the work of partners in providing many of the functions originally given to the military. Institutions such as the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are teaching the next generation of Army commanders the importance of more strategic, collaborative forms of leadership needed much earlier on in military careers, and the skills sets that go with it.

The military's comparative advantage lies less with "providing good governance, and inculcating democratic values in foreign, undeveloped societies driven by internal conflicts," as the Stimson Center has noted, than in playing a supporting rather than starring role.

In addition to the "Big Army," the Army Special Operations Command's Special Warfare Center and School has launched the Institute for Military Support to Governance to help "fully unpack the definition of military strength and how it interrelates, and must interrelate, with other instruments of national power," as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey phrased it at the National Defense University. More than anything, the Institute is helping to address gaps in strategic capabilities like Civil Affairs that are still required, despite the decline of large-scale interventions, in ongoing hybrid civil-military operations such as security sector assistance.

Especially with "Phase 0" operations that have more to do with conflict prevention than conflict termination, the military in general and Civil Affairs in particular are looking more to learn community-based peacebuilding approaches emphasizing the protection of civilians, local ownership of both the problem and the solution, and the primacy of civilian authority - getting at the root causes rather than just treating the symptoms of conflict in broken societies, as a recent roundtable discussion on "Military Support to Peacebuilding" held at George Mason University concluded.

This bottom-up approach complements the top-down approach of stability operations based on the older and more ambitious nation-building model. Having both statebuilding and peacebuilding competencies in civilian and military capabilities, appropriately arrayed and aligned, helps maintain our national strategic options.

Despite the rising demand signal for such national capabilities, the pressure is on to reduce what is still seen more as a nicety than a necessity. The State Department's fledgling Civilian Response Corps has already been relegated to the ash heap. Civil Affairs, along with much of land power, is undergoing uneven scrutiny. The Navy has already decided to nix its maritime teams. This will no doubt worsen as the fiscal crisis continues and Washington retreats to more familiar yet outdated national security sanctuaries.

The real risk lies in cutting the very things that have, pound-for-pound, brought greater national security. They cannot be conjured up in a time of crisis if we haven't called them together first. Whether military or civilian, such capabilities, to borrow from the Special Operations mantra, "cannot be mass produced."

Although we are safer than ever, and can afford to scale down our military forces along with our ambitions, we should nonetheless remember that, if we are to do a better job of mitigating the conflicts we wish to stay out of, managing those we find ourselves in, and avoiding huge costs in blood, treasure, and international street cred, then a national capability to do this must be more than on the wish list.

Such success, as Edsel put it, is from being "a careful, knowledgeable, and efficient observer of the world, and to act in accordance with what you saw," not what you may still believe.