WASHINGTON, February 12, 2014 — Can you imagine walking away from a comfortable and prestigious career to risk the hardships and terrors of war for the chance to snatch a painting from the bonfires of rabid Nazis?
Would you place the expanse of a sea between you and the people you most cherish and brave German machine guns to return sculpted stone to an ancient cathedral?
The Monuments Men did that and more. Some gave their lives to preserve the paintings and sculptures of the masters. Separated from the Nazi scourge by the passage of many decades, it’s difficult to understand the urgency and passion that these men felt for what is ultimately intangible, even ephemeral.
The Monuments Men tells the story of seven soldiers representing the armies of America, France, and England. The characters in the film are only representative of the men and women who actually served: Frank Stokes (George Clooney), James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). Approximately 345 men and women served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) during WWII.
The movie is entertaining from start to finish and hints at the substantive issue that makes the sacrifice of so many truly noble. Clooney’s character describes the mission as one to save the very nature of culture. And, Cate Blanchett’s character, Rose Valland, describes the stolen paintings and other objects as “people’s lives.” However, that only describes the superficial.
Great art always communicates truth. It is more than just a painting or sculpture, more than just a masterful exercise in aesthetics, it is an expression of the true and the real. It communicates passion and impels man to strive for and achieve his highest impulses. It is a representation of the true nature of the universe and the beauty of truth and the nobility of living a life in pursuit of it.
A life can never be squandered in the service of preserving and promulgating the truth. A very wise man once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Therefore, fighting to preserve the visual expression of His truth is a high calling indeed.
President Roosevelt’s character in the movie asks Frank Stokes, is the salvation of art worth the cost of men’s lives? If understood properly, the answer is, yes.
Art is an expression, hopefully of truth, and is as fundamental to our own political tradition as any other component of the Bill of Rights. God himself values artistic expression and commanded the Israelites to fashion His temple with an eye toward beauty. “And he garnished the house with precious stones for beauty…” 2 Chronicles 3:6 Indeed, all His works are the highest expressions of art.
The Monuments Men fought, labored, and sometimes died not just for art as an abstraction. They sacrificed so much to rescue expressions of truth from the minions of the Father of Lies. The Monuments Men reminds us of the importance of truth in whatever form we find it and of our duty to defend and promote it from wherever we are. Abraham Lincoln puts it this way:
“Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause — honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle.” —Abraham Lincoln, December 2, 1863 letter to George Opdyke and others
Today, members of the law enforcement community risk their lives in this fashion daily. There are those whose sole function is to recover stolen art. From the apex of law enforcement investigations to the noble grunts on the street, they serve to recover the truth out of the fog of lies and strive to preserve it in their country, cities, towns, and counties. Almost all serve with passion and honor. Many have given their lives in this eternal war.