On “The Monuments Men”

As I watch on television for the second time the film “The Monuments Men,” I am at various moments moved to tears. Characters such as Claire Simone, played here by Cate Blanchett, was based on the real life of Rose Valland, an art expert in Paris who secretly recorded details on the theft and movement of every piece of art that passed through the Jeu de Paume museum, of which she was curator. Rose Valland, who turned her notes, her “this is everything I have, this is my life” over to the soldier/curators who were tasked with finding and returning these artworks.

After the team had been assembled, and the men were being given their marching orders over the radio, Lt. Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney and loosely based on George L. Stout) summed it up: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for.”

In that moment I was reminded of a piece of music by one of my college professors, Carlton Gamer, in which he set to music some of the Cantos of Ezra Pound. I’ll close with this one, which has stayed with me, decades later, from Canto LXXXI. Everyone who fights, fights for something. There is no “just war” in fighting for oil. For our heritage? For our “this is my life” work? Perhaps. Perhaps that is worth fighting for after all.

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

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