Laura Tedesco hasn’t seen the film yet. But the State Department’s “Monument Woman” knows exactly what she would do if rockets rained down on the National Museum of Afghanistan.
“If I were at the museum and it were being rocketed, you better believe I’d be like, “Wait! I’ll get the Kanishka, you get the Buddha!’ ” Tedesco said. “All the other people at the museum would say the same thing.”
“The Monuments Men” is a love letter to the Laura Tedescos of yesteryear, featuring perfectly-honed talking points about the importance of preserving world cultures. But Tedesco’s work at the State Department illustrates the modern saga that accompanies preserving culture during a prolonged and complicated war.
Tedesco, 44, is a cultural heritage program manager, the bureaucratic title for an archeologist tasked with identifying ancient Afghan sites in need of restoration. And she’s not alone in her work. While State invests in restoring ancient sites around Afghanistan as a tenet of the agency’s public diplomacy mission, the Department of Defense employs archeologists to teach soldiers how to avoid destroying them.
For archeologists, these jobs are rich and rewarding missions, but the modern story of cultural preservation during war is far less glamorous than George Clooney’s dramatization of events during World War II. Brave curators in “The Monuments Men” save Renaissance paintings from Nazis, but the State Department now must pick and choose between countless ancient sites that have weathered civil war, extremism and neglect. Although the Monuments Men got their Hollywood ending, archeologists in Afghanistan know they’re confronting a different enemy, one that doesn’t need an army of uniformed soldiers to cause monumental damage to culture. And as U.S. combat troops withdraw from the country this year, dangerous preservation work will continue in volatile regions such as Kandahar and Ghazni. Although some worry that ancient sites there will be destroyed after U.S. troop withdrawal, fear doesn’t preoccupy Tedesco.
“I can’t predict whether the Taliban will come and mess this up,” she says of sites the State Department has successfully restored since she arrived, in 2010. “But if we don’t do something because we’re afraid they might destroy things, then why are we here? I might as well go home.”
Tedesco was at a deli in Charleston, S.C., when she received the first call.
“It was someone from the Department of State, and they asked, ‘Can you be on an interview in 30 minutes?’ ” she says.
Months earlier, she had fired off a résumé through USA Jobs to be the embassy’s archeologist and assumed it “went into the ether.” But after a few interviews, she got another call. The job was hers if she could be in Kabul in two weeks. She dropped everything and moved to Afghanistan for 16 months.
For Tedesco, an archeologist who fell in love with the region during graduate school, it was an unparalleled career opportunity. Before Afghanistan, she was employed by corporations seeking to avoid constructing buildings on sensitive sites in South Carolina.
“I wasn’t too thrilled with that job,” she said.
So the then-40-year-old mother of two young children prepared for a position that had always been out of reach, a mission to protect ancient sites she had never seen up close. She had never worked in a war zone, but she took to the work quickly, meeting with village elders and Afghan partner groups to identify important cultural sites. Much of the job began with “drinking a lot of tea and smoking a lot of cigarettes,” she says, listening to locals discuss their needs.
“I once asked an Afghan man from Bamian about the destruction of the Buddhas,” she said of the 6th-century statues the Taliban blew up with dynamite in 2001. “He teared up when I asked . . . it shocked him to his core. It shocked Afghans and the world.”
After Tedesco’s listening tour, she helped choose and manage the sites that the State Department has invested in. Over 12 years, the department has invested $15 million in archeological and cultural preservation in Afghanistan, funding projects alongside international partners, including the German government and private foundations. One of its large-scale projects was the restoration of the Herat Citadel, an impressive monument that dates to 330 B.C. Over five years, the United States invested $1.2 million to restore a site the size of a football stadium.
“The governor of Herat said that it was one of the most important things the Americans had done for the city,” Tedesco said. “It’s a world monument.”
“This is such an important tool of foreign policy,” says Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. “The U.S. is playing a part in protecting another country’s cultural identity, and in Afghanistan, preserving cultural identity helps to counter violent extremism.”
She also notes that there’s often a direct connection to economic growth in the countries, either through tourism or training programs that work with local populations. And archeological preservation is a logical fit for Afghanistan, because it has countless ancient sites that have been ravaged not only by the Taliban, but also by civil war.
Going forward, Tedesco says she’s uncertain how much the federal government will invest. But she is certain work will continue.
“The projects we’re engaged in are multiyear projects,” she says. “They know we’re in it for the long haul. You can’t go in and shore up a falling-down minaret and then say, ‘Alright, now we’re out of here!’ ”
While the State Department aims to preserve sites, the U.S. military has another job: to avoid them. Laurie Rush, an archeologist working for the Army, began developing training programs for soldiers at Fort Drum, N.Y., in 2006. Cultural heritage became a priority for the U.S. military after the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon was damaged by a Marine base built on the sensitive site in 2003.
“After Babylon, we realized we could do a better job of supporting personnel by offering more information about the heritage of ancient Mesopotamia,” Rush said. “We want to make sure deploying personnel are as knowledgeable as possible, and that their radar will go off if they see something.”
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.
“It’s not unusual to find people who have risked their lives to save heritage,” Rush said. “The heroic museum staff at the National Museum of Afghanistan put their lives on the line to hide the most valuable objects. In Mali, curators evacuated ancient Islamic manuscripts out of Timbuktu on their backs or in canoes. It’s really important for U.S. personnel to have an appreciation for how much heritage matters to communities and people.”
And Rush doesn’t let them forget it: She designed and distributed 40,000 decks of playing cards with photos of important archeological sites on the back, organized thematically to remind troops of lessons they learned in training.
“Spades reminds them to be careful where they dig,” she says. “They’re a valuable teaching tool.”