Beyond the Monuments Men: Saving Cultural Infrastructure

Student Success Story

Robert Swithers

Swithers, ALB '13, has saved Roman roads, preserved memorials, and built bridges overseas while serving overseas. In this story and accompanying video series, he discusses the challenges and rewards or helping rebuild a nation.

Robert Swithers, who received his undergraduate degree from the Extension School, is not exactly a modern day Monuments Man. He’s never recovered a stolen work of art as the famed group of WWII did. But he has saved ancient Roman roads, preserved treasured memorials, and built bridges for communities overseas.

Through his 26 years in the military and his role as chief of intelligence for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Swithers has seen the importance of the human terrain become a critical part of the US military’s mission. “The battlefield is changing, and it’s not just about the mountains, the rivers, the valleys. It’s about the people, and it’s about the cultural and religious sites,” he says.

In the countries where he was stationed, he developed a deep knowledge of cultures and religions to help the military make connections with locals.

Realizing the Importance of Cultural Infrastructure

Roman roads.Swithers is now a retired US Army major, but before he settled into post-military life, he started his career as an engineer in the army. He understood generators, tanks, and powering machinery. But he hadn’t yet realized the importance of cultural infrastructure when preparing for a mission.

While the military was building the buffer zone between Macedonia and Serbia in the early ’90s, Swithers was able to take a vacation “from wading through the mud” when he spent time at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.

He learned that the original Roman roads wound inconspicuously through the region. He talked with locals and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to make sure the sites were properly marked so that the soon-to-be-arriving troops would not park a tank or Humvee on the treasured roads.

Swithers said this was the first time he truly understood the importance of protecting the local culture. “I realized then that a mission could fail at the beginning if a respected artifact or a cultural site was ruined,” he says.

Swithers describes how he helped protect ancient roads.

Utilizing a New Tool to Connect with Anyone, Anywhere

As the Balkans conflict progressed, Swithers was sent to the Sava River, which flows along the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina and through Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. His team was tasked with replacing a bridge, which had been destroyed by air strikes, so the Balkanites could again cross the river. Swithers was familiar with the engineering behind bridges. But the region was experiencing a 100-year flood, making standard templates ineffective.

With a tool called reachback capability, engineers sought the expertise of hydrologists at the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The guidance led to the use of a float bridge to rebuild the permanent bridge.

Throughout his career, Swithers used reachback capability for a variety of reasons. “We were able to instantly send back classified video and commentary to subject matter experts. Whether it was a painting, bridge structure, or minaret, we were able to find out what was the best way to handle the situation we were in,” Swithers says. Such capability proved invaluable in the lead up to the war in Iraq.

Swithers talks about using new technology to build a bridge in the Balkans.

Protecting Memorials, Palaces, and Sufi Shrines

During the conflict in Iraq, Swithers played an important role in protecting culture and critical infrastructure. “I wanted to make sure that Sufi shrines, banana plantations, symbolic stones, and bridges would be considered just as important as the Iraqi Museum,” he says.

He arranged for the protection of any site for the Iraqis as long as it wouldn’t put his team in harm’s way. Even if the site was considered controversial, he would honor the request.

Swithers would try to protect what was important to Iraqis.

During his time in Iraq, Swithers was asked to provide resources to help preserve the Victory Arch and Chemical Ali’s palace. The arch is a treasured memorial to the Iraq-Iran War, and Ali’s palace is situated on a historic part of the Tigris River.

Although Swithers provided help, he wanted to empower Iraqis so they could protect what was culturally significant to them. Whether providing barbed wire or setting up a security perimeter, he knew that in order to establish trust, he needed to help Iraqis safeguard their own culture.

Swithers helped protect Chemical Ali’s palace in hopes that it would garner the trust of Iraqis.

Understanding the Culture

Although much of Swithers’ work focused on physical resources, he understood that establishing relationships with people in the community was critical to success. It wasn’t uncommon for him to engage Iraqis who walked up to the gates of Camp Victory, a palace where troops were staying, with requests or concerns.

Swithers called on his growing understanding of Iraqi culture while doing reconnaissance on a sabotaged oil pipeline. As his team passed through the city of Fallujah en route to the pipeline, it encountered a group of demonstrators. Swithers sought out the elder in the group—knowing elders typically hold the most respect in an Iraqi community—and explained his predicament. 

Swithers had learned the importance of seeing both sides of a situation during his tenure in the army. By making a connection with the elder, he was able to get his team through the crowd without conflict.

Swithers used past experiences to help him deal with a group of protesters.

Going forward

For his work with the military, Swithers received the Legion of Merit, an award given for outstanding achievements and services while in uniform. The Legion of Merit is sixth in the order of precedence for military honors and is a prestigious honor.

Although Swithers is out of the military now, his mission to save critical and cultural infrastructure continues. Swithers hopes to go back to Afghanistan and conduct surveys to ensure his work is still operating effectively. Swithers has also accepted a position as a supervisory social scientist for the US Forest Service in the Dakota Grasslands to continue his work.

The army may no longer have a Monuments Men unit, but preserving culture, wherever they are stationed, is still an important role for the military, thanks in part to Swithers.

— by Kate Neuens, digital content producer, and Jeffry Pike, multimedia designer

Swithers received the Legion of Merit for his 26 years of service.

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