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The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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4 Arguments for and against protecting cultural property in war

How can we weigh up harm to cultural heritage against harm to human life? When heritage is on the battlefield, a military officer may be presented with a range of choices. Some of them may result in additional damage or threat to the heritage; others may harm their soldiers or nearby civilians. In the case of Monte Cassino, a decision was made to try to end the ground battle (and thereby preserve the lives of more Allied soldiers) by totally obliterating a significant historical building.

The Hague Convention officially permits acts which damage cultural heritage if certain conditions are met. For instance, that the heritage has been made into a ‘military objective’, and attacks on it would confer an advantage which could not be acquired through any ‘feasible’ alternative. But would continuing the ground battle have been ‘unfeasible’ if it would have resulted in many more deaths than bombing the abbey? Our answer to this question depends on our understanding of the word ‘feasible’, but a range of interpretations is possible, as follows.