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What “The Monuments Men” Teaches Us About Coordinating in a Crisis

by Nora Germain

“The Monuments Men” is one of seven films directed by filmmaker and actor George Clooney. It was released in 2014 and I hadn’t seen it until recently, but the film caught my attention because it revealed some very clear and inspiring metaphors about coordination that I wanted to share.

“The Monuments Men” is a true story about a group of gentlemen who band together to save the world’s great art and monuments from the Nazis who had planned to either steal and/ or destroy them. Another fear was that many of these great monuments and landmarks would be destroyed during combat or by bombs, and the situation was further complicated by Hitler’s order which mandated that should he lose the war, all the stolen art be destroyed.

When I think about the premise of the story and the fact that millions of invaluable items were saved, it really feels like a miracle. The scale and ferocity of the fighting in World War II was undeniable, and there were complex political, strategic and cultural forces at play. The Monuments Men had an enormous amount to overcome, a huge task of their own making, and I saw in this remarkable story three main lessons that really inspired me.

While our main crisis on Earth today is the pandemic, and thanks to recent advancements in vaccines, a light at the end of a dark tunnel has begun to reveal itself, we still face the ballooning challenge of climate breakdown, and that tunnel unfortunately does not contain a light — just yet.

As many climate activists have noted, there is no “vaccine” for the climate crisis, meaning that there will be no way to inoculate oneself, one’s family or one’s community from the consequences of our actions, so humanity truly has no choice but to face and solve the problem. Unfortunately, climate breakdown is a task perhaps even greater than containing and eradicating a pandemic, and one of the biggest challenges is coordinating, or some would say, mobilizing, ourselves in the most time-sensitive and efficient manner possible. 

The first lesson that “The Monuments Men” teaches us is that anyone can act when they see a need. This group of heroes was not previously trained for war and to my knowledge, there had not been another mission like this in history for them to look upon for guidance. All these men did was see a need and act upon it, which reminds me of the miracle of the story. It’s truly a miracle that society has survived so many horrid, lengthy and grueling conflicts, but World War II was truly in a class of its own, with, by some estimates, double the casualties of World War I. It is widely considered the bloodiest conflict in history.

How did society go on? Who rebuilt the schools? Who cleared the streets? Who helped with the funerals back home? Who knew to stockpile food and supplies at the local church? Who made sure electricity continued to function? Who took the photographs that historians relied on for years to come? Who found all those photographs and made them available to others? Who did all these tasks that saved thousands of lives, that rebuilt society?

The answer is — regular people. They saw a need and they acted upon it. Sometimes it was the military, or nurses, or police, or other coordinated forces who were left in charge of these tasks, but many times, like in the case of saving the world’s art, it was one small group of people doing the best that they could.

Crises like World War II and climate breakdown have something in common in that they are both too far-reaching and complex in order to be fully understood by any single person. There is too much going on in too many places and too much contributing to the chaos for any one person to handle it all. That’s why it’s important for people to see a need and to act, because when everyone does that, everything is taken care of. Society lives on because everyone does their part. Of course, this is not a call for anarchy, but rather for regular people to take initiative when they see an opportunity, because someone else may not see it. 

The second lesson that the film taught me was the importance of understanding and communicating value. The Monuments Men knew that what they wanted to do would be important, culturally, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually for the world, but others in the military and in government did not always agree at first. In the context of beating fascism, saving a single church or painting may have seemed silly or even irresponsible to some. It was important for their mission that they learn to convince one another on the team, and others within the working gears of the war to help them. 

Value is a theme that is central to the climate crisis, because for generations now there has been an understanding, from a capitalist standpoint, that a tree or a whale or another “resource” is more valuable when it is being sold or consumed rather than when it is allowed to go on living, and from a certain financial standpoint, that may have been true at one time. 

However, only recently have scientists started to communicate the value of living things, not just in terms of carbon storage, but in terms of beauty, biology, evolution, morality and other types of value that western societies often overlook. The International Monetary Fund was cited in this piece by the World Economic Forum for putting the value of the world’s living whales at $1 trillion, for their ability to curb climate change. That number is solely based on what they do for us as human beings, and we do not have a way to measure their vast worth beyond that.

Similarly in the film, it was understood among this group of men that art not only gave people joy but helped a society to remember its achievements, to give itself a sense of healthy pride and to rehabilitate the soul after a tragedy like war. Art helped people to understand their history and to strive for beauty in their own lives. It gave them something to look forward to, to have faith in, and provided a mirror showing the best of humanity to itself. It was the beauty that gave the art the value, not just the value that gave the art beauty. 

The third lesson that the film imparted to me was the idea that some of the most important or worthy missions are not always top-down assignments. The Monuments Men saw the need, communicated the value of their idea, and implemented it of their own accord. Of course, they had the President of the United States on their side, but the order did not come from him.

Many advancements in society and culture are not top-down ideas. They are bottom-up ideas, or rather, decentralized ideas that come from individuals who see a need and are able to convince others of the same need. If we wait to receive orders from our teachers, our families, our governors, our bosses and so forth, we miss an opportunity as a society to do what is most important to us, and thus, to become part of the quilt of necessary action. One square alone may not seem like a very important square, but in the context of the whole quilt, every square is necessary and helps to hold it together.

As was illustrated in the film, the team was focused on their goal and understood the narrow but highly significant role they played in winning the war, preserving history and uplifting society in the long run. Today there are so many examples of people who have seen a need and are doing great work to help us solve the climate crisis. Many of them will not be famous or known around the world, but that does not mean that their work wasn’t genius or crucial, or perhaps both.

In terms of household names, Greta Thunberg has helped young people put unprecedented pressure on politicians to act on the climate crisis urgently. Elon Musk has almost single-handedly transformed the electric car and the renewable energy industries, and Boyan Slat has taken it upon himself to rid the oceans of plastic. To my understanding, none of these people received an order or an assignment from someone more powerful than them when they started on their journeys, and that’s what I really enjoy about this film.It’s within all of our individual power to see a need, to communicate value, and to not wait for an assignment. It’s not enough to say “someone else will” — because if you have the idea, that someone could be you. In any crisis, this kind of thinking can make a huge difference to the ultimate outcome. Starting in 2021, we will need to find new ways to coordinate in order to solve the pandemic, but immediately after (or during), we will also need to solve the climate crisis, and if we take initiative, I believe we will succeed.