Holy Sites and War: Following the WWII Example

In February 1944, Allied forces in World War II faced a decision that is now disturbingly common in Iraq: What to do with enemy forces using holy sites as defensive positions?

With German troops entrenched behind the Gustav Line south of Rome defending the key city of Cassino from the heights of Monte Cassino — and its 6th Century monastery — Allied troops made a fateful, though ultimately successful, decision: The Nazi-occupied Abbey of Monte Cassino was destroyed by 254 American B-17, B-25 and B-26 bombers, clearing the way for allied success in piercing the Gustav line, taking Rome, and liberating Italy within the year.

Despite the obvious public relations setbacks, coalition forces in Iraq faced with similar decisions (arguably worse than in World War II given the unblinking eye of modern-day 24-hour cable news coverage), must make the same choice. Failure to do so will lead to additional casualties, and worse, signal to insurgents that they are safe when using a Mosque as a fortress, weapons storage facility, or sniper’s nest.

Coalition forces in Iraq made the right — if unpopular — choice Monday when U.S. Marines came under sniper fire from the minaret of a Fallujah mosque. After taking casualties, the Marines returned fire and destroyed the minaret and the snipers. When attacked again later in the day from within the same mosque, Marines called in armor and air support. Forces fired on insurgents in the mosque, killing eight, whose bodies were found by Marines entering the mosque to clear it of enemy fighters.

The attack on the mosque will likely be seen by many as an attack on Islam. It is not. The mosque was used by insurgents to shoot and kill troops; it is no longer serving that unholy purpose.

1st Marine Expeditionary Force Chief of Staff Col. John Coleman said, following the attack, that the decision was made after insurgents occupied the mosque, redefining its status. The insurgents “took it upon themselves to occupy a mosque,” Coleman said. “Instead of serving as a center of religious life, it was employed as a bastion in the attack.”

At that point, the once-holy site was transformed from a building to be protected, to an obstacle to peace and security for its congregants. The message of the coalition response was clear, and essential to the future safety and success of a free Iraq: No insurgent is safe when misusing a mosque; no attack will go unanswered.

The fighting in Fallujah, even the unfortunate response at the mosque, sends an important message of resolve, and leaves no doubt in the minds of those who might use mosques similarly elsewhere. Coalition leadership must not back down in its support for the decisions of the local commanders. Such actions are never pleasant, rarely win immediate friends, and must be taken only after a certainty of danger — but they are essential to victory.

Following the destruction of the Cassino Abbey in 1944, German troops used the ruins as defensive positions. They were successful in turning back American troops and later, their New Zealand replacements. It wasn’t until a month later, on May 18, that Polish troops raised their flag on the mountaintop with the Nazis in full retreat.

Like coalition forces in Iraq Monday, allies in World War II chose to destroy a religious facility used by the enemy for non-religious means. They did so to save lives and speed the liberation of civilians plagued by tyranny and fear. Despite the obvious drawbacks, and allied reticence to raze a religious treasure, it was the right choice, saved lives, and helped lead to the liberation of Europe from the Nazis.

Similarly, security in Fallujah will come only after insurgents who attempt use the ruins as a political defensive position — as they surely will — are publicly and overwhelmingly defeated.

Twenty years after it was destroyed, a rebuilt abbey was reconsecrated at Monte Cassino. Iraqis, too, can rebuild a mosque defiled by terrorists, but only when insurgents are in full retreat, and mosques are used only for saving lives, not taking them.