Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How A Course In Early Christian And Byzantine Art Saved My Life (Or: Why Intelligence Belongs At A Liberal Arts University)

It was 1994.  I had just been sent to the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM to
everyone in the government at the time and Macedonia to all the Macedonians) by my new boss, a one-star general by the name of Michael Hayden.

Macedonia had just declared its independence and the US had  deployed a handful of soldiers in isolated outposts up and down the Serb-Macedonian border. They were part of a UN mission to lessen some dangerous tensions brewing between the new Macedonian state and Serbia.  The Macedonians called us "saviors."  The US soldiers, in their highly visible outposts and facing a robustly armed and equipped Serb army, had another name for themselves - "speed bumps."

I was the liaison between the US diplomatic mission (we didn't have an embassy there yet) and the US European Command. What this meant in practice was that I had a beat up old rental car and lots of freedom to go where I thought I needed to go and see what I thought I needed to see.

It was great.

One day, I was driving northeast of Kumanovo (see the map).  This area had a large concentration of Serbs, Serbs who had been cut off from Serbia and from their extended families who (now) lived right across the border.  Like everything in the Balkans, this one wasn't easy but it also wasn't out of control yet.  

GPS was still a couple of years away and I was finding my way around the area the old fashioned way - with a map.  The only maps we had were 1:50,000 scale maps that had actually been given to the US by the former Yugoslavia (before the break up) and local, highly inaccurate, tourist maps.

I say I was finding my way around the area but actually I was just plain lost.  Not so lost I had no idea where I was, but lost enough to feel like I had to pull over and talk to someone.  My Serbian was good enough in those days to communicate but my accent marked me hopelessly as an American.  

The locals I spoke with were none too happy to see me and one made a point of letting me see the shotgun he was carrying.  Pointedly, they asked (demanded, really) to know what I was doing there.

Well...I wasn't doing anything.  I was just driving around.  I didn't know if anything was going to happen on the border but if it did, I didn't want to have to describe what it looked like from a desk in Skopje.  I wanted to have seen the terrain before it became famous.  

But there was no telling that to my new-found "friends", though.  An American with passable Serbian running around in civilian clothes and a rental car just had to be a spy, didn't he?  So I said the first thing that came into my head: "I'm here to see the frescoes."

Because I had excellent instruction in early Christian and Byzantine art while attending Florida State University for my masters degree, I knew that was actually a pretty safe answer anywhere in the Balkans.  You are never too far away from a stunningly beautiful Byzantine era church usually decorated with frescoes or mosaics from the 1100's or earlier.

My escorts may have thought the same thing because they made sure I got to the church (less out of courtesy and more as a way of testing me).  It was not until the local priest and I became involved in a rather lengthy discussion of the Passion Cycle depicted on the walls of the nave, pictures of which I had also seen repeatedly in class from a wide variety of Byzantine churches, that these nervous Serb townsfolk began to drift away. 

I'll never know for sure if that art class saved my life of course, but, to me at least, it does prove a point.  Intelligence is the most interdisciplinary of disciplines.  Analysts are routinely expected to understand data from diverse fields such as economics, politics, cultural anthropology, military affairs, history, public health, the hard sciences and, yes, even art.

A good liberal arts university provides the kind of depth and breadth that intelligence analysts need.  When Bob Heibel started the program at Mercyhurst over 20 years ago, I know he saw the need for analysts to have a wide range of experiences and knowledge ranging from language and rhetoric to statistics and computer science.  Today, it is easy to see that Bob's vision was correct.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem to some, the applied discipline of intelligence studies is most at home in a liberal arts setting.