General Nolen Bivens: Secret Weapon in Arts Advocacy
Los Angeles Times Culture Monster Blog, 4/21/10

"The United States government should start thinking of the arts as a tool, if not exactly a weapon, in the nation's military campaigns and diplomatic initiatives, a recently retired Army brigadier general testified before Congress on [April 13].

Nolen Bivens, who served 32 years in the Army, including a year in Iraq during 2003–04, was an unusual enlistee in arts supporters' annual arts advocacy day deployment to Capitol Hill in a push for an elusive objective: ample funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

'It has occurred to me, and perhaps you, that my background in the military is quite different than the others testifying before you today and in the past,' Bivens told the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, whose purview includes the NEA budget. Americans for the Arts, a leading national advocacy and service group, issued the text of his and others' prepared presentations; the group coordinated testimony that also included more typical figures such as star actors Jeff Daniels and Kyle MacLachlan, and Charles Segars, chief executive of the Ovation arts television network.

Bivens went on to outline how it behooves the nation to enlist the arts in a new era when 'our forces are adjusting to a new state of warfare…which demands new and innovative approaches.'

He cited the April 2003 looting of the unprotected National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad as an example of a setback in winning Iraqi public sentiment, a vital component in the new anti-insurgency tactics the U.S. military has since adopted in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While the looting of the antiquities museum did not turn out to be as complete as initially feared, it made headlines that suggested unpreparedness or neglect by U.S. forces that had occupied Baghdad.

'Future conflicts should be approached with a better understanding of how a nation values its cultural heritage and its arts,' Bivens testified, and the NEA could help link the armed forces with experts on foreign culture who could help prepare U.S. units to make the right moves toward winning hearts and minds.

Bivens testified that cultural exchange programs could further U.S. interests: 'They are so valuable because they impact the lives of people, which in turn affects their attitudes and perceptions.' On the home front, Bivens said, the arts have a role to play in the morale of troops and their families. He suggested NEA-coordinated help with existing arts initiatives geared toward veterans, and envisioned it 'brokering opportunities whereby local artists and bands could combine' with military personnel and their families who already engage in music and art on their bases." 

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