Days of “War Trophies”
By Peter Suciu
The concept of “war trophies” likely goes back as far as man has fought man on the battlefield. As survivors of combat returned home, trophies served as proof of the fallen foe. The first recorded examples date from ancient times, when shields, banners and other standards were presented by a vanquished force to the conqueror.
In fact, the very concept of “trophy” comes from the Greek word tropaion. This was used to describe a war memorial assembled from various items collected on the battlefield. The Romans took the concept further with the Triumph, a ceremony where the victorious general would return home showing off combat items as well as cultural items taken during the campaign. Any visitor to Rome can find numerous obelisks that came from the Near East, notably Egypt.
The Romans even waged war to regain trophies taken by its enemies. There are several examples where Roman Legions continued campaigns to recover lost Roman Eagles – the standards carried by each Legion that served as a precursor to regimental or other unit flags and banners.
Throughout history, soldiers have returned home with such booty, but not until the 20th century was there a limit placed on what could be taken by soldiers. In fact, the first treaty that even discussed the matter of what could be considered “legitimate war trophies” was the Hague Convention of 1907. It stated:
The property of municipalities, that of institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, even when State property, shall be treated as private property.
All seizure of, destruction or willful damage done to institutions of this character, historic monuments, works of art and science, is forbidden, and should be made the subject of legal proceedings.
This, of course, only applied to “cultural art.” Most militaria did not fall into this category. Moreover, as has often been stated, “to the victors go the spoils.” This was notable with the Treaty of Versailles that authorized the removal of large amounts of property from Germany, as it was deemed “reparations.” This included such items as military aircraft and much of the German High Seas Fleet, either of which could be considered the “ultimate militaria.”
After WWII, the Potsdam Conference further authorized the removal of certain property from Germany, including its merchant marine fleet. This was accepted, as the Nazi regime had, itself, removed cultural property – deemed illegal in the ensuing post-war trials – from the vanquished nations.
In 1954, a further Hague Convention called for the “Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Conflict.” How binding this actually is, remains questionable. As of the spring of 2007, the United Nations and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) have failed to reach a consensus on a draft non-binding declaration.
Militaria and History
Military history museums and the entire hobby of military collectibles could not exist without souvenir hunters. In this regard, it has been accepted that the soldiers are, in essence, “saving history.” Historically, some generals encouraged the practice. It is widely accepted that the French Marshal/Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, himself, collected personal trophies and encouraged his soldiers to do so, as well.
Other generals, such as British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, discouraged their soldiers from collecting items from the enemy. But, as is noted by the tremendous amount of militaria in the U.K., the British soldier certainly took it home in droves.
No More War Trophies?
The days of individual soldiers keeping personal items could be coming to an end, however. The BBC reported this past November, “An SAS soldier detained for keeping a pistol from Iraq has thrown a spotlight on war trophies.”
While the SAS soldier’s case was specific to captured firearms, it actually put the very notion of what soldiers should be taking from the battlefield into question. Soldiers have long taken flags, signs, medals and other war material, but Major General Julian Thompson, who had led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War, stressed in a BBC interview that taking items off people is actually illegal – just as it would be to take any personal items from a civilian at home.
In other words, demanding a captured enemy soldier hand over his personal firearm is done as he needed to be disarmed, but demanding his watch, medals or anything that couldn’t be used as a weapon shouldn’t have been allowed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the practice didn’t exist.
The point, now, is that military authorities are cracking down— with firearms being the most notable issue in the United States because of three different pieces of legislation. First, the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, which was enacted on June 26, 1934, imposes a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of “certain firearms” and mandates the registration of said items. This was the law that put an excise tax on and imposed stringent background checks on automatic weapons.
This also meant that deactivated weapons brought home by GIs following WWII had to be registered. The law was updated in 1968, with the passage of the Gun Control Act, when guns were added to the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco. This restricted certain categories of individuals from owning guns—including felons, users of controlled substances or those who were convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. 1968 also made it legal for “new” machine guns to be produced with old parts. Thus many older guns suddenly came out of the woodwork. The law was updated again in 1986, when it banned the creation of new machine guns. This also meant that most individuals couldn’t own any machine gun made after that date.
Thus, while there are collectors of WWII-era automatic weapons, it is likely that there will never be (or could be, unless the laws are changed), a market for late-Cold War or Gulf War-era automatic weapons. As some cases suggest, it isn’t even worth trying.
In 2008, Sgt. Leonardo San Juan Jr., a reconnaissance Marine, was indicted by a federal grand jury for possessing illegal AK-47 assault rifles. He had smuggled the weapons into the United States from Iraq. San Juan is just one recent example where a member of the United States military tried to “sneak” back some weapons, but, unlike the 1968 amnesty which eventually allowed veterans to come forward and register what they had brought back, it is unlikely anything similar will be granted in the foreseeable future.
“In the modern world, firearms are no longer an option for war trophies,” Craig Gottlieb of Craig Gottlieb Military Antiques told Military Trader. “I’m not talking about federal law, but about military rules and regs as the last thing they want is a “bring back” to be used in a school shooting or some such nonsense.”
What about valid militaria such as uniforms, equipment, helmets and all the things that essentially define our hobby? Much of that, going forward, may be increasingly hard to obtain as well. There are several reasons for this, but it boils down to new federal rules that were enacted in 2008, tat bar bringing back stuff from the war zone. There are several reasons for this.
The Marine Corp Times reported in 2008, that the USMC and other branches of the military were even cracking down on soldiers bringing back sand. The reason in those cases was based on U.S. Customs fears on what bugs and germs could spread from overseas!
Additionally, theater regulations existed in the early stages of Afghanistan and Iraq and only tightened as the years passed. The USMC standing order on “Control and Registration of War Trophies and War Trophy Firearms”—also known as MCO 5800.6A—dates back to 1969, when rules tightened as Vietnam War reached its turning point.
One important distinction that needs to be made is that there is no actual ban of “war trophies.” Ownership of the items in the United States is not illegal, provided the items don’t break local or federal laws including firearms-related laws. This is where it gets all the more complex, complicated and even convoluted.
The rules are vague and rarely state what is okay and what isn’t. As with many rules, interpretation varies. Items such as dirt and rocks are prohibited, but the same would apply to a tourist trying to return to the United States from a vacation abroad. Artwork and other forms of cultural items are not deemed legal as war trophies. Knives and bayonets—military and civilian—may be legal, but not universally so.
The new rules are also in place because, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the missions were to liberate—not conquer. The taking of war trophies technically goes against the coalition mission in those nations. Thus, the ban on removing any antiquities was in place, just as it would be for a civilian in true peacetime in those nations.
General Orders on War Trophies
General Order No. 1B, issued by U.S. Central Command on March 13, 2006, spelled out the rules for service members in the Middle East. The order prohibits:
Taking or retaining of public or private property of an enemy or former enemy. … Individual war souvenirs may only be acquired if specifically authorized by USCENTCOM. Absent such express authorization, no weapon, munitions or military article of equipment obtained or acquired by any means other than official issue may be retained for personal use or shipped out of the USCENTCOM [area of operations] for personal retention.
The same regulation also superseded the previous General Order No. 1A, that was issued in 2000, revised in 2001 and 2003 and held a far more relaxed standard for many items. Among a key point in the GO 1B is that it applied (and still applies) to uniformed members in the combat theater, as well as most contingency contractor personnel serving with, accompanying or employed by the armed forces.
Another key point is that individual war souvenirs could only be acquired if specifically authorized by USCENTCOM, and absent such express authorization no military article or equipment obtained or acquired by any means other than official issue could be retained for person use or shipped out of the area of operations for personal retention.
That latter point is what makes the future of militaria tricky, because any “unit retention of historical artifacts must be specifically approved by USCENTCOM.” Tourist souvenirs can be legally brought into the United States but the order banned “enemy war material” even if it can be legally purchased.
One reason for the law was, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there were cases of newly equipped soldiers in the respective forces of that nation that would sell that equipment to U.S. military personnel. This doesn’t mean that Iraqi or Afghan militaria is illegal to own in the United States, and it is unlikely that anyone will come looking for it. It is, however, illegal for any U.S. military personnel to obtain and sell those items.
This is actually being enforced. U.S. Customs agents at airfields and departure points, such as those in Kuwait and Balad Air Base in Iraq, inspect military personnel before they leave the combat zone. Defense transportation laws dictate what is allowed or prohibited on military transports, and federal postal laws restrict what is allowed to be sent by U.S. mail.
Service members must fill out Defense Department Form 603-1 and get approval from superiors before they can take home their war trophies, and items considered contraband are confiscated by military or law enforcement authorities. Service members can also ditch any suspected illegal items in so-called amnesty boxes.
Of course, no one truly expects the militaria hobby to stop, and even today items from recent conflicts can still be readily acquired. What all this could do is make it harder for soldiers to bring back items from distant lands – harder, but not impossible.