a lesson from Leuven
When I was in Leuven, our excellent liaison Thomas took us around the square and spoke about an event that gives one of the clearest arguments for the importance of culture I have ever heard.
In both World Wars, the German army attacked Leuven, a city which Thomas mentioned as having no military importance. In the First World War, along with the attack on the civilians the army destroyed the university library, burning "230,000 volumes [...] including Gothic and Renaissance manuscripts, a collection of 750 medieval manuscripts, and more than 1,000 incunabula (books printed before 1501)".1 In the Second World War, Leuven was on the Koningshooikt–Wavre Line2 and after the British forces left it, it was attacked: and again the library was attacked, destroying almost a million books.
Thomas reasoned that the idea behind attacking the library was not to gain any military ground, but to break the spirit of the people psychologically: destroying the culture of a place is to erase it entirely.
If you can think of no better reason why arts and culture are important to a civilisation, maybe we should remember that in war these are things people try to destroy first: whether through bombing or simple propaganda.