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Revisiting Guernica

Daniel B.G. Collins

The pending war in Iraq conjures up the image of Picasso’s Guernica -- not only because of its fame as an anti-war masterpiece, nor because a tapestry replica was recently hidden from view in the United Nations building. What I reflect upon here is the event that inspired the painting, and comparisons we may draw with today’s conflict.

The Spanish Civil war began in July 1936 with a coup led by three fascist generals against the democratically-elected left-wing Popular Front. General Francisco Franco eventually became the coup’s champion. Franco was supported ideologically by the Axis leaders Hitler and Mussolini, and also received military assistance in return for providing iron, copper and other materials. On April 27, 1937, in an effort to demoralize those loyal to the government by hitting the heart of the Basque region, the small town of Guernica in northern Spain was chosen for bombing practice. Hitler’s Condor Legion, practicing new offensive techniques which would later be used in World War II, dropped over 100,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries, not on the strategic bridge, railyards or small arms factory nearby, but on the town during market day. The attack on Guernica lasted for three hours, leaving over 1,600 civilians dead or injured -- a third of the population.

Picasso painted the mural Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition in 1937 to raise awareness of Franco’s atrocities and as a plea for international help. It has since been a testimony to the brutality of war on civilian populations, lest we forget. It is to educate us, and as such, I make four comparisons between the bombing of Guernica and the target of Iraq.

One factor for Hitler and Mussolini’s involvement with Franco was the desire for resources. Many claim today that the United States is similarly striving to satiate its oil lust through war. In 1998 American oil consumption was 40 percent of that of the entire globe. In 2000, Iraq was the United States’ sixth-largest supplier of oil, although its proven supply exceeds all but Saudi Arabia’s. The U.S. National Energy Policy also stated “ANWR production could equal 46 years of current oil imports from Iraq.” Regardless of the accuracy of this value, I submit that had Iraq’s oil been of little concern, this statement would not have been used to bolster support for Alaskan drilling.

In terms of developing offensive approaches, a key aspect of Guernica’s bombing, Iraq may well be the first recipient of the recently tested MOAB (massive ordinance air burst) bomb. Some equate MOAB to a small nuclear bomb, although this point is debatable. Low-yield nuclear bunker busters, while not yet publicly announced as being completed, may also see use in a conflict for which they were probably designed. Their true efficacy and safety to environs, however, has been the subject of much debate.

Components of psychological warfare, seen in targeting the Basque heart, are also present in today’s proposed ‘shock and awe’ offensive. The current campaign against aims to shock soldiers into submission, and to occupy the symbolic cities of Basra in the south and Tikrit in the north soon after conflict begins.

The last, and incidental, similarity is that of civil war. One of the reasons for attacking Iraq is to free its people. Finding allies among the Kurds and Iraqi dissidents frames the attack as helping, or more precisely instigating, a civil war. This is not to compare Franco with Hussein’s opposition; however, civil war is a pretext in both 1937 Spain and 2003 Iraq.

Picasso’s Guernica depicts a gruesome scene of war: a wailing mother, dead child in hand; a stricken man with severed limbs; distraught faces; civility crushed. Soon, if not already at the time of publication, a similar fate may befall Iraq’s cities. While apparent efforts have been taken to reduce such civilian casualties during the conflict, time will tell. We must not forget the madness of the past as we prepare for the future. Baghdad should not become another Guernica.

Daniel B.G. Collins is a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.