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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

Guernica: April 26, 1937

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Seventy-one years ago, on April 26, 1937, the German Luftwaffe used the people of Guernica in northern Spain as laboratory animals in an experiment to see what it would take to bomb a city into oblivion. The head of the German air force, Herman Goering told the tribunal at Nuremburg during his war crimes trial: "The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience."

Goering's Nazi flyboys rained incendiary bombs on the center of the market town of some 5,000 residents. In five bombing raids, twenty-nine planes dropped 44,000 pounds of explosives. A firestorm engulfed the central plaza of the city, and biplanes strafed the fleeing civilians with machine guns. Most of the city's buildings were either completely destroyed or severely damaged. The bombing killed 1,650 people, and wounded 889, most of them older civilians, and women, and children. The Nazi bombing of the undefended town of Guernica became the first aerial destruction of a civilian center, and it shocked the world. President Franklin D. Roosevelt correctly called it an atrocity, and Pablo Picasso immortalized it with his anguished mural, Guernica.

But within a few short years the murder of innocents from the air at Guernica was dwarfed by the 45,000 civilians killed in Hamburg, the 100,000 civilians killed in Dresden, the 130,000 killed in Tokyo, and the 280,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In early February 2003, a few days before Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his PowerPoint presentation to the United Nations making the case that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction," American officials demanded that a curtain be draped over the U.N.'s reproduction of Picasso's "Guernica." They believed it would be inappropriate for Powell to make his pitch for aggressive war while standing in front of the 20th Century's most iconic protest against the inhumanity of war.

Now that the pre-war claims of the Bush administration have been exposed as false -- from the WMDs and the Niger yellow cake, to the 9-11 links and aluminum tubes -- the Congress should at least investigate these official rationales for war.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq has left at least 100,000 Iraqis dead and over 4 million displaced. It has shattered Iraq into a million pieces and increased violence and terrorism a hundred fold. It has left over 4,000 Americans dead and 30,000 wounded. Its costs will soon approach $700 billion. It has brought the opprobrium of much of the world's people. It has led our friends and allies to ask more in sadness than in anger: What has happened to America?

Yet the saber rattling continues. This time the target is the Islamic Republic of Iran. American presidential candidates are capable of singing silly songs about bombing Iran and promise nuclear "retaliation" if Iran does not behave according to US dictates. Clearly, Iran is a nation whose recent history is intertwined with that of the United States. From the time of the CIA-engineered coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossedegh and installed Shah Reza Pahlavi, through the period of the "hostage crisis" of 1979 and the US "tilt" toward Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, all the way to the present occupation of Iraq, which strengthened Iranian influence in the region -- these relationships have altered the courses of both nations' histories.

We've endured for nearly eight years now a government in Washington that felt no compunction about exploiting fear as a tactic of controlling the populace. The Bush administration introduced us to color-coded threat levels and even told us to buy duct tape and plastic sheets for our homes to prepare for a biological terrorist attack. We watched in horror as our nation invaded and occupied a sovereign state without the imprimatur of the United Nations and against the wishes of our closest allies, even in the region. Today, our country is loathed throughout much of the world.

Pablo Picasso's masterpiece inside the United Nations building was displayed there to give people the chance to think before plunging into war with all of its attendant ills. In the future, if diplomats want to cast a veil over this painting again, we must firmly tell them that anything they have to say to the world's people can be said while standing in front of "Guernica," or it does not need to be said at all.