In his latest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, the historian Howard Zinn writes: "If we want to break the addiction [to war] we need to teach history, because when you look at the history of wars, you see how war corrupts everyone involved, how the so-called good side behaves like the bad side, and how this has been true from the Peloponnesian War all the way to our own time." Few events illustrate Zinn's point more graphically than the bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which took place 70 years ago today.
On April 26, 1937, the German Luftwaffe used the people of Guernica 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 over 1,650 people, and wounded 889, most of them elderly civilians, women, and children. Guernica had been the target of the first aerial destruction of a city, and it shocked the world. President Franklin 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.
"The most powerful weapon of governments in raising armies," Zinn argues, "is the weapon of propaganda, of ideology. It must persuade young people, and their families, that though they may die, though they may lose arms or legs, or become blind, that it is done for the common good, for a noble cause, for democracy, for liberty, for God, for the country." Note the litany of reasons the Bush Administration gave for invading Iraq knowing its actions were going to kill tens of thousands of innocent people.
In early February 2003, a few days before Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his power-point presentation to the United Nations making the case that Saddam Hussein had "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 lies of the Bush Administration have been exposed -- from the WMDs and the Niger yellow cake, to the 9-11 links and even Jessica Lynch's Rambo story -- the Congress must begin investigating or impeaching every official who played a role in bringing the country to war.
Picasso's masterpiece inside the United Nations was there to give people the chance to think before plunging into another war. In the future, if diplomats want to throw a veil over this painting, 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 doesn't need to be said at all.