Thursday, April 26, 2007

Today in History: The bombing of Guernica

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica, which was later immortalized in a work by Pablo Picasso. The painting (a detail of which appears at left), is quite haunting and as eloquent a piece of anti-war sentiment as has appeared in any artistic medium.

It's important to keep it in our minds' eye to remind ourselves that war truly is hell, and whatever ends it seeks to achieve will necessarily be won only through the most violent of means. History tends to gloss over the small stories of loss and devastation that touch so many lives during wartime, and art like Guernica serves to constantly remind us of the tremendous costs exacted, especially in the modern brand of warfare.

The power of the painting is certainly recognized by those who wage war. I'm reminded of the press conference that took place at the UN in New York before the Iraq War, in which Colin Powell had a copy of the painting draped so that the disturbing imagery of the affects of that bombing did not serve as a backdrop to his rationalizing the need for more of it.

Below are excerpts from a very good article that appears in The Independent, a British newspaper. It points out that Guernica marked the first instance of "total war", in which civilians became targets. As much as the use of "precision bombs" today is supposed to minimize such losses, no technology is perfect especially when operated by fallible humans.

Guernica remembered: Picasso's legacy
By Graham Keeley

It was a busy market day in a small town then little known beyond Spain. The central square as alive with the chatter of the peasants selling their produce and the noise of their livestock. But at 4.40pm on 26 April 1937, this bustling scene was reduced to carnage as Luftwaffe bombers unloaded their deadly cargo on Guernica.

The church bell rang out to warn the townsfolk of their approach, but though many found makeshift shelters, these offered little protection from the onslaught. Three hours later, the indiscriminate carpet bombing of this defenceless civilian population would propel the ancient capital of the Basques on to the world stage.

Hundreds of miles away in Paris, Pablo Picasso read about the massacre and was outraged. He immediately decided to change a canvas he was painting for the Paris Exhibition and the result was Guernica, the masterpiece which has come to symbolise the barbarity of war.

Today, exactly 70 years after the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion led the attack which is thought to have claimed 1,600 lives and left about 800 injured, survivors will mark the atrocity.

The attack, was the first use of what came to be known as total war. This put civilians, not just soldiers, in the front line; targets who were as legitimate as armed combatants. It has come to be an integral part of war since.

Read the full article
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