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Guernica, Again | The Nation

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Guernica, Again

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It's Guernica, again. The photos out of Lebanon and Gaza have the same excruciating quality of pain and despair as the mother with her dead child in Picasso's painting. The terrified horse, the body parts, decimation and death abstracted are made imperishably awful.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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Pablo Picasso began work on his mural Guernica within three weeks of the destruction of the town from which the painting derives its name. It was completed not many weeks later in a fury of horror born of the event.

Monday, April 26, 1937, was a market day in Guernica, a Basque town in Spain, then wracked by civil war. As the town was filling up with peasants from the hinterland, warplanes appeared in the sky. What happened next was described by correspondent George Steer of the Times of London:

"Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.

"In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race."

The attack from the sky by Adolf Hitler's Condor Legion was unparalleled in 1937. Doubtless the Nazis, like the Israelis now, thought terror raining down from the sky would break the spirit of the people. Hardly. Seventy years later, some Basques are still fighting. What they learned from that day was to copy the tactics: kill civilians through ETA, the Basque terror organization.

Three years later, German bombers dropped out of the clouds to destroy the English cathedral town of Coventry. The plan, more than likely, envisioned England's spirit cracking at the destruction of this landmark building and the annihilation of the ancient town in which it sat.

Military theorists and historians came to believe that slaughtering civilian populations via air attacks does not demoralize them but more often than not unites them in hatred of their killers. Morality aside, attacking civilian populations seldom succeeds in accomplishing what the attackers are after.

The Israelis have come up with a new approach to targeting civilians as they go after Hamas and Hezbollah: kill 'em all but kill 'em slowly. The bombings by Germany of Guernica and Coventry and by Americans of Dresden and Tokyo happened in a night. By the morning, the deed was done.

The Israeli Defense Forces apparently believe that if the work is done a bit at time over weeks, there will be less fuss and fewer incriminating photos. Less for a present-day Picasso to memorialize. Naturally a few NGOs like Doctors Without Borders will complain, but only Unitarians and other peace-loving people will pay them mind.

The Israeli approach is to X out the airports, the roads and the harbors, thereby trapping the prey. The trick is to cut off the food and medicine. Ruin the electrical grid, destroy the water system and wreck the sewage disposal facilities, and then sit back and wait for their enemies--and the innocent among them--to perish.

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