Eighty years after the bombing of Guernica, the world shows little appetite for peace

This Thursday will be the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. It is perhaps timely to reflect on it, given the emphasis on bombing in the past couple of weeks: the bombing of Syria "in retaliation" for the use of chemical weapons; the "mother of all bombs" dropped in Afghanistan; and North Korean's threats to pre-emptively use nuclear bombs.

The significance of Guernica is that it was the first time civilians were deliberately targeted in an air attack; the first time a population centre was carpet-bombed from the air; and one of the first times a population was used as a target from the air by a foreign power (fascist Germany and Italy) to test the effectiveness of its aircraft and the effectiveness of terror on the civilian population.

Guernica changed the mode of war. Before then, civilians in cities and towns away from the front were, by and large, relatively safe. In wars before then, air power was not capable of such bombing attacks. In World War I, by and large, troops slugged it out in trenches on the front and there was no air war.

For three hours on the afternoon of Monday, April 26, 1937, a market day in which the town's population was swollen from 7000 to 10,000, bombers from the German Luftwaffe's Condor Legion and the Italian Legionary Air Force, in wave after wave, demolished the town in a grid pattern of carpet bombing. The town had no air defences.

The only genuine military target, a bridge that might have been used by retreating troops, was left intact.

Guernica was less a military target than a symbolic one that would have a great effect on the Basque population because it was, and still is, considered the spiritual capital of Basque people and the home of Basque liberty.


Fascist generalissimo Francisco Franco's rebel nationalist forces wanted a quick victory in the northern Basque region, which had stayed loyal to the republican government, so he could have a stronger force to attack the capital Madrid.

Propaganda played a commensurately larger part in the Spanish Civil War than any before it. Radio played a part for the first time. Newspaper reporters could get their stories out more quickly with technological improvement.

News of the Guernica atrocity hit the international press within a couple of days. Franco's side lied by blaming the destruction on a scorched-earth policy by the republicans. The republicans, for their part, exaggerated the death toll at 1650. Later research put it at about 400.

The power of the propaganda, combined with human interest in new turns of events, is shown by the fact that the death toll was relatively low compared to the historic significance of the event. It spawned an artistic and literary outpouring.

In a way, this first-time abuse of air power changed the moral dimension of war. At Guernica, pilots high in the sky with little or no chance of being shot down could inflict death, injury and destruction on a civilian population.

The propensity is for humans to use whatever power is available to them. In the context of North Korea's nuclear ambitions and the erratic leadership in the United States, which is facing it, this is frightening. Who will bother about rules in an all-out war involving existential threat?

This first-time abuse of air power changed the moral dimension of war.

Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering admitted at the Nuremberg trials that the Luftwaffe had used the Spanish Civil War as a practice run, and Guernica was the starting point of the new horror. Rotterdam, London, Coventry and Dresden followed in Europe, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

What is a legitimate target from the air? Purely military? Industrial as well? Mixed industrial and civilian, with the civilians described as "collateral damage"? Demonstration of overwhelming superiority to force capitulation to save your own side's soldiers, irrespective of the enemy's civilian deaths, as in Hiroshima? Another demonstration to hurry things along, as in Nagasaki? "Shock and awe" bombing of a regime on mere suspicion of it having weapons of mass destruction, as in Iraq? Drone bombing of suspected terrorists?

There are no easy answers.

But we have a new one now: would a pre-emptive strike against North Korea be justified in the face of the announced certainty that it has nuclear weapons, the means to deliver them, and credible intelligence that it is about to do so?

The North Korea situation has similarity with the Spanish Civil War: war by proxy. In Spain, fascist Germany and Italy supplied arms to the Franco rebels and the Soviet Union supplied the republican government. A lot of other proxy wars followed, especially during the Cold War.

Now, the Cold War is slowly being replaced by US-China tension and North Korea is a major part of it. Add to this mix the US's propensity to engage in war even if not attacked or under a United Nations umbrella: 1898 with Spain, World War I, Cuba's Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Afghanistan (none of the Twin Tower terrorists were Afghani) and Iraq. The last four are prima facie war crimes under the category of waging an aggressive war.

Further, the US military was keen for a nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis and only the calm resolve of president John F. Kennedy prevented it. Today's US leadership isn't like that.

The best hope now must be China. North Korea feels it must have deliverable nuclear weapons as insurance against an invasion by the US or South Korea that would topple the regime. The US and South Korea, on the other hand, feel they must prevent North Korea getting nuclear weapons at all costs. That is an unstable war-war set of options.

If only China could be persuaded to tell the North Korean regime that its nuclear option will be met by Chinese sanctions so crippling that the regime would topple anyway, and that any nuclear program could not be maintained – a peace-peace option.

If only China could be persuaded that a non-Communist north or even a unified Korea is a better option than a drift to nuclear war. A persuading point would be that such a conflict would threaten the Chinese regime as well.