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Was it Worth it? Guernica to Sana’a

“In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil” – Robert McNamara

When the Fascist fleet of twenty bombers, made up of German and Italian ‘volunteers’ serving the Spanish Nationalist forces, dropped their destructive payload onto the city of Guernica the world reacted in outrage.  A large military force had knowingly attacked civilians in a new and frightening manner.  The aeroplane an innovation had been fancied as both a harbinger of destruction as well as a wonder transport, for those in Guernica in 1937, the maelstrom of bombs revealed the true potential that such technology promised.  For the civilised mind, the bombing was a war crime, unacceptable.  No strategic benefits could justify killing so many innocent civilians. Though the capital of Madrid had been bombed before,  just not on such a scale and not with as much impact as was witnessed in Guernica.  For the fascists Guernica had been deemed a legitimate target, their enemies had been using it as a communications hub near to the battlefield.  The bombing had paid off, it allowed an opening that lead to the capture of Northern Spain for the fascists. Despite the outrage, General Franco would go onto win the terrible civil war for the control of Spain.  For the dictator and his allies, the price had been worth it.

That same year in their war on the Chinese people the Japanese military would bomb Nangking and Shanghai with far more focus and violence than the fascists had exhibited in Spain.  The revulsion from the World was great, even from some officials inside Nazi Germany, the images of burned and bombed civilians revealed a ferocity of war that had converged with the technologies of modern recording devices and the machines for mass slaughter.  The Japanese military were unchecked in their zeal to murder as many of the Chinese that they could.  Decades earlier in Korea and having witnessed their European and American mentors fight their own, often one sided, conquests had secured a mentality for murder.  Invigorating the martial ideals of the Budo with the righteous modernity of imperial supremacy the Japanese military was condemned for being oriental and barbaric in their conduct.  Yet everything that they did was very much Western, if not only for the addition of the romantic Samurai illusions.

For the innocent 1937 was not the first time that military forces had converged on the unarmed brutalising them with reckless strength. It was not even the first time that it had occurred from the air. The British mastered such an exhibition of aerial mass murder at the end of the First World War when they took control of the remnants of the Ottoman empire.  Having betrayed the sentiments and promissory deceptions of the wars end, the British along with the many other victor nations cut the World up into possessions that they would themselves exploit and rule. The newly formed Royal Air Force in 1920 with experience from the great war turned its bombs and poisonous gas onto the ‘uncivilised’ tribes people of Mesopotamia. The campaign to control Iraq with airborne violence was known as ‘aerial policing’ a modern term of colonial hubris that ignored the terrible consequences of such actions. If those responsible for Guernica, Shanghai or even the attack on Pearl Harbour referred to their bombing campaign as merely ‘aerial policing’ it would seem insolent, but such terms leave the mouths of very serious minds with unquestioned grace despite any truth.

““The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: They know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” Arthur Harris, RAF, 1924

The British military suppressed the Arab and Kurdish rejection of their rule by dropping bombs and poisonous gas onto the villages where rebels may have been or were suspected to visit upon.  The result was deadly. The welfare of women and children were not considered by such imperial mandates.  The recent discovery of oil in the region had further inspired the British government to exercise such deadly force. Such displays of technological warfare also could deter any ambitions that the recently defeated Turkish government may have had.  The aerial bombings in Iraq was not even the first time the British had used planes to kill tribes people, on occasions in Afghanistan and then British Somaliland (Somalia) similar rebellions had also been met with such ‘policing’.  Though not on the scale as was performed in Iraq, the British had gone forth to kill as many as possible with their bombs. The British enforced its policy of aerial policing in its middle eastern and east African possessions into the 1930s.  The death of many uncountable was worth it in the minds of the imperial masters, the new technology had allowed them to do so with fewer men at risk. In 1935 as the Italian military conquered Ethiopia and Abyssinia, much of the World including Britain’s political leaders condemned the use of bombs and gas on the local populace. 

“…Chemical weapons were devastating against the unprepared and unprotected Ethiopians.” US Military analysis of the Italian use of mustard gas in Ethiopia, 1935

The new dimension of air power had become an extension for the mass murder of the technologically inferior or the unarmed.  The 19th century had been the period of the repeater rifle and machine guns dominance when used against ‘natives’ who were rejecting imperial rule of the outside powers. Whether against the Zulu armed mostly with spears, Mahdist warriors with their curved swords, bow and arrow wielding Apache or millions of unarmed innocents from the Congo to the Philippines. The mass slaughter was an inevitable outcome of the arrogance to control and conquer. The civilised mass murderers could take it upon themselves as some form of destiny to either convert or destroy the parts of the world that defied them.  Had US president Grant had machine gun armed bi-planes then it is likely he would have used them to kill as many natives as possible, aerial policing of the frontiers would have saved many US lives.  Had the Germans possesed airborne bombers in South-West Africa then it is likely they would have dropped as many explosives onto the Herero or Namaqua.  The use of aircraft was the inevitable extension of mass killing.  Just as the machine gun had been before it.

In his diary home British gunman, George Rattray describes the invincibility felt by the soldiers of the Crown as they conquered parts of the region that makes up modern-day Zimbabwe. Much of the swift victory was thanks to the Maxim gun, allowing a relative few British soldiers to take so much land against vastly superior numbers.  In 1893 in a letter home to his mother he described an experience as such – “We continued our march for Bulawayo capturing cattle as we went, burning every Kraal we came near and destroying the grain, the niggers having left everything behind. I suppose we have burned some six thousand huts” The modern day drone operator or pilot of the latest attack platform could feel with as much assurance the ability to take life, and control the enemy with the ease that was experienced by George Rattray and his civilising comrades. 

The destruction of cities by bombs dropped from high above are not above the moral imaginations for those civilised planners of conquest.  Even from the words of one such great man of imperial and civilised history, Winston Churchill.  One of those rare figures of time who managed to find himself amidst many moments of significance in the world’s history. In one such moment during his youth Churchill witnessed first-hand the tip of the spear of bloody Imperial policy. His late 19th century was spent among the conquests of Africa for the British empire.  In his words with remorse and admiration the young Churchill looks upon the many dead Dervish warriors, “There was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of the unconquerable manhood; all was filthy corruption. Yet these were as brave men who had ever walked the earth. The conviction was born in me that their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our countrymen would make.”

In the decades afterwards, when positions of power would grace him with pragmatic omnipotence the great Winston Churchill would say in regard to the rebelling tribes people of Iraq in 1919, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes”.  He would again express such a cavalier desire to use poison gas against the enemies of Britain, when in 1944 he asked his chiefs of staff to consider the usage of poisonous gas on German forces and their cities, or any other means necessary. In 1919 he got his wish, but fortunately for many, in 1944 he was denied.  Here was a man who unlike many other political figures, had witnessed the vulgar reality of warfare, he had served in the trenches in World War One as self-enforced punishment for his part in the flawed Gallipoli landings. He had seen the bitter savagery of war up close. Yet his blood lust and desire to see an outcome favourable for his nation or political ambitions knew no end.  New technologies of war and destruction were merely extensions of this desire, tools to be wielded with daily familiarity so long as the end is some how justified.

Though the famed artist Pablo Picasso would paint what he witnessed at Guernica into what is now considered one of the great anti-war pieces, far worse atrocities would befall the planet inside a matter of years. Many of those voices condemning the fascist attacks or the Japanese militaries genocidal mayhem in China, would soon be calling for the mass bombing of civilians.  The next great war would become one of vicious magnitudes culminating in atomic destruction and decades of one sided interventions that while marred with the rhetoric of the Cold War had more in common with the 19th centuries imperial conquests and early 20th centuries ‘aerial policing’ than simply proxy show downs between the great empires of East and West. The Second Great War would carve the world into two distinct camps, it would not end war or the continued mass oppression and slaughter of the innocent.  It would only give it a grander narrative. While the past deemed it necessary to kill in the name of civilised destiny, for the Cold War would do so in the name of anti-communism, anti-imperialism, in the names of socialist revolution and in the name of democracy or freedom and beneath that was the call by those for independence and nationalism.  Each would murder and kill in the name of their cause and strategic desires. The new technologies of napalm, assault rifles, jet powered flight, helicopters, agent orange and even depleted uranium would ultimately become the edge wielded by the great civilised powers against those deemed their inferiors.

For the British unlike the Americans, had experienced first hand the frightful carnage of aerial bombing upon its cities.  During World War One it was slight, though ever present in the psychology. In 1940 at the height of the German bombing blitz on England, the carnage was experienced with romantic and horrific memory.  The wonder weapons of rockets, missiles and guided bombs would also be thrown at the British by their German foes, none of which diminished the British spirit for victory.  Though having known first hand that attacks on the civil populace does not deter the population or government from its continued spirit to wage a war, the British along with their allies would pursue the mass slaughter of area bombing.  High explosives, incendiaries to bouncing dam buster bombs, all were employed to kill as many of the civil populace as was possible.  Those subject to the pariah governments rule, however oppressed were to be deemed legitimate.  Even those heroic freedom fighters such as the Edelweiss Pirates, who had been active in their resistance to the Nazi government before the war were killed in large numbers when allied bombs blew to pieces their hideouts in the wilderness, taking the lives of many members.  It was not just the German civilians but French also died in large numbers beneath the bombs. In Asia the US managed to decimate Philippine cities and townships, almost only killing the innocent civilian native populations, the Japanese military avoiding the fiery infernos of death. By murdering those that they would be apparently liberating, what is the narrative? What noble cause could that murder serve? But in the end, it was all worth it for the victors.

The effectiveness of aviation to break the will of a well-organized nation is claimed by some; but this has never been demonstrated and is not accepted by members of the armed services of our nation.” — “‘Doctrines of the Army Air Corps’ with covering note from the War Plans Division of the War Department General Staff, December 21, 1934.

And despite such a pre war doctrine, the US militaries aviation arm would grow into one of the most powerful independent services on the planet, thanks in a great part to its contribution in the mass murder of many innocent civilians. With an immense strategic air arm that would fixate in the post war period on the nuclear destruction of cities. Early in the air war unlike the British, the Americans held onto the desire to utilise precision bombing. The British felt that such methods were a waste of airmen’s lives and instead favoured area bombing.  Unfortunately for many in the World much of the middle to late 20th century would be defined by a combination of both, and it would be the US Air Force which would contribute to most of the mayhem.  As a contrast to the 1934 US Army Air Corps doctrine the spirit of air power alone and it’s bloody death dealing abilities can perhaps be illustrated in the words of the famed US general Curtis Le May who said, “There are no innocent civilians; so it doesn’t bother me to be killing innocent bystanders.”

Air power alone is the seductive promise that both civil and military minds guarantee themselves and the wider public, such a fantasy was implemented during the 1990s.  The ability to control the airspace and then to bomb whatever lay below was achieved above Iraq, Serbia and in many parts of Africa as the undesirables were punished, despite the technology of precision, civilians were still murdered.  Collateral damage, the death of innocents had a new name. The aerial policing was at its height as pariah governments were treated as tribesmen and warlords had been in the past.  The threat of air strikes and cruise missiles against strategic or important areas were deemed crucial in bending the enemies will. In conjunction with embargoes and trade sanctions, the populace would be starved, such a policy of isolation and constriction would kill thousands of innocent civilians. But it would take a full blown invasion in 2003 to topple the Sadam Hussein regime in Iraq, despite a decade of air dominated punishment before that.  The confused mess of the former Yugoslavia would be come to a bloody inconclusion with the NATO air campaigns against Serbia in support of the Kosovo resistance, thousands were killed.  The mass graves promised to justify the air campaigns were never found.  For the policy makers it was clearly worth it, many of them ascended the ranks of government and inside the depths of the military apparatus. The coming decade would see an endless war, ignited by a bloody reaction to the mostly air power policies of the 1990s.  The aerial policing for over a decade against Iraq during the 1990s clearly had failed, despite the many murdered.

“”As I have told the House on many occasions,” said Hain [Foreign Office minister Peter Hain of the Labour Party in UK] on 2 May, “we are not conducting a bombing campaign against Iraq . . .” The Royal Air Force, together with the US, bombs Iraq almost every day. Since December 1998, the Ministry of Defence has admitted dropping 780 tonnes of bombs on a country with which Britain is not at war. During the same period, the United States has conducted 24,000 combat missions over southern Iraq alone, mostly in populated areas. In one five-month period, 41 per cent of casualties were civilians: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, their children and their sheep – the circumstances of their killing were documented by the United Nations Security Sector. Now consider Hain’s statement that no bombing campaign exists. In truth, it is the longest such campaign since the Second World War.” John Pilger, 2000.

It is only through the lenses of both victory and ideological religion that one could view mass bombing of cities like Hamburg or Dresden as being some how justifiable or that those innocent human beings condemned to such a horrible fate as being worthy of such punishing death.  It is with a mind for indirect retribution that one can see the firebombing of Tokyo or the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as being deemed as just acts, the conduct of the Japanese military or the attack on Pearl Harbour somehow indicted the citizens of these cities. The innocent deserved to be burned to death in the minds of the civilised.  It is how a maniacal cabal of planners can look at the twin towers in New York City and those civilians within as being worthy of punishment, as a symbolic retribution for the policy of the American government a campaign of aerial policing to be punctuated by two aircraft crashing through buildings. It is the same mentality exhibited by Chechen killers that stormed a school and murdered child because of the mass devastation committed by the Russian government in cities like Grozny during the 1990s.  The Saudi air force blowing to pieces school buses full of children, the Assad regime dropping bombs on cities to kill insurgents along with civilians, a US circling gunship obliterating a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz drones flown by terrorists that kill with as much discretion in response or despite such attacks.   The technologies in the hands of those with vile convictions are unending in their possibilities to do harm. It would be insulting to consider one a policy and the other terrorism. Yet, such is the language of the civilised.

Even if a case was to be made by men in suits, tenured women swirling red wine or the commenter beneath a YouTube video that the mass death of thousands if not millions could be justified in the name of final victory, what virtue then can be declared?  Forgotten are the Kurds and Arabs gas bombed from above, the millions of Laotians and Cambodians subjected to endless years of bombs, though no war was declared, no misdeed committed by their government.  Just wholesale murder because one great power could commit such an act of devastation.  The debate is avoided. The great war argument is mute.  Laos of the 1960s not Japan of 1945, Iraq in 1920 was not Nazi Germany.  Yet, the powers that be treated the civilians the same regardless.  Once the act of mass murder had been committed from above it is now allowable for all of time.  The wise observer is now conditioned, the by stander no longer shocked.  As the bombs take lives with each explosion so to do they remove any third part indignation. Instead the endless murder by bombs are as natural as distant thunder, inevitable, sanctioned realities of the civilised powers.  To be powerful is to blow to pieces the innocent. To have a wider perspective of policy is to approvingly nod as ones military destroys wedding parties and hospitals. It can be calculated that one maybe dead terrorist is worth the death of fifty innocent civilians. It is a math of the deranged, only so perfectly cultivated inside the great towers of academia and among the righteous minds of think tanks and government. It is why when Saudi aircraft blow to pieces a residential area in Sana’a, Yemen murdering almost 60 the world watches indifferently. The allies feed its war, enabling the Kingdom’s campaign of violence. It is all calculated in the grand scheme to be worth it.

For many the immorality of the allies during World War Two is drowned out by the horrible actions of the Axis powers.  To fight evil, one must deploy its means.  During the Cold War the great former ally of the Soviet Union and its communist minions were deemed as abhorrent and wicked so anything in the pursuit of checking their expanse is justifiable.  Dictatorships, socialist economic policies, one party states, collectivised farms, torture, assassination, imprisonment without trial, censorship, prohibition, nationalisation of industry, mass murder all the hallmarks that stand to represent communism or variations of It were also used by the very states that claimed to stand opposed against it.  In order to defeat the communist, the great powers could bomb, napalm and use biological weapons in Korea with vicious terror. Murder refugees, destroy every town and city from above, starve millions, drown as many as possible all in the name of saving the Korean peninsula. The Korean people had done nothing to the allied powers, it was not the Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan of the history pages.  Instead of deterring the enemies will those communist forces in the name of defying foreign imperialism would enslave millions, execute thousands and wage an economic war of misery for decades.  The memory of fleets of bombers raining destruction never far from North Korean minds, a reminder of what they oppose almost always justifying the arduous oppression. No propaganda could invent a fiction as terrible as the truth of the war on the innocent that was conducted by the allied nations.   

A terrible truth that was shared by the small south-east Asian nation of Laos.  For a decade it was bombed with relentless meanness. It has been recorded that more bombs were dropped on the tiny impoverished nation of Laos than were dropped in all of World War Two by every belligerent nation combined.  The US military were cruel in their execution of every part of Laos. Though not at war with the people, the US government did so because they simply could.  Bombs were sent and the bomber crews continued to unload them.  It was safer to fly missions over Laos and Cambodia than SAM and fighter defended North Vietnam. Furthermore, political expedience dictated that at times the North of Vietnam was off the menu for the US military to attack, bombings there were considered the stick in any peace process. So instead the might of the US and its allies military focussed much of its constant bombings on South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Killing millions. Though the war officially ended in 1975, the bombs remained. Millions of unexploded bombs scattered the countryside, blowing up randomly or with little contact.  Not only bombs but mines, chemicals dropped to clear the jungle of life along with the many craters becoming breeding grounds to malaria infested mosquitos.  And ticks carrying the likely US invented Lyme disease.  

Though for the Americans the Vietnam war is a distant memory, one of much pride and musical inspiration. It is mostly forgotten as other wars have taken its place in both media and remembrance. For the people of South East Asia the legacy of the American war lingers on. Mutated children born from the toxic contact of chemical defoliants, cancer clusters caused by everything dropped that has poisoned the lands and water, disease proliferating thanks to the carnage left and off course the bombs. The many bombs left remaining.  This will be the legacy suffered for decades in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen as the wars finally fizzle into forgotten embers the victims continue to be snuffed away.  The civilised masters policy would by then have moved on.  No British policy maker looks back to the aerial policing of the 1920s with any remorse or consideration, just as the American and allied political masters have forgotten the names of South East Asian contemporary importance.  A Nhu Dat, Hue or La Drang were as once as important to political lips as an Aleppo or Fallujah would be many wars later.  And eventually they too will be forgotten to the history books, those living there cannot forget. How can they?  In the past decade, each year close to 50 Laotians die from bombs detonating, hundreds are injured.  In 2016 it was determined that 20,000 have been killed in Laos since the last bombs were dropped from the remaining left behind detonating randomly, most of the victim’s children.  The numbers in Cambodia and Vietnam are in their thousands also. The price is worth it for who?

As recent as writing this piece the New York Times posted a video article on an airstrike in Afghanistan killed eleven children and a mother, it is likely that it was a US military attack. The outcome is terrible, horrific. But the implications are mute.  The American public is indifferent and the world community full of too few voices that would decry such an act. Whether intentional or accidental the innocent are dead. Nearly an entire family were killed.  Those rejecting the US led coalition only have greater fuel and animosity. For those eleven children, their fragile bodies were torn apart with a savage blast that ripped them from their loved ones.  Such a death is not gentle or soft, it is harrowing and graphic.  Their young bodies, limp and broken naïve to any wider perspective, they committed no misdeed, had no opinion or ideology. They were completely innocent. Loved and nurtured. Their fate was avoidable and yet it is always seemingly inevitable.  The technology as supreme as it may be, has still murdered eleven children. However precise it may seem, they are now lost to the dust of policy. The anointed makers of such misery are assured in their own self fulfilment that everything they do is for a wider importance, the safeguard of empire. National security, civilisation. The bombing of Guernica led to victory in the North of Spain, the gas bombing of civilians in Iraq helped to civilise the tribes and the murder of eleven more children in Afghanistan somehow has helped safeguard the USA from terrorists. Is it worth it? For the terrorists who murder the innocent with as much disregard, they merely lack the funding and scale. The blood of the innocent runs just as red, the tears sting as much.

The future will not be filled with mass fleets of bombers dropping dumb bombs onto cities, not because of the civilian costs but because of the cost effectiveness for the military. The risk of pilots and machines are now too great. Instead drones and aircraft carrying complex payloads attack with brochure advertised precision against people with alien names. The new technology will be artificial intelligence and smart killing devices that use our own personal devices against us and all the surveillance at the disposal of those who deem themselves civilised to rule.  It is a dystopian reality that pushes past the fears of the great minds of past science fiction. Living inside its genesis we can see how the disregard of innocence can be washed away with simplistic belief in moral supremacy. No technology is free from its potential to murder. The governments of the world will use every great invention to some way enforce their rule and to spread it.  The millions of subjects, those loyal who could with their great weight of objection have in many ways a power to say no more will remain mute. And often will endorse the murder, they will cheer for it.  War is constant, its means ever changing.  The piston engine biplane with hand held bombs are but mere steps towards self-operated micro drone hunting and killing dissidents and undesirables. Aerial Policing shall remain. The murder and the self righteousness in doing so shall also be retained.  No one paints for the dead of Afghanistan like Picasso once did for Guernica, it is no longer outrageous to murder so many unarmed. It is inevitable. In the end, was any of it worth it? Damned those who say ‘yes’.  

“My Luftwaffe is invincible… And so now we turn to England. How long will this one last – two, three weeks?” Reichsmarshall Herman Goering, 1940

“The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” President Richard Nixon, 1972

“We won’t stop as long as a single terrorist remains on our territory.” President Boris Yeltsin, 1999

“Demolish, destroy, devastate, degrade, and ultimately eliminate the essential infrastructure.” General Wesley Clark, 1999

Kym Robinson, June 2019

Further reading and sources

New York Times video article on US attack on Afghanistan

Saudi attack on Sana ’a

The bombing of civilains in World War Two

The bombing of Shanghai and Nangking

The bombing of Guernica

British bombing civilians in Iraq, 1920s

Monitoring of civilian harm in modern conflict

On the war on Laos

US biowarfare on bombing on Korea 1950s

US bombing Cambodia

Allied sanctions and bombings of Iraq 1990s

Books –

The Gun by C.J. Chivers, 2010

The Bomb, Howard Zinn, 2010

Saving Private Power by Michael Zezima, 2000

A History of Chemical and Biological warfare, an American Perspective by J.K. Smart, 1997

Rogue State by William Blum, 2001

I saw Tokyo Burning by Robert Guillain, 1981

Inferno by Keith Lowe, 2007

Dresden 1945 by Alexander McKee, 1982

Bomber Command by Max Hastings, 1992

Published inWar, History and Foreign Policy