It is difficult to believe that anyone could view Pablo Picasso’s great painting Guernica and not be moved. It is not just that the painting is great art. It is one of the most evocative statements about the horrors of war. Perhaps more important still, it is a clear declaration to all who see it of the consequences of failing to oppose evil.
Guernica was a little Basque town in the north of Spain that was bombed on April 26, 1937 by German and Italian aircraft operating in support of General Franco’s Fascist forces during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. As many as 1,000 people were killed.
Many see this conflict as the true precursor to World War Two. The Spanish Fascists were supported by both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The other side, the Republicans, received much of its outside support from the Soviet Union. These outsiders used the conflict to test many advanced weapons systems and new tactics including, witness Guernica, massed aircraft for urban bombardment.
Both sides also included large numbers of so-called volunteers. Those supporting the Republicans included several thousand Americans who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Germany and Italy sent entire organized combat units under commissioned officers all masquerading as volunteers. Ultimately, the intervention by Germany and Italy proved decisive and Spain suffered under about forty years of Fascist rule.
Western democracies faced political and military issues in their choice of responses to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s which were quite similar to those which the Obama Administration has faced over intervention in the Syrian civil war. Weary of war and unsure about the political leanings of many in the Republican camp, the major Western powers chose to remain neutral. As a result, Spain was lost and Hitler and fascism were emboldened.
President Obama now faces his Guernica. Like Western leaders of the 1930s he is reluctant to get involved and unsure of the political leanings of those fighting for freedom in Syria. But the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is as much a harbinger of things to come as was Guernica. Having drawn a red line does he dare embolden Assad and his backers, Iran and Hezbollah? If today’s announcement is any indication, Obama has correctly seen and responded to his Guernica.
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