Guernica in the Global History of Warfare.
The basic tool of modern war is quite simple. You take a piece of Chinese bamboo pipe, and fill it with gunpowder, invented in China in the 9th century. Then you have three options. If you close the pipe at both ends, it becomes a bomb. If you open the pipe at one end, it is blown forward by the explosion and you get a rocket. If you open the rocket at the other end, you get a gun or a cannon.
The cannon was fully developed in China by 1280 and reached Europe 30 years later. In the 16th century the arms race between the coastal states of Europe created navies that could pursue strategic goals anywhere in the world. Their cannons could shatter fortresses and were even more effective against defenceless villages.
Preindustrial Europe had little that was in demand in the rest of the world. Our most important export was brute force. We were at the time regarded as nomadic warriors in the style of the Mongols or the Tartars. They reigned supreme from the backs of horses, we from ships.
The Chinese had cast the first cannon. But they felt secure and refrained from taking part in the naval arms race. The Moguls of India, instead of building their own fleet of gun carrying ships, chose to purchase defence services from Europe.
Thus the backward and poorly resourced Europe of the 16th century acquired a monopoly of ocean-going ships with guns capable of creating that kind of death and destruction which the name "Guernica" stands for.
Three hundred years later European guns had conquered a third of the world.
Then it was the rocket’s turn. The Chinese used rockets already in their defence of Kaifeng in 1232. The rocket weapon spread to Europe around 1250 and was rediscovered by the British at the beginning of the 19th century.
The "Guernica" of the rocket was the Danish capital Copenhagen, destroyed by the British in 1807. After that carnage the rocket was reserved for non-European peoples. The British used rockets in North Africa 1816, in Burma 1825, in Ashante 1826, in Sierra Leone 1831, in Afghanistan 1837-42, in China 1839-1842 and 1856-60, in Japan 1864, in Central America 1867, in Abyssinia 1868, in South Africa 1879, in Afghanistan 1880, against Alexandria 1882 and against rebels in Sudan, Zanzibar, East and West Africa in 1894 – to mention only the most prominent occasions when British rockets burned down non-European towns and villages.
Thus Europe conquered another third of the world.
The British themselves did not get a taste of the rocket weapon until World War II when London was bombarded with a new generation of German rockets. Accuracy was still so low that all German rockets put together killed fewer people than a single British bombing raid over Germany.
The bomb was first used by the Chinese a thousand years ago.
It was filled with thin slivers of porcelain, which were flung out in the explosion to "wound the skin and break the bones". The very first bombs were what we today call anti-personnel bombs, intended for so called "soft targets".
As long as the bomb was dropped at the enemy from the city wall, it was considered just a primitive forerunner to the rocket. But when it could be delivered from an aircraft, the power of the bomb became obvious.
The Italians started it on November 1st 1911 when they dropped the first bomb over Tagiura in Libya. The Spaniards came a close second. On December 17 1913, captains Eduardo Barón and Carlos Cifuentes attacked the village of Ben Carich in Spanish Morocco, dropping four "Carbonit" shrapnel bombs filled with explosives and steel balls, to punish rebellious villages.
Bombing "savage" civilians soon became standard practice of colonial warfare. One example was the bombing of Tetuan on June 29, 1924, when twenty Spanish planes dropped 500 bombs causing large civilian losses. The worst atrocity was committed in 1925 against the "Guernica" of Morocco, Xauen, by American airmen in the service of France and Spain. "A number of absolutely defenceless women and children were massacred and many others were maimed and blinded", wrote the London Times.
In September the German consulate in Tetuan reported that Moroccan rebel villages were now being punished with mustard gas. Gas, as a weapon of mass destruction, was forbidden by the 1925 Geneva Convention. In the summer of 1925, the Red Cross requested permission to send weapons inspectors to the war zone to investigate reports of a gas war. The Spanish refused. But two German officers were invited to serve with the Spanish airforce "in order to get experience, particularly of the use of gas in air warfare". In a secret report the Germans wrote, that "Spain was primarily dependent on the result of systematic air attacks and the devastating effect of poison gas".
Of all these bombed towns and villages, most of them in Africa, the Middle East or the Far East, only one went down in history: Guernica. After all, Guernica lies in Europe. In Guernica we were the ones who died.
Already at the Hague Conference 1899 many participants feared a future "Guernica". The small countries argued for a total prohibition of air war. The then superpower, Great Britain, opposed prohibition:
"It can be proved to the hilt that scientific development of engines of destruction had tended a) to make nations hesitate before going to war; b) to reduce the percentages of losses in war; c) to shorten the length of campaigns, and thus to reduce to a minimum the sufferings endured by the inhabitants."
All through the 20th century these three arguments were repeated over and over again, in support of weapons’ systems able to achieve not only a new "Guernica", but a million new "Hiroshimas".
The fourth Hague Convention of 1907, which is still valid international law, states in article 25 that "bombardment by whatever means of towns. villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended, is prohibited."
This Convention was systematically violated by all parties of World War II, especially by the British over Germany and the Americans over Japan. Immediately after the war the International Red Cross tried to restore the laws of war protecting civilians. But the victorious powers could hardly agree to such laws without incriminating themselves for what they had just done and planned to continue doing.
The French bombed Madagascar, Vietnam, Algeria. The British bombed Malaysia, Aden, Kenya. The US bombed Korea and Vietnam. Perceived as Communist or Terrorist threats, movements for independence were for three decades bombed all over the non-European world, creating innumerable "Guernicas".
The US and Britain skilfully and energetically worked against Red Cross efforts to protect civilians. Not until the decolonisation process was over, a new convention was finally accepted on June 10, 1977. It was for the first time truly international. It applied to all continents, to all political systems and to both external and internal conflicts. The basic rule says:
"The Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."
Article 51 expressly prohibits the use of any weapon whose effects cannot be limited to a specific military objective.
Can these paragraphs prevent another "Guernica"? Yes, they could ¾ but only if international law is backed by the forceful support of public opinion all over the world.
Every time international law is violated with impunity, be it in the World Trade Cnter, in Afghanistan or in Iraq, its protective power is reduced everywhere. But the opposite is also true. International law is gaining power to protect us every time it is upheld by us, against the violators ¾ be it in New York, in Afghanistan, in Iraq or anywhere in the world.