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Readings for Reflection: November 2010
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Guernica: The Cover-Up
by Marian Franz

Further to the column on the Victory Tax in our October Newsletter, by the same author. In Reading and Discussion sessions on January 9 and 23, 2011, Friends will have opportunities to explore more widely together the issue of “conscience” through writings of Marian Franz from A Persistent Voice: Marian Franz and Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation (2009). This piece was originally written as a column in the Peace Tax Fund Newsletter, Spring 2004.

Guernica. The word brings up vivid images. One is a picturesque village of northern Spain. The other is Picasso’s famous antiwar painting by that name. Our Spanish hosts at the International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns in 1994 arranged for us to visit the village of Guernica. I have also stood before the painting in Madrid.

The village of Guernica is the cultural capital of the Basque people of northern Spain, seat of their centuries-old struggle for democratic ideals and independence. On Monday, April 26, 1937, this charming town took an undesired place in history. Monday was market day, which was always like a fair in Guernica. The streets were jammed with townspeople and peasants from the surrounding hills and countryside who crowded onto the town square. At 4:30 in the after-
noon, the busiest hour of the week, the church bells of Santa Maria rang to sound an alarm. It was too late.

Suddenly bombers appeared overhead and released 100,000 pounds of highly explosive and incendiary bombs on the village, slowly and methodically pounding it to rubble. Reports say that those trying to escape were cut down by strafing machine gun fire from fighter planes. The fires that engulfed the city burned for three days. One survivor observed, “The air was alive with the cries of the wounded. Pieces of people and animals were lying everywhere.”

Why this unprovoked attack? Guernica was essentially chosen for bombing practice. Hitler’s burgeoning war machine needed a testing ground for a new Nazi military tactic: blanket bombing a civilian population to demoralize the enemy. Franco, Spain’s military dictator, proposed Guernica, a town in his own country, as a target. The bombing by the German Luftwaffe would support Franco’s Nationalist army in the Spanish civil war.

The awful news reached Pablo Picasso, who was stunned by the stark black and white photographs of the bombing. As a response he painted Guernica, which is so large that he had to use a ladder to reach the top of the canvas. The painting was the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It depicts a hodgepodge of animal and human body parts. The twisted, writhing forms include images of a screaming mother holding a dead child, a corpse with wide-open eyes, and a gored horse.

Since 1985, a reproduction of Guernica has hung outside the United Nations Security Council room in New York City. That seems appropriate, since it is the UN’s mandate “To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Why was the painting recently covered for a time?

Guernica serves as a backdrop for diplomats going in and out of the Security Council. Early last year, as Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the U.S. case for war against Iraq, this antiwar painting was covered with a blue drape. One diplomat said it would not be appropriate for the U.S. ambassador or secretary of state to speak to the press surrounded by images of women, children, and animals shouting with horror, depicting the suffering of a bombing.

Need I say more about Guernica’s power? Was the cover-up based on fear that Guernica would arouse the compassion and conscience of people and states? It would seem so. I admit it is easier to look at a blue drape than to see “the air alive with the cries of the wounded” and “pieces of people and animals everywhere.” But if we are to arouse compassion and conscience, we must listen to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who says, “In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see.” Only when we see can we tell it like it is and interpret the pain in whatever way we have the gift to do.

Are we mindful that simply refraining from using or supporting violent means may not be an adequate response to war and atrocities? Do we provide refuge and assistance, including advocacy, for spouses, children, or elderly persons who are victims of violence or neglect?

What unpalatable truths might I be evading?

(From the Lake Erie YM draft Advices & Queries, nos. 64 and 41) Have we considered what portion of our federal taxes and investments is used for military purposes and how these might be used for making peace? Do we live out our testimony against violence and against military training and preparation for war as being inconsistent with the creative work of the living God? (From our Query on Peace (Handbook of the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting, p. 56.)

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