Picasso’s Guernica and the horrors of war: 75 years later

War is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows. . .

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Written in 1935 by Major General Smedley Butler (1881-1940)

A few years after General Butler exposed, in great detail, how war is “conducted for the benefit of the very few,” Pablo Picasso created his monumental painting Guernica in response to the aerial bombing of a town by the same name in the Basque region of Spain. The bombing took place on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. General Francisco Franco, with the aid of Hitler and Mussolini, bombed Guernica—a stronghold of the Republican resistance to his fascist regime— into rubble. 1600 residents died and one of the most ancient towns in the region lay in complete ruin. It was to be a model for inflicting carnage by aerial bombing: Dresden, Hiroshima, Fallujah.

Within days, the democratically elected Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. By mid-June, Guernica—a huge grey, black and white painting, 11 feet tall by 25.6 feet wide—was completed and on display. By September 1937, it appeared (free to the public) at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and in 1939 at the Museum of Modern Art, helping to bring the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention.

General Butler exposed the lies and economic motivations behind all wars, however noble they may sound. Pablo Picasso exposed the truth about the inhumane and unspeakable atrocities of war—the violence that often claims more innocent men, women and children than those in uniform. Today, the media sanitizes and hides the reality of war. Picasso’s painting transcends the specifics of Guernica and the Spanish Revolution and becomes an iconic, universal statement about the horrors of all wars. When I saw the painting in person in Madrid, I had to hold back my tears. And I was not alone. There were twenty or so people in the room, and we all viewed the huge painting in complete silence. Its message is powerful, visceral and devastating.

The figures in the painting are symbolic and timeless—only a single electric light bulb suggests a modern world. A woman screaming, her child’s neck most likely broken, recalls a horrific version of the Madonna and Child. A dead soldier lays under the panicked, screaming people, clutching his broken sword, a useless weapon under the impersonal, technological assault from the air.  As we look at Guernica, we could easily be looking at an American drone attack anywhere in the Middle East, or the video showing a U.S. attack on civilians released by Wikileaks.

War correspondent Chris Hedges on the reality of war:

The disillusionment comes swiftly. It is not the war of the movies. It is not the glory promised by the recruiters. The mythology fed to you by the church, the press, the school, the state, and the entertainment industry is exposed as a lie. We are not a virtuous nation. God has not blessed America. Victory is not assured. And we can be as evil, even more evil, than those we oppose. War is venal, noisy, frightening, and dirty. The military is a vast bureaucratic machine fueled by hyper-masculine fantasies and arcane and mind-numbing rules. War is always about betrayal—betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics, and of soldiers and Marines by politicians.

We live in a culture that—primarily through its corporate media—glamorizes violence, warfare, and militarism. We live in a society that enthusiastically consumes corporate-made and corporate-sponsored war propaganda. Americans mindlessly accept the corporate-serving and corporate-manufactured wars the US wages in far flung places around the world.  And they rarely question the bloated military budgets that line the pockets of multi-millionaires and billionaires believing the lies that they are necessary to protect the country from the vague threat of “terrorism.” American also buy the idea that the U.S must dominate and control the rest of the world.

Soldiers—whether they know it or not—exist solely to be used and manipulated by governments who are, in turn, manipulated by those who stand to gain from war—Halliburton, Boeing, and others. Today Dick Cheney appeared before Congress warning them not to cut the defense budget because we need to prepare for the next war. Soldiers are depicted as heroes fighting for “freedom,” but they are pawns fighting imperialistic wars in far off places that pose no real threat to the United States. The cult of the military rests on illusions—bolstered by medals, rituals, ranks, flag ceremonies and empty symbols of honor such as the awarding of a medal to a drone pilot for sitting safely thousands of miles away behind a console, bombing human beings, blowing their bodies apart.

Meanwhile, the wars are bankrupting us—the majority of us who pay taxes, that is.  American infrastructure is crumbling, and more and more American cities are declaring bankruptcy. As a nation, instead of buying the PR of the corporate war machine, we might do well to read General Butlers book, read Chris Hedges columns, and meditate on the images in Guernica. We need to question the depth of our devotion to war and explore how it’s ruining the world and our lives.