Shock and Awe: Guernica Revisited

March 21st, 2021 - by Gar Smith / Alternet & Maureen Dowd / The New York Times

If George W. Bush Gets the War He Wants,
Baghdad Could Become the 21st Century’s Guernica

Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

18 Years after the Bombing of Baghdad: Prelude to a Reprint

Background: Two months before the Pentagon’s brutal opening assault on Iraq in 2003, I posted an article on AlterNet that was widely reposted. I’m reposting “Shock and Awe: Guernica Revisited” to mark the 18th anniversary of the bombardment of Baghdad, a war based on lies that marked the beginning of yet another of the Pentagon’s Forever Wars.

I wrote the piece after discovering a planning document for the Pentagon’s “Shock and Awe” attack that revealed how the US planned to strike Iraq’s capitol, Baghdad, with 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the first 48 hours. In the Alternet article, I drew a comparison with the infamous 1937 attack on the Basque town of Guernica, which was brutally targeted by six German bombers during the Spanish Civil War. Published on January 28, the AlterNet exposé appeared to have struck a chord. Or, maybe two.

(1) A tapestry reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (depicting the slaughter of Basque civilians) had been on permanent display at the UN building in New York. Because of its prominent placement, Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece would have appeared in the background during Colin Powell’s February 5, press-op to announce Washington’s war plans. However, before Powell’s scheduled appearance, the painting was quietly covered with a blue cloth and hidden behind Security Council flags. 

(2) The Guernica comparison may have had another, more consequential, impact. In the run-up to the US attack, a decision was made not to follow the complete “Shock and Awe” game-plan. On March 20, 2003, the Baltimore Sun confirmed that: “The war was supposed to start with about 3,000 precision-guided weapons ripping through the night sky over Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.” As bad as the US assault was, it could have been much worse.

I’d like to think that the AlterNet article might have had something to do with that decision.

Shock and Awe: Guernica Revisited

Gar Smith / AlterNet

(January 26, 2003) — Forget Osama. Forget Saddam. The Pentagon’s newest target is the city of Baghdad.

US military strategists have announced a plan to pummel Iraq with as many as 800 cruise missiles in the space of two days. Many of these missiles would rain down on Baghdad, a city of five million people. If George W. Bush gets the war he wants, Baghdad could become the 21st century’s Guernica.

On April 26, 1937, 25 Nazi bombers dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries on the peaceful Basque village. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed and 1,500 people, a third of the population, were killed.

The Pentagon now predicts that the Iraq blitzkrieg could approximate the devastation of a nuclear explosion. “The sheer size of this has never been . . . contemplated before,” one Pentagon strategist boasted to CBS News. “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”

The Pentagon dubbed its cold-blooded attack plan “Shock and Awe,” a bizarre conjunction of trauma and admiration.

The concept of Shock and Awe was first developed by the Pentagon’s National Defense University (NDU) in 1996 as part of the “Rapid Dominance” strategy. The strategy was first used in Afghanistan. 

In their 1996 NDU book, Shock and Awe, authors Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade wrote of the need to mount an assault with “sufficiently intimidating and compelling factors to force or otherwise convince an adversary to accept our will.”

With an unsettling air of appreciation, Ullman and Wade invoked the haunting images from “old photographs and movie or television screens [depicting] the comatose and glazed expressions of survivors of the great bombardments of World War I. Those images and expressions of shock transcend race, culture and history.”

Shock and awe also were the emotions that Americans experienced on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, like the 9/11 terrorists, Bush and Co. are planning a similar act of almost unparalleled ferocity — a devastating premeditated attack on a civilian urban population.

Bush seems determined to follow in the footsteps of Hulagu Khan and Tamerlane, the Mongol warlords who laid bloody waste to Baghdad in 1258 and 1401.

But destroying Baghdad will not uncover hidden chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (if, in fact, any exist). Destroying Baghdad will not capture, topple or kill Saddam Hussein. Shock and Awe’s expressed goal is simple: in the words of Harlan Ullman, to destroy the Iraqi people “physically, emotionally and psychologically.”

Ironically, this was also the goal of the Nazi strategists who destroyed Guernica. The town had no strategic value as a military target, but, like Baghdad, it was a cultural and religious center. Guernica was devastated to terrorize the population and break the spirit of the Basque resistance.

Surely cruise missiles have been programmed to demolish the Baath Party Headquarters, presidential palaces and Republican Guard compounds. But have missiles also been preset to obliterate the al-Qadiriya Shrine, the Tomb of Imam al-A’dham and the Mosque of Sheik Abdul Qadir al-Ghailani?

We now know that there was no military need to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaski. The detonations were intended to demonstrate to the world — and to the Soviet Union, especially — that the US had a functioning superweapon. Having sole possession of “The Bomb” gave Washington the power to dominate post-war world politics.

Similarly, the destruction of Baghdad seems designed to underscore Bush’s belligerent warning to the rest of the world: “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”

Washington’s new National Security Strategy describes an America dominating the world militarily, politically and economically.

In a report published a month before the US presidential elections, the conservative Project for the New American Century insisted on instituting a “global US pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”

This ringing endorsement of hyper-imperialism was co-authored by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby and Jeb Bush, none of whom (with the one exception of Rumsfeld) ever volunteered for military service.

Today, thousands of citizen volunteers from around the world are converging in Iraq to stand as nonviolent “human shields” in hopes of forestalling a US assault. The brave men and women in this international “Peace Army” include anti-war activists, religious witnesses, retirees, US military veterans and members of families who lost loved ones in the September 11 attack.

Powell Without Picasso
Maureen Dowd / The New York Times

(February 5, 2003) — When Colin Powell goes to the United Nations today to make his case for war with Saddam, the UN plans to throw a blue cover over Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece, ”Guernica.”

Too much of a mixed message, diplomats say. As final preparations for the secretary’s presentation were being made last night, a UN spokesman explained, ”Tomorrow it will be covered and we will put the Security Council flags in front of it.”

Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.

Reporters and cameras will stake out the secretary of state at the entrance of the UN Security Council, where the tapestry reproduction of ”Guernica,” contributed by Nelson Rockefeller, hangs.

The UN began covering the tapestry last week after getting nervous that Hans Blix’s head would end up on TV next to a screaming horse head.

(Maybe the UN was inspired by John Ashcroft’s throwing a blue cover over the ”Spirit of Justice” statue last year, after her naked marble breast hovered over his head during a televised terrorism briefing.)

Nelson Rockefeller himself started the tradition of covering up art donated by Nelson Rockefeller when he sandblasted Diego Rivera’s mural in the RCA Building in 1933 because it included a portrait of Lenin. (Rivera later took his revenge, reproducing the mural for display in Mexico City, but adding to it a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr. drinking a martini with a group of ”painted ladies.”)

There has been too much sandblasting in Washington lately.
After leading the charge for months that there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chastised the media yesterday for expecting dramatic, explicit evidence from Mr. Powell. ”The fixation on a smoking gun is fascinating to me,” he said impatiently, adding: ”You all . . . have been watching ‘L.A. Law’ or something too much.”

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The administration’s argument for war has shifted in a dizzying Cubist cascade over the last months. Last summer, Bush officials warned that Saddam was close to building nuclear bombs. Now, with intelligence on aluminum tubes, once deemed proof of an Iraqi nuclear program, in dispute, the administration’s emphasis has tacked back to germ and chemical weapons. 

With no proof that Saddam has given weapons to terrorists, another once-crucial part of the case for going to war, Mr. Rumsfeld and others now frame their casus belli prospectively: that we must get rid of Saddam because he will soon become the gulf’s leading weapons supplier to terrorists.

Secretary Powell was huddling on the evidence in New York yesterday with the C.I.A. director, George Tenet. Mr. Tenet was there to make sure nothing too sensitive was revealed at the UN, but mainly to lend credibility to Mr. Powell’s brief, since there have been many reports that the intelligence agency has been skeptical about some of the Pentagon and White House claims on Iraq. It was Mr. Tenet who warned Congress in a letter last fall that there was only one circumstance in which the US need worry about Iraq sharing weapons with terrorists: if Washington attacked Saddam.

When Mr. Bush wanted to sway opinion on Iraq before his State of the Union speech last week, he invited columnists to the White House. But he invited only conservative columnists, who went from gushing about the president to gushing more about the president.

The columnists did not use Mr. Bush’s name, writing about him as ”a senior administration official,” even though the White House had announced the meeting in advance.

They quoted ”the official” about the president’s determination on war. That’s just silly.

Calling in only like-minded journalists is like campaigning for a war only in the red states that Mr. Bush won in 2000, and not the blue states won by Al Gore.

When France and Germany acted skeptical, Mr. Rumsfeld simply booted them out of modern Europe, creating a pro-Bush red part of the European map (led by Poland, Italy and Britain) and the left-behind blue of ”old Europe.”

When the evidence is not black and white, the president must persuade everyone. There is no red and blue. There is just red, white and blue.

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