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Guernica; The Civilian Toll of Modern Warfare

Guernica; The Civilian Toll of Modern WarfareAt 4:40 pm on April 26th, 1937, the most advanced aircraft from Adolf Hitler's "Condor Legion" approached the Basque town of Guernica. It was a Monday afternoon and the markets were packed with shoppers and peasants. The church bell suddenly rang out, signifying the approach of enemy aircraft. For the next three hours, Guernica was carpet-bombed with incendiary bombs, setting the town ablaze. Guernica had no air defense systems and the German and Italian aircraft were unabated. Those fleeing the attack were met with high-caliber gun fire by the low flying assault. According to reports filed by George Steer, a war correspondent for The Times of London, "The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race." Steer continued, "The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces." The bridges and factories were not bombed and no strategic military objectives were targeted. It was one of the first aerial assaults against civilians in the history of warfare.

The attack was on behalf of General Fransisco Franco, who wanted to send a message to the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. The Basque regions were central areas of opposition to Franco's nationalist movement. The bombardment of Guernica was intended to terrorize the Basques. Guernica; The Civilian Toll of Modern Warfare Estimates of the civilian death toll range from as few as 250, to over 1000, or nearly 15% of the population. Three quarters of the town was reduced to rubble. The world reacted with outrage at the random attack on a civilian population after the publication of George Steer's account in The Times of London and New York. Three years after the bombing of Guernica, the German air force destroyed most of London with nearly a month of bombardment in 1940. Five years later, the city of Dresden was subjected to fire bombing, killing 25,000 civilians. And in August 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, killing over 200,000 Japanese civilians.

Following the atrocities committed on all sides during World War II, the international community ratified four treaties conventionally known as The Geneva Conventions. These Conventions outline the treatment of prisoners of war and decries attacks on civilian Guernica; The Civilian Toll of Modern Warfaretargets. To date, 194 countries have ratified the treaty. Given the sterile moniker of "collateral damage', civilian deaths during warfare are inevitable. Yet, with the genocide in Darfur, Mogadishu, Rwanda, Srebrenica, the killing fields in Cambodia, the regime of General Pinochet, Halabja in Iraq, and even the "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq, 70 years after the bombardment of Guernica, the conduct of man remains unchanged.



Daniel Graeber

Daniel Graeber is a writer for United Press International covering Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Levant. He has published works on international and constitutional law pertaining to US terrorism cases and on child soldiers. His first major work, entitled The United States and Israel: The Implications of Alignment, is featured in the text, Strategic Interests in the Middle East: Opposition or Support for US Foreign Policy. He holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Conflict Management from Norwich University, where his focus was international relations theory, international law, and the role of non-state actors.

Areas of Focus:International law; Middle East; Government and Politics; non-state actors