Bombs, war crimes and our diminished sensitivity

The recent bombing of a hospital in Kunduz highlights a decline in Western efforts to make wars less brutal.

Picasso Guernica
Picasso's 'Guernica' has become so iconic an image of war that a tapestry facsimile was placed in the lobby of the United Nations, writes Dasgupta [Pablo Picasso 1937]

On April 28, 1937, Pablo Picasso read the front-page headlines in L’Humanite: “One thousand incendiary bombs dropped by Hitler and Mussolini’s planes reduce the city of Guernica to ashes. An incalculable number of dead and wounded. For how long can the world tolerate the terrifying exploits of international fascism?”

Though generally not much affected by political events, Picasso was devastated by the aerial bombing of civilians in his native country and immediately began to work on an enormous painting of protest and memorial. Executed in the same black-and-white as the harrowing newspaper pictures, Guernica was immediately adopted as both emblem and fund-raiser for international anti-Franco activism.

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In the ensuing decades, it became so iconic an image of the horrors of war that a tapestry facsimile was placed in the lobby of the United Nations. In 2003, when Colin Powell went to the UN to present the US’ case for military intervention in Iraq, this tapestry was covered with a blue curtain. As the New York Times commented at the time, “Mr Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children …”

Picasso’s masterpiece emerged from his epoch’s general repugnance towards aerial bombing (in the streets, one million Parisians protested the Guernica bombing while he was painting inside), a now-diminished feeling that we would do well to revive.

Last resort

As HG Wells’ 1908 novel, War in the Air, showed, it was not civilian air travel that people envisioned in the wake of the Wright brothers’ early successes, but bombs. And, as was immediately recognised, the dominance of the skies by “air navies” would herald a different kind of warfare. Forget those soldierly qualities celebrated since Homer – courage, valour, chivalry and the like; in the future, you could defeat a people without emotion and without danger to yourself. Even generals demurred at a prospect both so brutal and so cowardly, and aerial bombing of civilian targets was banned by both Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907.

The envisioned 'society' of societies has become instead a gangland, and one where there is no trace of the 'democracy' that is its frequent war cry.


But the Hague Conventions only governed the conduct of war between “civilised nations”, which implied that such crude tactics could be used against those deemed neither “civilised” nor “nations”. Therefore, naturally, there were experiments in Europe’s empires. In 1920, Britain and France used bombs to terrorise civilians rebelling against their newly-installed regimes in Iraq and Syria, respectively. Britain also dropped bombs on civilians in Afghanistan, whose emir articulated the paradox that has obtained ever since: “It is a matter for great regret that the throwing of bombs by Zeppelins on London was denounced as a most savage act … while now we see with our own eyes that such operations are … prevalent among civilised people of the West.”

Western assumptions about which populations may be targeted with aerial bombardment have remained intact – and no one should be surprised if those populations have stored up a diabolical picture of the West over the course of the intervening century.

What has not remained intact is the basic repugnance towards aerial bombing which made it, even in the old empires, an unpopular last resort. Today, aerial bombing fails to generate the outrage that Guernica did, despite its inordinately more destructive effects. Of course, this is partly because the West now feels it will not itself be the target, which was not the case in the 1930s. But it is also because the great internationalist enterprise of which the Hague Conventions were a part – which included making war less brutal, and, if possible, ending it – has fallen into cynical disrepair, and one of the results is the diminished sensitivities of our era.

The Palace of Nations in Geneva – where Joanne Liu, President of Doctors without Borders ( known by its French acronym, MSF), last week gave a press conference calling for investigation of the US aerial attack on the organisation’s hospital in Afghanistan – is a relic of that enterprise, which sought a new and better world. Visionaries from every continent were united in the feeling that what must replace Europe’s empires was some form of inter-national “society of societies”: Just as in modern nations, free citizens freely congregated to resolve social disputes and determine their joint future, so in the “society of societies”, free nations would do the same. Arbitration would replace war; the sphere of politics would be the world.

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In an era threatened by total war, this vision captivated generations of idealists, including such disparate figures as Andrew Carnegie and HG Wells. It resulted in an impressive furniture of international laws, conventions and institutions, some of which still operate today. But it was severely damaged by the Cold War when both the US and the Soviet Union undermined international bodies so they could transform the world in their own interests. Since then, the US and its allies have pursued aggressive private policies on the global stage whose relationship with any residual idea of the international “community” is well expressed by that blue curtain across Guernica. Russia is now returning to a similarly extralegal role.

The envisioned “society” of societies has become instead a gangland, and one where there is no trace of the “democracy” that is its frequent war cry. The attack on the MSF hospital on October 3 is just another example of how battered the old civilising project, a key part of which was the inviolability of medical personnel in war zones, is.

Prosecuting war crimes

As far back as 1864, when a Swiss millionaire who had earlier witnessed the carnage of the Battle of Solferino established in Geneva an international medical force to care for the victims of war, regardless of their nationality, the red cross on the doctors’ flag was a guarantee of immunity from attack. The Geneva Convention, at which the new organisation was announced, stated, “Ambulances and military hospitals shall be recognised as neutral, and as such, protected and respected by the belligerents as long as they accommodate wounded and sick.” This provision was updated and expanded in the Hague Conventions and – during that last burst of internationalism before the Cold War – in the Geneva Convention of 1949.

Despite everything, the legal situation has not been diluted since. Any wartime belligerent knowingly attacking neutral medical staff and facilities without notifying them in advance is guilty of a war crime. It looks very likely that the US attack falls under this definition. It is critical that Liu’s appeal for an independent investigation of the US attack is acted upon and that prosecution of any proven war crimes ensues.

Our present world crisis is, in great part, a result of the assault over the last seventy years on the ideals and infrastructure designed between 1850 and 1950 to ensure world peace. It may be too late to rebuild them, but we do not have a better hope. The vision of a consensual internationalism built on parliamentary and judicial process remains the only way to restore to global affairs the kind of legitimacy that might give young people in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan a feeling that the world is not entirely lawless and senseless – and it does not need to be burned down. And the starting point of such a “society of societies” must be that the strong – as in any society worth the name – be bound by the same rules as the weak.


An apocryphal story goes like this: Pablo Picasso, living in Nazi-occupied Paris, had his studio searched by the Gestapo. Coming across a reproduction of Guernica, a German officer asked the artist, “Did you do this?” “No,” replied Picasso. “You did.”

One wonders how such a conversation would go today.

Rana Dasgupta is a British novelist and essayist based in Delhi. He is the author of Capital: The Eruption of Delhi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.