Powell and Picasso: Who did Guernica?

History will remember Powell for avoiding standing in front of a replica of Picasso’s Guernica, but having no problem with standing in front of piles of dead Iraqi bodies, people who perished because of his lies.

In this September 3, 2014 file photo, former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks at the State Department in Washington [Carolyn Kaster/AP]

The former US secretary of state, Colin Luther Powell, who recently passed away from COVID-19 complications at the age of 84, was one of the main architects of the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq that destroyed an entire sovereign state and killed tens of thousands of innocent people.

What does it really mean for a man to be born in the South Bronx to immigrant parents and grow up to become a joint chief of staff chairman of an imperial army and then the first Black secretary of state of the same empire – and yet end up terrorising humanity with the power of the military might he commanded? “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

The news of Powell’s passing invoked different thoughts in different people. Americans are no longer, if they ever were, the sole narrators of their imperial adventurism. The legacy of any politician, particularly at the highest levels of power, who passes is measured by the global consequences of the power they commanded while alive. There are terrorising consequences to the wanton cruelty exercised by the military machinery of an empire. Powell cut a gentle and kind figure but wielded a military might that has been the terror of this earth.

Countless obituaries have celebrated Powell’s life – many of them have a certain ring of truth. But he was also a lifetime Republican – the party of Ronald Regan, George W Bush, Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell.  Whatever good was in Powell he put it squarely at the service of evil – of the cruellest constellation of heartless politicians who are an existential threat to the US and the world.

Remembering traumatising days

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell famously went to the United Nations to argue that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction. He was not telling the truth. Did he deliberately lie or was he manipulated by his own colleagues when he sat there with a straight face and told the world: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence”? The question is now, as they say, academic. George W Bush had already decided to invade Iraq. His secretary of state was there at the UN to manufacture consent. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were already doomed on that day.

What became most symbolic and deeply embarrassing – if any politician ever looked up the word in a dictionary and it meant anything to them – from that infamous speech was the report that during his UN visit, Powell’s retinue had demanded that the UN officials cover up a tapestry reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica. It would have been a mockery of historical memory to make a case for war with the most iconic antiwar artwork staring you down.

Just a couple of weeks later, on February 23, 2003, I was one of the millions of human beings around the globe protesting against the impending war on Iraq. By then the news that Powell had ordered the replica of Guernica covered before he called for the war was global. On that bitterly cold day in New York, I carried a photo of Guernica I had purchased from Reina Sofía museum in Madrid where the original is kept and had a tall friend hold it over my head as I delivered an anti-war speech at a massive gathering.

The March 17 issue of the New Yorker featured a cover designed by Harry Bliss, called Setting the Stage- referring to both Powell’s speech at the UN and the war on Iraq. On the cover, a curtain drops on Guernica.

These are traumatising times to remember. The US, the Bush administration and Colin Powell, in particular, were exposed for their shameless orchestration of a propaganda machinery to wage war on an entirely innocent nation already suffering under a tyrannical thug the US had hitherto enabled, empowered, armed and emboldened to wage war against Iranians and Kurds.

Who did Guernica?

Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is an oil painting on canvas that has emerged as an iconic antiwar work of art. It is the artist’s powerful meditation on the atrocities of the April 26, 1937 bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

On that fateful day at the UN, Powell and his handlers thought standing in front of it would send a mixed message. It would have. How could a general stand in front of an antiwar icon to order his troops to get ready for war? As the top diplomat of a mighty (though dysfunctional) empire, Powell had the power and the audacity to have a mighty work of art covered and concealed. But the world did not stand idly by and let him get away with it. From that moment on he was integral to Picasso’s masterpiece wherever people saw it in the world. By trying to erase that work of art, Powell paradoxically painted himself onto it – the painting had sucked the general into its depiction of carnage.

History will remember Powell for avoiding standing in front of an icon but having no problem with standing in front of piles of dead Iraqi bodies, people who perished because of his ability to lie convincingly and mobilise Americans to wage war against another people who had done them no wrong.

There is a monumental painting by the Iraqi artist Día Azzawi on the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila that is usually interpreted as an allusion to Picasso’s Guernica. Military generals and immoral politicians can’t escape the art of noble anger and desperate despair they condition and cause. Those pictures chase them to their graves – and stand tall above them. Who will remember Colin Powell a decade from now, 50 or 100 years from now? But Picasso and Azzawi will be remembered, watched, celebrated, loved and admired wherever innocent victims of war and massacre demand mourning and deliverance.

Legend has it that when a Nazi officer told Picasso “Oh I did not know you did Guernica,” Picasso responded, “No sir, you did Guernica!”

Rest in peace General Powell, but “You did Iraq!”

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