When Death Comes From the Skies

The first plane appeared in the eastern sky at approximately 4:30 in the afternoon. It was a member of the Condor Legion, a Nazi unit that had been placed under the authority of the Spain’s Nationalist forces because the fascist government ruled by General Francisco Franco lacked an effective air force. It dropped its payload—a dozen 100-pound bombs—within minutes, and successive attacks by the Italian Aviazione Legionaria targeted bridges and roads leading out of Guernica, Gernika in the Basque spelling, which could have provided escape routes for fleeing civilians. By 6:00 P.M. the attack was over, and three-fourths of Gernika had been destroyed. It was a Monday, market day, when Gernika usually doubled in size. An estimated 10,000 civilians were in town that day, as farmers and villagers from the countryside came to the city to do what sellers and buyers do on market day.

At first the facts were obscured and debated, as they are with most unconscionable acts of war. The Republicans claimed that as many as 1,600 civilians died that day, while the Nazi forces denied any participation whatsoever. Eventually some of Franco’s Nationalists acknowledged the destruction of the town, but asserted that the Republicans had dynamited it in order to place the blame on Nationalists. Franco’s general Quiepo de Llomo asserted that Republican planes, not German, had destroyed Gernika in order to pin blame on the Spanish government.

In the 80 years since the bombing a few facts have become settled history. First of all, the death toll was greatly reduced, to at most 300. But this is meaningless. Contrary to common belief, numbers matters in warfare little and are insignificant when calculating moral cost. It is actions that matter, the number of casualties only a question of the effectiveness of the strategy employed. As for strategy, the technique of “carpet bombing” became the first time the technique had been used in warfare. Carpet bombing, or “terror bombing,” had become an ongoing Condor Legion strategy—massive bombardment of civilian areas with the aim of pummeling Republican loyalists into submission. As the Spanish Civil War unfolded, it became standard practice by the German Luftwaffe. The attack on Gernika was just another exercise in its refinement.

The circumstances that led to the attack are also settled history. The Basque region had long been a thorn in the side of Franco and his fascist government. Before the civil war erupted, a well coordinated separatist movement had been hankering for independence. Gernika was the spiritual heart of the region, with all the historic and cultural symbolism that implied. As the war progressed, the Basques threw their allegiance behind the Republican government in Madrid, and Gernika became a vital communication center for the Republicans. Strategically, for the Nationalists, Gernika was all that separated them from the Basque capital of Bilbao. To “eliminate” Gernika could enable them to seize Bilbao and put an end to the resistance in the north.

The bombing of Gernika was not an isolated incident. Air strikes by the Condor Legion and Aviazione Legionaria would rain down on other cities in Spain, but without reducing them to rubble. In response, the Republicans employed the counterstrategy of “passive defense”—digging into the mountains and hills surrounding strategic cities to create refugios, or air raid shelters, where civilians could seek protection from the attacks. Cartagena, a vital Republican-held port, had at least 11 refugios that provided a haven for thousands. In Cartagena and other cities, “Refugio” signs became a part of the urban landscape, appearing in public squares anywhere close to “passive defense” shelters, where sirens would sound and lights would flash whenever German or Italian planes could be sighted. Later the Republicans would deploy anti-aircraft batteries to enforce the new strategy of “active defense.” But the civilian toll continued to rise. The Germans and Italians continued the practice of terror bombing, expecting Republican areas to wear down and eventually yield to the Nationalists. It never happened. Gernika, like Cartagena and other Republican strongholds, only became more emboldened in their fight against the fascists

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Republican struggle was a lost cause. General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces prevailed, ushering in a right-wing dictatorship that colluded with powerful forces in Spain’s religious and business communities to hold power for 36 years. During those years tens of thousands of resistance members would be rounded up, imprisoned, and executed in a campaign of “political cleansing” that sought to eliminate all anti-fascist, socialist antagonists. In 1975, Franco’s death through Spain into a tailspin, as the country descended into several years of self-indulgence and reckless hedonism to compensate for decades of government-imposed conservative values.

All that is now Spanish history. Today, Gernika would seem to have played no role in the war whatsoever. Today, Gernika is a prim, well-kept town tucked within the rolling hills of the Basque countryside. The road from Bilbao dips and twists through a series of vineyards, fields of wheat, grapes, and olives, breeding farms for pigs and sheep as it passes through other Basque towns smaller in size and historical distinction—Bekea and Guzmuzio, Amorebieta-Exthano, Zugastieta-Auzoa, and Muxita. On highway signs the Basque language takes precedence over Spanish.

Gernika’s main street, the Iparragirre Kalea, reflects the banality one would find on any main street anywhere in Spain. There is a pharmacy and an insurance agency, a fruit and vegetable market, a Chinese restaurant, an outfitter for hiking and camping gear for adventures heading up into the nearby Pyrenees, a outlet for cosmetics products, and of course a dealer in mobile phones. Gernika’s history has no place on its main street. There is no monolithic memorial to serve as a living reminder that cannot be avoided, suggesting that some events are better left to the back drawers of memory.

Two blocks away, in the Peace Museum of Gernika, exhibitions recount the event from 1937 and include a recreation of one of the bombing raids. Nearby, a smaller reproduction of Picasso’s painting, in mosaic form, is the centerpiece of a modest outdoor shrine. Apart from these indications of a darker past, Gernika is once again just another regional town in the Spanish countryside.

For now we can leave Gernika and fast-forward to another time and place. Shortly before the Syrian Civil War, I had the chance to visit the country when there was still a country to visit. I spent about two weeks traveling from the Alewite port of Latakia to Damascus, on the way passing through Hama, Homs, and Palmyra, or Tadmoor, as it is locally known. In Homs, I stopped at a church where a fragment of the belt allegedly worn by Mary, the mother of Christ, was displayed in a glass case in a room. In Hama, the giant waterwheels that had been guiding the flow of the Orontes River since the fifth or sixth century (the date is uncertain) were churning in the sharp sunlight of a summer morning. In Palmyra the vertical tombs that date from the third-century Nabataean era had yet to be blown up by Islamists, and the Gate of the Sun and the Roman-style amphitheater had yet to be pockmarked by artillery shells and other hostile fire.

My Syrian route included a four-day stop in Aleppo, which would later suffer a siege that was one of the longest in the history of modern warfare. At the time there wasn’t the least hint of what was to come. Recalling those memories is like watching the opening of Titanic or any other disaster film, knowing the mayhem that will come while cringing at the blissful gaiety of characters who have no clue of what awaits.

The three-hour ride from Latakia took me through most of northwest Syria. The train rose and dipped through the An-Nussaynyah Mountains before bypassing then-placid Idlib, cutting across farmland that produced many of the staples of the Syrian countryside—cotton and wheat, olives and fruit, almonds, figs, and dates, grapes and tomatoes. I spent about half of the trip in the café car chatting with Salman, a businessman from Aleppo who imported cars from Iraq, Toyotas and Hyundais mostly. Those he didn’t sell in Syria he shipped from Latakia to overseas buyers. We talked about everything and anything but the possibility of war—my impressions of Syria, the relationship between Syria and the U.S., the best ingredients to make a proper tabouleh. He got off somewhere in Aleppo’s suburbs, a few stops before the central train station, but not without making the obligatory offer of unrestrained Syrian hospitality.

“You come to my home, stay with me. We make you good Syrian food,” he said two times, maybe three, before he finally left the train. The last was just before the doors closed behind him.

Foolishly, I declined, because I had already booked a room at the Baron Hotel, a landmark of regional history, local conversation piece, and still functioning hotel. It had been established by two Armenian brothers in the latter part of the 19th century, and when the expansion of the railroad into the Middle East saw Aleppo become a popular destination on the Orient Express, the Baron hosted luminaries such as T. E. Lawrence, the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, and Theodore Roosevelt. Agatha Christie wrote the beginning of her cloak-and-dagger novel Murder on the Orient Express in room 203. The opening scene takes place in Aleppo’s train station.

In November 2014 the siege that had weighed on Aleppo for two years would force the Baron Hotel to shut down, after over a century in operation, but for the four days of my stay it still breathed its wonderfully faded luxury, like an aging, elegant dowager who refuses to be put to rest. The massive, thickly carpeted staircase rose to the upper floors from the atrium entrance, where Charles Lindbergh’s still unpaid bar bill was framed on a wall in the lounge. The door to my room was at least a meter wide, to accommodate the oversize trunks and other hefty luggage that the globetrotter set of a century ago would lug along on their tours of the “Orient.” A waiter in an immaculately clean white shirt with black bow tie tended the breakfast room, a wood-paneled salon with a ceiling that reached the second floor and near floor-to-ceiling windows that were propped open to allow the morning breeze to stir the long white curtains before it drifted through the room. I spent the early evening hours on the outdoor patio facing Baron Street, drinking Turkish Efes beer with locals who had long used the same patio for their happy hour.

My first day in Aleppo was a Friday, a day for the Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, to attend Friday prayers; a day for the Christians—Armenian and Syriac, Maronite, Melkite, and Eastern Catholics—to sleep late and then prepare elaborate mid-afternoon meals; a day for foreign visitors to stroll the quiet, sun-splashed streets on a summer morning.

My first stop was the Grand Mosque, where preparations for the midday prayer were just beginning. Scrub women with hoses and mops were washing down the central courtyard. To the left of the entrance a group of mullahs were seated in plastic chairs, reading Qurans splayed on their laps. To the right an attendant manning a card-table reception desk took my shoes and asked my nationality to record in the visiting registry. I replied, and he began chatting about his cousin in Philadelphia.

Aleppo’s Grand Mosque was built on the site of a Greek agora. During the late-Roman era it served as the garden of the Cathedral of St. Helen. It became a mosque at the beginning of the seventh century, when Muslim rule spread over Syria. Its signature minaret, 45 meters high, was added in 1090 by Abdul Hassan Mohammed, the primary judge of Aleppo. But the Grand Mosque’s claim to fame, for Muslims and Christians, is that it is the final resting place of the prophet Zachariah, father of John the Baptist. At the center of the prayer hall a small shrine holds the prophet’s remains. On this Friday morning a few supplicants were gathered around it. But I couldn’t stay. One of the mosque employees approached and informed me, with a few gentle hand gestures, that the crowd for Friday prayers would soon be arriving. I retrieved my shoes from the Philadelphia-tied attendant, who directed me to another attendant, who led me to a passage that connected the mosque to Aleppo’s renowned souk.

It was dark and quiet, a strange thing for any market. Any other day it would have been teeming, with the scents of perfume and spices, colored dyes and olive soap, floating from the stalls that filled the 10 miles of corridors that comprised the largest covered market in the world. Silk from Iran, Pakistan, and India, and backgammon boards inlaid with mother-of-pearl would compete for shoppers’ attention. Now that it was summer, vendors at the entrances would be selling fresh cherry and blackberry juice, strained through hand-worked presses.

But today roll-down metal doors covered the stalls, which meant they would not open until after the midday prayer, if at all. Only bare light bulbs lit the way. A stray cat picked at a plastic bag. I had little choice but to wander, bypassing the khans, or caravansaries, where in a bygone time traders detouring from the caravan routes would feed their camels and horses as they put up for the night. One stall was open for business, selling coffee, tea, and dried fruit to the morning faithful on their way to the Grand Mosque.

I left the souk, emerging onto a small square where a dozen vendors had gathered to smoke while waiting for the midday prayer to end, when they would open for the afternoon. I didn’t get far before a voice called out, “Where are you from?”

It was Basem, owner of a carpet and knickknack shop whose family had lived in the United States for three or four generations, he told me proudly. He wasn’t sure of the exact number, and it didn’t matter. He had two outlets for his goods in the U.S., he told me, again proudly, run by his cousins. If there was any doubt he produced a business card printed with their addresses in New York and Washington, D.C.

Would I like to see his goods? This was not a question but an invitation, and in Syria one cannot refuse an invitation.

We wandered through the darkened lanes, and a few vendors were beginning to open their stalls. Basem lifted the door to his, propped a couple of plastic chairs in the middle of the room, heated water for tea, and unfurled his goods while giving me a short course on the design of each of his carpets. This was the way business in Aleppo had been conducted for over a thousand years—establish the relationship with the customer and the goods will sell themselves. But Basem wasn’t trying to sell me anything. He knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. He was merely showing off his wares, proudly, to a visitor with whom he felt he shared a common bond.

As Basem and I parted he told me to be sure to visit his cousins the next time I was back in New York or Washington, D.C., and of course I told him I would. Then I headed to Aleppo’s Citadel. The massive stone entrance block is the visual signature of Aleppo. The series of zigzag ramps leading from the bridge into the compound was designed to slow down intruders so that vats of boiling oil could be poured down on them from above. On this summer Friday the only intruders were a few tourists, the only guard a lone ticket seller in a glass-enclosed concession booth.

The Aleppo Citadel has defied time. It may date to the third millennium B.C., or it may be older. Abraham is believed to have tended his sheep on its hillside. In more “recent’ times the site was claimed by the Greeks, then the Byzantines, followed by the rising Ayubbid dynasty, centered in Cairo, and later the Mamluks. It succeeded in resisting the attacks of Crusaders in the 12th century, but in 1260 the Mongol invasion left it battered and scarred, and in 1400 the Uzbek warrior Tamerlane wrecked it completely. Centuries later it would be brought back to life, when soldiers under the banner of the Ottoman Turks would make it their barracks.

Once inside it was impossible to get lost because the lanes of the fortress still showed signs of the grid street plan favored by the ancient Greeks and later the Romans. The Citadel is a textbook of Syrian history recounting, in toppled stone, the many civilizations that have spread across the land. Amidst the ruins were the remains of Byzantine churches and some of Islam’s earliest mosques. There were also hints that as far back as 2,400 B.C. the hill had served as a temple to honor Hadad, the Sumerian god of tempests. Over the centuries soldiers representing armies from across the Levant and Asia Minor had stood at the ramparts to peer out over the surrounding plains with an eye for approaching armies. On this day the view was just as expansive, though it extended no further than the city itself, for over the centuries Aleppo had grown from a strategic outpost to become Syria’s largest metropolis.

The baking afternoon heat was beginning to ebb. Midday prayers had ended, the souvenir shops across from the Citadel had opened, and the café tables under the shade of the palm trees had begun to fill with Aleppians sipping neon-colored fruit juices. It was also play time. In the back streets a group of boys banged a football against an empty brick wall. Little girls wearing pink dresses and bows in their hair jumped rope with a string of rubber bands.

At night the city awoke from its Friday slumber. The cafes were now crowded with coffee drinkers and shisha smokers. I had dinner at an eatery that catered to Aleppo’s professional class a short walk from the Baron— a fattoush salad, side dips of hummus and tahini, vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, a piece of eggplant moussaka—“good Syrian food,” as Salman would have recommended. Many of Aleppo’s families, out for a night on the town, picked through the offerings set up on a buffet table on one side of the room.

After dinner I took a stroll to a nearby park where half the city seemed to have gathered, not to protest or shout revolutionary slogans but bathe in the cool of the summer night. Vendors sold cotton candy and ears of roasted corn from pushcarts, banging their sides with a metal spoon to draw customers. Kids scooted across the pavement on skateboards and roller-blades. A man jostled five ice cream cones as he inched his way toward his wife and children, camped out on the grass.

I plunked myself down on a bench to reflect on this 21st-century city that had as much as 7,000 years of history behind it. Aleppo, or ancient Kafle, was known as Boroea to the Greeks and Romans. The name Alep would take hold in the Crusader era, but before then, and afterward, many others would pass through, some friendly, some not. Ruling this plot of ground would be Assyrians and Babylonians, and then Persians, before Alexander the Great arrived in 333 B.C. After a brief stint as a Roman province Muslim forces took control, though Byzantine armies would loot Aleppo in 962. Crusaders unsuccessfully tried to wrest it from the Iraqi warrior Saladin. The Mongols would wreak havoc on Aleppo when they conquered it in 1260, only to be outdone by Tamerlane, who took the heads of 20,000 slaughtered inhabitants to construct a pyramid on the outskirts of the city.

Aleppo had been so vibrant a cultural crossroads for so many centuries that buildings representing architectural styles from around the world covering many time periods could be found in the back streets across the city. For a look into the Islamic golden age one could wander through the Old City with an eye for mosques, hammams, and madrassas. Houses of the 16th- and 17th-century merchant class could be found in the Al-Jdayde district. Shabaa is a study in architecture from the Norman and neoclassic periods, along with buildings representing the Far East, while Al-Aziziyah offered the 19th- and 20th-century baroque.

All that was Aleppo in its prewar days. The city survived largely untouched by the conflict for over a year, but in July 2012 its luck ran out. Rebel forces entered the city, soon to be followed by government forces. Pockets of the city where rebels had taken up positions were bombarded with missile strikes, but soon the Syrian army would resort to a strategy that would prove deadly throughout the course of the war and would have come in handy to ward off previous invaders—barrel bombs. They were first used in the war in August 2012 in an attack on the Hamidiya neighborhood of Homs, but the assault proved to be merely a trial run. The following month saw barrel bombs fall on residential areas of Aleppo.

The strategy of barrel bombing was as deadly as it was easy to implement. A helicopter flying over its target would unload metal barrels packed with an explosive mixture, glass, nails, and any other material capable of ripping human bodies to pieces. When it explodes the barrel itself becomes a deadly missile, spraying shrapnel in all directions. Barrel bombs are notoriously inaccurate, but they are an effective means of attack nonetheless, because even if the intended target is missed it succeeds in terrorizing its victims. Hospitals saw men, women, and children with their internal organs ripped out and arms and legs blown off. Once the technique proved its effectiveness the Syrians army refined the practice of the “double tap,” waiting 20 or 30 minutes after the delivery of one bomb before dropping a second, to kill or maim those who had fled to the scene to aid the victims of the first.

After the bombardment of Guernica, the Nationalist forces denied the attack altogether. Almost in lockstep, at the beginning of the siege of Aleppo the Syrian regime denied the use of barrel bombs. President Bashar Al-Assad called the reports “childish.” “There are no barrel bombs,” he added. Then a video emerged showing barrels being dropped from a government helicopter.

As the cost of the Syrian Civil War rose in human terms, it also began to take a toll on Syria’s cultural history. Aleppo’s Grand Mosque suffered severe damage, and in August 2013 the thousand-year-old minaret was blown apart. Again there were denials and mutual exchanges of recrimination. SANA, the Syrian government news agency, claimed that Islamist forces had stuffed it with explosives. The rebel side blamed its destruction on fire from government tanks. In November 2014 the Baron Hotel, which had remained open through the first few years of the war, finally closes. In its last days street battles raged within earshot of its front door.

In early 2013 the war entered a new phase. The siege would see the introduction of even deadlier weapons—chlorine, sarin, mustard gas, and other chemical agents long banned under international law. On March 19 a rocket loaded with sarin gas struck Khan Al-Assal, an agricultural region outside the city. A northeast wind carried the gas into the residential neighborhood of Haret Al-Mazar. The attack killed 20 and injured over 100. The survivors suffered the expected symptoms—blurred vision, loss of consciousness, convulsions, foaming at the mouth. Five days later phosphorus bombs would hit the village of Adra, killing two and injuring two dozen. As deadly as the attacks were, they proved to be mere warm-up sessions for a more full-scale assault not only on Aleppo but other parts of Syria. Throughout 2013 the weapon of choice was sarin, but once the mysterious ailments raised the suspicions of international observers the more dubiously legal chlorine would be used, for the next two years, with an occasional diversion to mustard gas. Aleppo would be struck in July 2014, February and August 2015, four times in 2016, and twice in 2018. Idlib, northwest of Aleppo, would fare much worse, suffering approximately 20 chemical attacks between 2013 and 2018. Images emerged of children laid out on hospital gurneys breathing through respirators, gazing bleary-eyed at television cameras both broadcasting and documenting the scenes. Hama, Homs, and the suburbs of Damascus were not spared. Douma and Daraa would both be hit. Human Rights Watch would claim that chemical attacks had killed over 200 throughout the country. Investigations by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations Human Rights Council determined that the Syrian regime was responsible for the majority of the chemical attacks. The origin of a few was inconclusive.

In every conflict that reaches a depth of barbarity that no one had predicted there comes a time where many outside observers will claim that the situation can’t get any worse. But it can, it always can, and in Aleppo it did. In September 2013 the Russian air force entered the fray, to aid the Syrian army with air strikes that in time would leave wide swathes of Aleppo largely in ruins. The targets of many of the attacks were schools and hospitals, two places that had come to serve as a refugios for many of the residents of rebel-held areas whose homes had been destroyed. By year’s end most of the population had fled. In eastern Aleppo only about 120,000 residents remained, with one functioning bakery. As the months passed doctors and other health care workers abandoned the city. Following each air strike, volunteer responders pulled bodies and survivors out of the rubble of collapsed buildings.

By the end of 2016 Aleppo was no longer a war zone. It was passed that point. Aleppo had become an apocalyptic panorama, a subject suitable for Hieronymus Bosch. In rebel-controlled parts of the city all of the hospitals had been destroyed. Hundreds more civilians were killed by chlorine bombs. No signs appeared designating parts of the city as refugios because nowhere in Aleppo could offer refugio. On the rebel side, extra-judicial killings of captured soldiers and officials of the government, as well as members of rival rebel groups, were carried out. Much of the city had been reduced to skeletal towers of broken concrete, looming like giant tombstones over an urban wasteland, divided by cratered dirt paths that had once been the city’s streets. Through it all, in the talking shops of parliaments and international forums little action was taken to alter the course of the descending spiral, only ritual condemnations from members of the U.N. Security Council and other global heavyweights.

“All we wanted was freedom,” said a bemused English teacher in a rare on-camera interview. “I guess the world doesn’t want freedom.”

In 1937, British journalist George Steer was the first to report on the bombardment of Gernika. He had been covering the Spanish Civil War for The Times of London and arrived in Gernika days after the bombs had been dropped. While the Nationalists blamed the destruction of the town on the Republicans, Steer was able to prove the culpability of the Nazi Luftwaffe through the symbol of the German eagle inscribed on the bomb shells. He also confirmed the use of highly volatile thermite to set the destroyed wooden buildings alight after they had been struck with extra powerful munitions. But time was not on his side. After the bombardment the Nationalist forces were able to sweep across the Basque region unimpeded. Steer returned to Bilbao and was able to flee Spain, one of the last journalists to do so.

In Syria, American journalist Marie Colvin was not so lucky. She was the last foreign journalist to report from Homs, which had served as the launching pad for demonstrations around the country in the early days of the war. In February 2012 Colvin was killed by an air strike on a makeshift media station that had been set up in a besieged part of the city. As in the case of Gernika, the facts were disputed. The Syrian government stated that the cause of her death was a crude bomb laid by terrorists, but Colvin’s personal photographer rebutted the account, claiming that the building where they had taken shelter was bombed just as they were trying to flee.

Early in the 18th century the Spanish artist Francisco Goya created the work for which he is best known—The Third of May 1808. The painting portrays the impromptu execution of a group of rebels who tried to repel the invasion of the French army after Napoleon’s troops stormed into the city with the aim of seizing control of the Iberian Peninsula. A companion work is The Second of May 1808, which depicts a chaotic battle in which scene a mob of local partisans swarm a mounted regiment of French soldiers. Both paintings are landmark representations of the bloody mayhem of early-19th-century warfare, but neither sufficiently portrays the grotesque reality of war as it has always been fought, in the 19th century, before, or since. That was reserved for a later, lengthy series of etchings that Goya produced and titled, simply but poignantly, The Disasters of War.

Goya was living in Madrid in 1808, when the city was overrun by the French army. He frequently traveled around the city and its outskirts to view the conflict firsthand, carrying a sketchbook to record what he had seen. The Disasters of War codified his impressions into a vivid rendering of the artist’s gradual awareness of the moral vacuum that eventually engulfs any act of war.

Unsurprisingly, in the beginning of the series the people of the city are portrayed as a heroic resistance force struggling to repel a faceless, far superior military machine. Plate 5 shows civilians, both men and women, attacking French soldiers with rocks and homemade pikes. The Women Are Courageous is the title of plate 4, which shows women of the city battling French soldiers. Other plates show rebels being executed and people of the city dying from starvation due to the famine that ravaged Madrid from 1811–12, when food was prevented from entering the city by both French and Spanish forces. Women were commonly victims of sexual assault by French troops, as shown in plate 10. In plate 34 a priest has his throat is slit for possessing a knife, a crime under the French occupation.

As if the horrors the prints portray were not disturbing enough, the series then takes a darker turn. In the latter part the images become even more ghoulish, and by the end the distinction between oppressor and oppressed has almost disappeared. Throughout the conflict both the Spanish and the French committed gruesome atrocities, what today would be called war crimes, or crimes against humanity, but neither of those concepts existed in early-19th-century Spain, or anywhere else in the world. Torture and mutilation of bodies was common. In several scenes body parts are shown dangling from tree limbs, with no indication of whether the victims are French or Spanish, and in the end it really makes no difference. Any suggestion of the heroic ideals that have served as the engine of war have vanished. All that is left are acts of human depravity and the wasteful loss that is the result. In plate 50 a small girl cries near the body of her dead mother. Religion, too, is sucked into this unholy vortex, and soon there is no distinction between the realm of the spirit and the grotesquely macabre. In plate 46 a priest is put to death for robbing a church. In plate 75 a priest wears the head of a parrot while entertaining a group of donkeys and monkeys. It bears the title Troupe of Charlatans. Plate 79, near the end of the series, is named The Truth Has Died. This was two hundred years before Senator Hiram Johnson of California coined the phrase, “The first casualty when war comes is truth,” or, more simply, Truth is the first casualty of war.

There was no Francisco Goya to memorialize the three-year siege and bombardment of Aleppo, nor the attack on Gernika. The fate of Gernika was preserved in a few grainy black-and-white photographs taken in the first few days after the attack and individual survivors’ accounts. The horror that unfolded in Aleppo was preserved only in the images recorded by the rare journalist who managed to report from the scenes of destruction and eyewitnesses who became both historians and survivors. No doubt the veracity of these will be disputed, just as the attack on Gernika and use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons in Aleppo was initially denied altogether. But this ignores the greater point—that the term “crimes against humanity” is really redundant, or meaningless, because all acts of war are crimes against humanity, and civilization itself. Goya’s images, and any that emerge from Aleppo, reveal war’s fundamental depravity and moral waste.


Image: “Aleppo Citadel” by Luigi Guarino, licensed under CC 2.0.

Christopher Thornton
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