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From Guernica to Who Gives a Damn: Modern Warfare’s Droning Savagery

| February 22, 2013

John Martin, 'The Great Day of His Wrath,' 1851-53.

John Martin, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath,’ 1851-53.

They were droning on about drones the other day in Washington.

The Senate Intelligence (ha-ha) Committee was grilling CIA chief-designate John Brennan on the use of unmanned aircraft during his tenure as President Barack Obama’s adviser on terrorism.

Drones are being used a lot, according to Brennan, who was in charge of the drone program. But only for a good cause.

His answers satisfied some, not others. Mainly, the critics wanted to make sure we were killing people humanely, with full attention to their human rights. We don’t want to be war criminals.

That’s so mid-Twentieth Century. There was a time when people could actually be shocked by the slaughter of civilians during a war.

The most famous example that comes to mind is the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica was a market town of no particular military importance but it favored the Republican cause during the war. So the infamous Condor Legion, under Hitler’s command, swooped in on a spring day in 1937 and bombed it flat.

The international reaction was immediate and immense. Newspapers all over the world condemned the attack as barbaric and beyond the rules of warfare.

Hundreds of people died in the raid, which Pablo Picasso immortalized in one of the greatest anti-war paintings ever made.

Donald Kaul



The Live Commentary



That reaction seems almost quaint in its innocence, given the subsequent events of World War II. By 1945, Hitler had killed thousands more in his rocket attacks on London, destroyed Warsaw, and sent millions to the gas chambers. England had retaliated by leveling Dresden, where 25,000 died. The United States killed 100,000 Japanese in one night of Tokyo firebombing and more than 200,000 by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost all of the dead were civilians.

The United States has bombed dozens of countries since then, all in the name of peace — most dramatically Vietnam and its neighbors, where we used more explosives than we did in all of World War II.

And we’re worried whether our reliance on drones adheres to the finer points of bombing ettiquette? We’re missing the larger moral point.

We kid ourselves that our warfare is moral and clean and good and that it’s the other guys who commit the war crimes. Don’t believe it.

Modern warfare is an exercise in savagery. If you’re not willing to sign up for that, don’t go to war.

Think of napalm, for example, a liquid flame designed to stick to the skin as it burns it away.

Or our flechette bombs, fitted with dozens of barbs to tear apart flesh.

Or our landmines scattered across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which are still blowing legs off farmers in southeast Asia.

I hearken back to my favorite military philosopher, William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for unapologetically burning down Atlanta during the Civil War.

“War is cruelty,” he said. “There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

Southerners hate Sherman still, but it can’t be said that he didn’t warn them. In a letter to a friend in the South, written on the eve of the war, he said:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization…War is a terrible thing!”

Then he made it so.

The recent film that best captures that for me is “Zero Dark Thirty,” about Osama bin Laden’s killing.

It’s been criticized for justifying torture as a means of obtaining information from prisoners, but I don’t think it does.

Rather, it shows with unflinching honesty the tactics we are using. And a nasty piece of work they are.

It would be nice if we could have it both ways: be good guys and triumphant. Unfortunately, life ain’t like that.

Believe Sherman — war is Hell.

Donald Kaul worked some 30 years as a syndicated Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register before retiring at the dawn of the new century. He is a columnist for Other Words. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Reach him by email.

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10 Responses for “From Guernica to Who Gives a Damn: Modern Warfare’s Droning Savagery”

  1. MUDDFLAP says:

    If a “Good Ole Boy boy will blast the daylights out of a harmless a street sign, why wouldn’t he do the same to snooping Drone? Start making the t-shirts and bumper stickers now. – “The cure for Big Brothers Drones is a Redneck with a good rifle”!

  2. Whodat says:

    Sherman also said:

    “I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effectual as their strict construction.”

  3. John DeWitt says:

    Mr. Kaul failed to mention that the United States no longer uses napalm or flechettes. He also fails to disclose anything about target engagement protocols used today in drone warfare. To say the United States uses immoral war tactics as a matter of policy is dishonest. Yes, we still have violations of the law of warfare but they are the exceptions. Based upon reading his article we may as well put our senior government and military leaders on trial for war crimes. Is war ugly? Absolutley? Is it American policy to violate the laws of war? Absolutley not!

  4. Magnolia says:

    Republican cause? You had my attention, Mr. Saul, until you begin politicizing this. Yes, war is hell and the best thing you can do about it is to end it immediately, or not go at all. Unfortunately, those soldiers don’t have a thing to say about what their politicians are doing.

    Thought maybe this was going to be an article on the present day war in the United States, the war of the drones. We get upset with the traffic cams. How does it feel to know that your government is going to be using drones here in this country to spy on you and possibly “take you out?”

    These drones are being manufactured and sold by the United States to every government that can afford them.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Actually most of the ones sold around the world are made by Israeli corporations.

      • Magnolia says:

        Not true, Norton. Google “companies who manufacture drones” and you’ll learn a lot.

        People object to water boarding but the fact that your President is targeting at will with drones is not bothering you? Hard to believe.

        You object to traffic cameras but don’t mind drones spying on you anytime? Ass backwards, if you ask me. Maybe in the near future they’ll be able to pull you over for a traffic incident and then just snuff you right there. Think of the money we’ll save on court costs.

  5. Seadog says:

    Even Pakistan admits that 80 percent of those being killed are militants and terrorist. How many tens of thousands of lives are saved in the future by takeing these people out, how many 911s prevented. I dont have a problem with drone strikes.

    • Jim R. says:

      How about if part of that 20% that are not militants and terrorists was your family, would you have a problem with drones then?
      If a foreign power sent troops to the U.S. and citizens here fought against them would you describe them as militants and terrorists, or would you call them patriots and freedom fighters?

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