From the Summer 2010 issue of MHQ
We can rarely know with certainty how the ancients’ military campaigns played out, particularly when it comes to the number of combatants and casualties. In theory, relying on contemporary recording techniques, stewards of history—writers, historians, museums, and publishers—should find it easier to ascertain and preserve the facts when examining modern warfare. But my recent visit to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art suggests otherwise. And unfortunately, myths based on inaccuracies can persist for generations—and influence the course of history.
An exhibit at the museum is devoted to Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica. Unveiled in 1937, months after German, Italian, and Nationalist planes bombed the Basque village and killed hundreds of civilians, Guernica became, as James Corum points out in his article beginning on page 16, “history’s most famous piece of antiwar art.” Corum makes clear, however, that the painting was inspired by a tale that started tall and only grew taller. As he and others pointed out a decade ago, the death toll originally released by the Spanish Republicans—1,654—was far too high; the real number was a fraction of that, some 300 to 400.
Both the Basque defenders (the Republicans) and their attackers used the event—and the original casualty figure—for political purposes, ensuring that Guernica became synonymous with the mass killing of civilians during war. The Republicans hoped to draw worldwide sympathy and resources to their cause. The Germans used Guernica to trumpet the might of their Luftwaffe—a demonstration of power that pushed Europe toward a nearly fatal policy of appeasement.
History books still repeat the faulty figure, and even such well-regarded museums as SFMOMA are not immune to the spin of adversaries long dead: Its Guernica exhibit asserts the bombing led to “thousands of civilian casualties.” Corum’s feature—which addresses several myths related to Guernica—should set the record straight.
A reckoning of sorts is also the theme of Colin Woodard’s cover story (see page 44), which tracks increasingly bitter battles to recover cultural treasures looted during war. Woodard explores the thorny question: Can a country simply refuse to give back what it has taken as a victor in war?
Finally, we are pleased to introduce in this issue another periodic feature, Revisiting War Classics, a look back at some of the very best military history writing. On page 56 appears an excerpt from Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, which served as a story line in the recent HBO series The Pacific. If you have a favorite classic, drop me a note.