Jean Clair

From Guernica to Belgrade

JEAN CLAIR is the director of the Picasso Museum, art historian and a writer.

Originally published as "De Guernica à Belgrade" in Le Monde (21 Mai 1999)

Paris, the first Wednesday of the month. The noon sirens have resounded. Nobody moves. The clamour of conversations has not lowered. The anaesthesia of the French is the image of their inconscience. As usual, when hearing the howling, I am seized by desire to jump under the table. The reflex of a boy born in 1940, awakened suddenly, taken under his father's arm and hurried down into the Underground. After the air raid alarm has passed, there remained a covert anxiety of not finding one's house still standing. A common trait unites the heads of the states who declared war on Belgrade; born between 1945 and 1955, they did not experienced the war. Jose Maria Aznar, Blair, Schroeder: all of them have the face of the yuppie generation. Clinton rules a country that was never bombed. We are swimming in irreality. The awakening will be harsh. 

In April 1937, Guernica was a shock. For the first time a population was targeted by planes flying so high they were almost invisible. Until then a war was conducted by soldiers against soldiers. No doubt, it was a slaughter which however respected elementary rule to protect the weak in the name of law.

This military nobility was succeeded by the ignobleness of a world where only the soldier will be protected, where only the civilian will become hostage and victim. We are familiar with the Pentagon doctrine of concentric circles: the inner circle is that of civilians, the first to be hit and destroyed. After that come administrative, political circles...The last, outer circle, is that of the military who must be spared.

At the end of March, an American pilot, who took off from one of those bases that have multiplied in the North of Italy, guilty of transforming a training flight into a stunt, slicing the cable of a funicular and causing death of twenty persons, was brought in front of the justice of his country. He was acquitted. It was discovered that lives of twenty European civilians had little weight compared to that of a single American soldier.

A few days later, NATO declared war against Serbia. The massacre of civilian population, disregarding the UN and the parliaments of the implicated countries, became legal.

Why this nausea when one hears the smooth and gay voice of Jamie Shea, that Ivory Soap Girl of the new tech communication? Words he uses, from "hits" to "collateral damage", his hypnotist's tone, close to the euphemistic patter which the III Reich language used to dissimulate, under the apparent neutrality of the technical terms, horrible realities.

In his letter to Le Monde (cf. section "Debats" of May 13), Régis Debray says only what I could often read in the Italian, German, American and Canadian press and only rarely in the press of my own country. If France to-day is the last warmongering country of Europe, the reason is that the French public opinion, with all sides mixed up, was manipulated by a singularly partisan press. Could one ever read in the French press, an article on the exact nature of UCK, on clans and mafias that struggle within it?

It is impossible to understand the disaster that has struck Europe if one is not aware that America of 1999 is not America of 1945. Innocent admiration the French continue to extend to that country will be, doubtlessly, one of the great mysteries of this fin de siecle. The technicians who pilot Stealth planes, the men who point the Tomahawks, are not valiant GIs who disembarked at Arromanches. No, contemporary, so often arrogant and conceited America is not the nervous and generous America I got to know on the campuses in the late Sixties. This is the nation where during past twenty years illiteracy has progressed faster than anywhere. A country of incomparable fortunes, where also, as recently in Los Angeles, break out bloody riots whose violence pushes the rich to enclose themselves in fortresses guarded by private militias. One of every 150 Americans is in prison or in a correction facility, percentage without equivalent in any other democracy.

One of twenty will spend a day detained. This particularity is even more shocking if ethnic minorities are considered; one of 4O Negroes is in prison. This is also the nation where the capital punishment is applied to women, minors, mentally retarded. For ones prison, for the others - war: American democracy has also its ways of solving the problem of ethnic minorities. This is the nation Europe has entrusted the care for the defense of human rights.

But there is more. Naturally, no American should risk his life to save those human rights he is supposed to reestablish. In his cockpit, 5000 meters high, he bombs blindly. The force of the Nazis was also in their blindness. They refused to "descend" - even to "condescend" to the level of their victims. One should not by no means see those being killed - neither in Ukraine nor in the extermination camps. To see the adversary, face to face, would mean recognizing his flesh is the same flesh as one's own and blood the same.

Saving American lives has become the obsession of this new breed of rulers. There is a major phantasm, proper to this young nation, convinced it incarnates on this Earth - New Man, Riches, Power and, moreover, Immortality. The American should not die and, consequently, cannot die. Thence those endless litigations when a medical act ends badly, this hyper-safe climate, this cult of ever young body that must not age, this phobia towards habits that could bring illness and death, cigarettes or alcohol. The phantasm of immortality and infantile power over everything which is also a mantle covering a country uneasy in its body under the glitter of an intolerant hygienism.

Human rights? Was it ever the matter of defending the rights of man? If a war should be started wherever the rights of man are mocked, the entire planet would be involved, from Korea to Turkey, from Africa to China. What army was ever mobilized to defend the rights of man? Soldiers of the Year II were not killed at Valmy in defense of the rights they have proclaimed, but in defense of endangered frontiers of the nation. France incarnated the rights of man; the task was to defend France first of all. Since, in a measure, France became a nation sure, by its nature, of its territory, the principles France has posed could impose themselves.

Who has lost the sense of the defense of the frontiers and values they protect, has lost reason. On the day, when, in the name of supra-sovereignty, Europe has renounced the frontiers of the countries that compose it, and substituted politics by "humanitarian", it rushed into defeat and unreason.

A war in the heart of Europe, conducted by a foreign power and started in the name of a supra-national Europe: fin de siecle has stricken us with this bloody absurdity that only Swift's irony or Voltaire's humor could denounce as it should be.

Who could be led to believe that after turn of the millennium the nations will be suddenly obsolete - as certain computers will be after 1999?

Let us put this question to Pasqual Maragall, the mayor of Barcelona, who is not only proud of the cultural identity of his city and of the fact that today "the Catalonian is spoken in Perpignan, Montpellier, Narbone, Valencia, on the Balear Isles and Sardinia...," but who has imposed the Catalonian as the language of Catalonia. Let us put this question to the Basques where armories were discovered that could serve tomorrow. To the Flemish of Vlaamse Blok, to the Corsicans, to the Irish. The choice is enormous. By what privilege UCK, secretly armed by America and courted on the TV screens by NATOized Europe, has more charm in our eyes than secret armies and terrorist bands who work all over Europe for the disintegration of ancient nations? When the small quarrel, the big devour them.

The beginning of XX century saw the collapse of empires, the beginning of XXI century will see the collapse of nations. Not by courtesy of a supranationalism with miraculous power to encompass and "surpass" them, but more piteously, under the pressure of archaic and fanatical micronationalisms which will destroy even the tiniest memory of our secular and republican ideals.

To proclaim loudly a supranational Europe, to dream of it and it's power, when, in reality, we are not able any more to maintain the bulwark of nations that compose it and guaranty unity and equality within, liberty outside, faced by still present menaces, means to run away in advance.

Caught between Turkey and Albania, the Greek know exactly the cost of sacrificing the principle of a European nation to the grand "humanitarian" principles that hide badly doubtful political intentions. If the war in the Balkans seems so horrible to us, it is because this war is the laboratory of what will be the balkanization of the entire Europe.