IllIll)vengeancethe hysterical cries for vengeance and retaliation and the safeguarding of the national honour, the Prime Minister has kept his head over the Nationalist bombings of British ships in Republican harbours. It was not only a courageous thing to do: it was intelligent.
Nothing is more dangerous today than the current confusion between such very different things as humanitarianism, national honour and the stern unbending facts of war. All three have been wonderfully jumbled together over this question of aerial warfare by the popular mind — and still more by the minds of those who are trying to obtain personal advantage at the expense of a difficult situation.
. In the first place the attacks on British ships in Republican territorial waters or ports have nothing whatever to do with the alleged bombing of open cities.
They are absolutely legitimate attacks on vital enemy ports, the very mouth of the famished Reds cut off from the Continent and the Atlantic, and the ships there, whether really or only nominally British, are actually putting food of every kind into that mouth.
It may be argued that according to international law such ships should be seized or that warning should be given to the crew before they are attacked, but simply to make such a statement in the face of the facts of contemporary .warfare proves its hopelessly academic and Iegalistit.-: nature. . How could such ships be seized? How, .could warning be given? And yet how can anyone in his senses expect the Nationalists to look on while they have the natural means (as natural as any old-time naval blockade) to prevent all-iniportant aid being given to their enemies?
If British companies and British sailors for motives of sympathy with one side or for money wish to take the risk, they may do so, but they cannot, as the Government warned them last November, expect British protection. Indeed a strict application of non-intervention might well deprive them of the right to trade with Spain, either Republican or Nationalist. In that case the Republicans and England would he the chief sufferers, not the Nationalists.
As a sop to those who are trying to make mischief, the Prime Minister stated that the attacks on British ships must cause relations between Britain and Burgos to deteriorate and General 'Franco on his side made suggestions for safety zones or a special safety port for the discharge of certain kinds of cargoes, but neither of these concessions need be taken very seriously.
The facts are that the attacks are legitimate and the risks taken the business of those who take them. The British Government is right to wash its hands of the whole affair.
The alleged attacks on open cities is a different matter, as the stern remarks made by the Osservalore Romano sufficiently indicate.
As we have said again and again deliberate attacks on civilians and property of no military significance cannot be condoned. With all respect we disagree with the Vatican paper's use of the word " defenceless ". A defenceless city may well contain vital munitions of war or railway junctions of great im portance to the enemy forces. The fact that it is left defenceless cannot be sufficient reason for it to claim immunity from attack. The alternative view would give an absurd advantage to an enemy.
The conflict with regard to the bombings in Spain is one of fact, not principle. The Osservatore (and many others) seems to hold it as a fact that some of the objects Nationalists attack were not of military importance. The Nationalists claim the contrary. Until more evidence is available we can suspend judgment.
We may well wish as hwrianitarians that these attacks on cities, the military importance of which is not clear to all, should cease—as indeed we must wish that the war itself should cease; we may pray to Franco to enquire once again whether such bombings really do help his legitimate military campaign. As Englishmen we may be sorry and even patriotically indignant at the bombing of the British flag and say that we prefer to risk war rather than allow such a thing to happen. But both of these attitudes have nothing to do with the moral question whether such attacks are ethically permissible and the question of fact as to whether the objects attacked are or are not of military importance.