My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I. In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:
My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him. He was highly agitated. A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.
His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army. He was a forward observer for an artillery unit. He was severely gassed on the Austrian front. He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.
Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army. My mother used to call him El Sargento.
Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War [1911-12] and four years in World War 1. He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year. I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item. He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.
So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas. My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)
War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.
A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson. My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:
The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing. The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind. The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians. Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan. (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.) If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.
With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:
Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering. Many POWs died as a result. Unbelievable.
So much for the alleged glories of war. Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States. It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.
In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar? Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past. Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.
Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war. Rather, both men were against losing wars. Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again. Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action. No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.
Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq. He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016. As the study notes (also see the illustration above):
“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”
Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first! America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.
The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper? Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?
We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II. Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?
Time will tell.