The Disastrous Italian War Against Austria-Hungary (1915-18), the Rise of Fascism, and Trump’s Victory in 2016

W.J. Astore

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.

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Did Trump win because he had the nerve to highlight the “mutilated victory” nature of America’s wars?  (Note that the caption here, from the Krinera/Shen study and the Zaid Jilani article, is unclear.  The intent is to show that higher casualty rates favored Trump, and, if rates had been lower, Hillary Clinton may have won instead.)

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.

Work Mania

W.J. Astore

A good friend sent me Miya Tokumitsu’s recent article, “The United States of Work: Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?” One answer: Americans have been sold on the idea of work as fulfilling and even ennobling, and indeed the more work the better.  Yet if work is so wonderful, why do we pay some people only $7.25 an hour (the minimum wage)?  That’s less than $15K a year if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks.  Try living on that.  Work is so “great” in America that some people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for leisure or for family.

I remember when the “future” (which is now) was sold as a time when mechanization and robots and efficiency would grant us much more leisure time.  The idea was that new machinery and methods would curtail work.  That most people would work 25-30 hours a week at better jobs involving less drudgery, leaving them lots of time to raise families and otherwise to enjoy life away from the tedium and regimentation of the workplace.

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It’s not so easy keeping up with our machine-driven mania for work

But the future isn’t what it used to be.  There are many reasons for this.  Americans often consume too much, i.e. they keep working to keep up with the Joneses.  Companies want higher and higher profits, driving them to squeeze more and more out of fewer and fewer workers.  And work in the USA isn’t just about work.  It’s often directly connected to health care, life insurance, and other benefits.  If you choose (or are told) to work part-time, you may lose your employer-provided health insurance.  If you’re fired, you lose your health benefits along with your salary and perhaps as well your sense of worth.

So much of our lives, especially in the USA, is tied to work.  After “What’s your name,” the next question most commonly asked of new acquaintances is, “What do you do?  Where do you work?” People’s sense of identity, their sense of worth, is often tied to their job, another big reason why losing one’s job is among the most stressful events in a person’s life.

And now work in America is often 24/7/365 since nearly everyone has electronic leashes, the Smart phones and so on, meaning the boss can always contact you.  And if you choose to unplug, maybe the boss will find someone else to take your place.  France recently passed a law to protect employees who choose to “unplug” after work and on weekends.  No such law in the USA, of course.

From my days in the military, I recall how so many officers put on a great show of looking busy.  “I have 276 emails to answer.”  “I’m wrestling alligators.”  “So busy — need to come up for air.”  When did being swamped by work become a sign of success?  In my view, the more efficient you are, the less grinding work you should need to do.  (Of course, many jobs are all about grinding work: as my dad used to say, the more physically grueling the job, the less he usually got paid.)

Work mania has many pitfalls.  Exhaustion leads to mistakes.  Broken health, either physical or mental.  Estrangement from family and the natural world.  I wonder, for example, whether people are dismissive of global warming and other environmental issues simply because they spend no time outdoors.  They’re always working, or going to and from work.

I used to commute 60+ miles to and from work.  I’d get up about 5:30AM, leave about 6:15AM, get to work by 7:30AM, work until about 4:30PM, then get home about 5:30PM (on a good day).  After that, I was tired.  And I didn’t come home to screaming kids with school and sporting events and so on.  Are we so busy and distracted that we hardly recognize that we live in an ecosystem of great fragility?  In fact, all our commuting, all our busyness, all our consumption, only broadens our carbon footprint.

This is not a rant against work, or a cry to get ourselves back to the garden.  But surely there’s a better way of striking a balance between work and everything else.  I recall watching Michael Moore’s documentary, “Where to Invade Next.”  The segments on Italy and Germany are telling here.  In Italy, workers get much more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, roughly five weeks plus 12 national holidays (watch this segment).  U.S. workers by comparison are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation.  In Germany, Moore asks a bunch of German workers if they have second jobs.  They look at him like he’s crazy.  One job is enough, they say, at which they work about 36-38 hours a week.  What do you do with all the “extra” time, Moore asks.  Hang out at a café, read, and otherwise decompress, they answer.

I recall that Italian workers often get a long break so they can go home and prepare lunch for the family.  U.S. workers may be lucky to get 30 minutes (often unpaid), or even 15 minutes, for lunch, during which they’re fortunate to be able to bolt down some (probably unhealthy) fast food.

Some things in life shouldn’t be “fast,” like food.  And some things shouldn’t dominate our lives, like work.  Sure, some people work long hours at jobs they love, and if that’s the case, go for it.  But America’s work mania has its costs, including an estrangement from ourselves as well as the living world around us.