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Bonadeo: Mark of the Beast

Excerpts from: Bonadeo, Alfredo (1989). Mark of the Best: Death and Degradation in the Literature of the Great War. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

59—Enrico Corradini, the nationalist leader, found egoism thriving only among the opponents of the war. The policy of nonintervention, he proclaimed, is the product of those who fear war might interfere with the realization of their “material egoist interests.” For Corradini, only generous men, those who know how to overcome their “personal material egoism,” can understand that war is “desirable and holy” because it brings death, and death welds the individual to the nation. Corradini thus urged his selfish compatriots to fight, to die, and to redeem themselves. “By devoting himself to death the insignificant egotist helps to create the life of the true great individual—the fatherland.” Fought for this purpose, Corradini concluded, war “is supremely moral & supremely civil.”

60—Giovannie Boine, who wrote for La Voce, the periodical founded in 1908 in Florence to deal with the “problems of public life” and to help reinvigorate Italian culture and politics, saw Italians in the throes of an “egoistic torpor.” He felt the need for a “common enthusiasm” capable of “tearing each individual violently away from himself,” something as compelling as the birth of a new religion or, even better, war, to generate the enthusiasm that would suppress egoism.
Boine’s indictment of Italian egoism carried an authority because he drew on Hegel’s idea that egoism—concern for personal rights and “right in things, gain, enjoyment”—represented a distinct peril to national life, a peril to be removed by any means. Both Bone’s Military Discourses and Russo’s Military Life and Discipline found in the discipline of war the cure for selfishness, a national disease. Military life, with its demands for sacrifice and suffering, Russo Wrote, would give the citizen a “highly moral” education. The supreme form of egoism, in his view, was the reluctance of the Italian people to do battle.

66—Carlo Emilio Gadda articulated the link between the fallen state of the Italian people and war. Stirred by a fellow officer’s refusal to obey an order from headquarters about cropping his hair, Gadda wrote in his War Diary of 1916: “To our stupid, swinish, doggish, bastard, boorish Italian soul, it is a matter of personal dignity to say ‘I do what I will, I have no master.’ This attitude is called, pride, liberty, dignity.” But, adds Gadda, in reality this attitude only shows the “idiotic egoism of the Italian who makes of everything a personal question.”

70—Giovanni Papin wrote with relief in Lacerba when the war began: “A warm bath of black blood” was needed, and finally the people were getting it. “It is a wholesale slaughter,” he continued gleefully. “This frantic slaughter is good for the Italians,” Papini wrote in agreement with Marinetti, because “we Italians are too many,” because there is too much “rabble” and too many “idiots” among us, and because there is an “infinity of people who are absolutely useless and superfluous.” War and slaughter would conveniently get rid of this worthless mass.

90—Carlo Salsa’s war experience reveals that even early in the war the general staff was disregarding the enemy’s strength and sending troops to their death in futile offenses.

He was the author of Trincee (Trenches). Imbued with the idea that success depended more on “heart mind, faith, enthusiasm, and reason” than on weapons and equipment, headquarters held the soldiers responsible for the failure to conquer, ascribing it to their truancy and cowardice. The hopeless attacks ordered against the enemy trenches became the punishment for the supposed cowardice and failure of the troops. Each slaughter and failure became an excuse for sending more troops into action, fate to end, again, in death and failure.

92—In their memoirs both General Cadorna & General Capello justified the self-destructive strategies they used on the battlefield. Senator Luigi Albertini, editor of the Corriere della sera during the war years, who had firsthand knowledge of the front, knew of the methods of attack there and supported them. In his war memoirs he wrote that the attacks gave the troops and the officers “experience, maturity, tradition, and glory.”
He also thought that the national reputation was proportionate to the losses in the battlefield; a less “contribution of blood” by Italy, he feared, would have shamed the nation. And a historian had written that the six hundred thousand men who died in the war erased the reputation for cowardice that for centuries had burdened the Italian people.

93—But the soldier in the field knew better than their leaders and their historians why their lives were being wasted. The soldiers knew that they were regarded as inferior beings and their life as worthless. Although the common soldier knew that he was regarded as worthless and that he was doomed, he was unable to grasp the root of his problem—the responsibility of the leadership—and thus could articulate no response to it.

93-4—Toward the end of Emilio Lussu’s Un anno sull’altipiano, Lussu reports the words the officers spoke immediately after a mutiny had been quelled by peaceful means. Lt. Ottolenghi sees what the common soldiers were unable to see: the responsibility of the political and military leadership in causing their misery and destruction. “Our political and military leaders,” Ottolenghi declares, “seem to have been sent to us to destroy us.”
The solution is an about-face in which mutinous units start firing on their superior officers, because the enemy of the Italian soldier lies not across no-man’s land, but at his back. “I would start the shooting,” Ottolenghi proposes, “with the commander of the division, whoever he is,” and then “I would work my way up the hierarchy, methodically and relentlessly…all the way up to Rome. There the great enemy headquarters stands.”

101—Suicidal offensives nurtured a state of mind far more widespread than open rebelliousness, namely, resignation to death. Keegan, in Face of Battle, has likened this apathy to the passivity of inmates facing extermination in Nazi death camps. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the offensive on the Somme—which on this day alone killed twenty thousand dead to no avail—the British trenches “were the concentration camps of the First World War,” where soldiers waited their turn to die. “There is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of July 1st, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire.”

102—On the Italian front, where only a handful of volunteers fought, while most of the combatants were conscripts, the troops (unlike the British case) knew no patriotic or political ideals. They went to their death with the mindless resignation of cattle driven to the slaughterhouse, or like victims of an unjust but irrevocable death sentence. The infantry “attacks to get out of the trenches because it must obey and because there is nothing else to do,” Curzio Malaparte, novelist and combatant, recalls about the scenes he witnessed.