A Library of Social Science Review Essay
Mark of the Beast: Death and Degradation in the
Literature of the Great War
(Alfredo Bonadeo)
By Kimberly Baxter
Kim Baxter Kimberly Baxter is philosophy professor at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She earned her Ph.D in Philosophy from New School University.
Kim Baxter Mark of the Beast: Death and Degradation in the Literature of the Great War

Author: Alfredo Bonadeo
Publisher: U. Press of Kentucky

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In Mark of the Beast: Death and Degradation in the Literature of the Great War, Alfredo Bonadeo surveys literary and historical sources to show how soldiers’ experiences on the battlefield shaped their outlook on life and death. War caused a profound spiritual and moral loss—as soldiers on the frontlines became like beasts to survive.

Bonadeo presents anecdotes of soldiers who describe losing their human essence in the horror and chaos of wartime. He provides evidence that generals and politicians thought war could be easy and inexpensive—because the troops were less-than-human; expendable. He focuses on how Italian intellectuals and politicians shaped the philosophies of Italian military leaders in the Great War.

He writes:

Around 1914 Western European intellectuals called for war because they believed that it would redeem nations from decay. The shrill condemnation of real and imaginary evils, and the fervid interventionism in the name of high-sounding ideals that swept Italy in the months and years before the outbreak of the hostilities, place Italy at the forefront of those European countries whose intellectuals advocated war in the name of redemption.

Most of the Italian people wished to remain neutral. Because the Italian parliament did not want to enter the war, the pro-war Prime Minister presented his resignation to the king, but the king rejected it. Intellectuals such as the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio condemned opposition to the war as signs of cowardice and deceit—traits he believed were long-standing vices of the Italian people. Nationalist leader Enrico Corradini thought “material egoist interests” motivated Italians’ opposition to the war.

Bonadeo explains,

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 and supremely civil.’

Extra-parliamentary forces took advantage of the parliamentary crisis to prevail over constitutional process, and Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies on May 24, 1915. Italy fought mostly against Austria-Hungary along the northern border, in the Alps and along the Isonzo river which flows through western Slovenia and northeastern Italy.

Alpine second lieutenant Carlo Gadda acknowledged that soldiers must willfully shed their humanity in war. He thought this sacrifice would cure Italy and himself of cowardice. He saw war as a punishment for decay—and a means to regenerate from it. This perception that Italian soldiers should redeem themselves by demonstrating courage on the battlefield dovetailed with the dominant philosophies of military strategy.

Although some British military theorists recognized that in the Boer War (1899-1902), the British army’s traditional offensive strategy—in which troops advanced in close formation—had failed, many continental observers of that conflict believed these experiences were irrelevant to military strategy in Europe. Since the British were ultimately victorious against the Boers, they thought the offensive strategy only needed to be modified, using cavalry as mobile firepower and more extended formations in infantry attacks.

The skirmishers—the traditional first line of soldiers in open formation—would now bear the brunt of the attack. The traditional strategy of following them with a main assault line in close formation was deemed impossible. But opponents of this open formation strategy argued that it was difficult to motivate and inspire soldiers in open formation once they scattered and went behind cover.

Thus, there was a desire to return to earlier traditions that involved bayonets. Advocates of this older strategy noted that Americans on both sides of the Civil War had sought speedy, decisive results through frontal attacks in close formation. The success of Japan’s offensive strategy in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) was an influential example that they believed lent credence to their view.

Japan, whose armed forces were trained by Europeans, sustained heavy losses— but prevailed through bayonet assaults that occurred after long, careful advances. However, as Michael Howard notes, the revised offensive strategies Europeans used in World War I did not entail, “the careful use of ground and of mutual fire support which had characterized the actual Japanese tactics—tactics in fact remarkably close to those prescribed in the despised French infantry regulations of 1904.”

The attaque à outrance (attack to excess) was a prevalent military philosophy associated with the French, but used by all sides during World War I. This school of thought saw aggressive, offensive action as the key to success—against the defensive firepower that had become more ominous through several technological innovations.

The belief was that if all ranks had sufficient willpower and boldness, the strategy of immediate and total attack would prevail. This strategy entailed a semi-mystical reliance on élan vital (vital momentum), a concept developed by Henri Bergson as part of his effort to explain evolution and account for human creativity.

Bergson conceived élan vital as a mysterious force unknown to natural science that drives life—rejecting mechanistic, materialistic explanations of reality. He believed that the creative urge, not natural selection, drives evolution. Bergson emphasized the dynamic nature of experience. Bonadeo writes that élan vital became “the soul of the offensive à outrance .”

French World War I general Joseph Joffre (1852-1931) found justification for the attaque à outrance offensive strategy in Bergson’s élan vital concept. Joffre viewed defensive strategy as a “grave and profound evil” because it favored the self-preservation instinct. Bergson believed material suffering is the basis of human progress.

Bonadeo writes that

France, unlike England and like Italy, used the offensive à outrance as a means of atoning for national failings. The insensate obstinacy and lack of comprehension with which the French generals ‘continued to hurl the heroic but limited manhood of France at the strongest entrenchments, at uncut wire and innumerable machine guns served with cold skill’ was, as in Italy, rooted in the ground of national guilt and expiation.

Massis wrote the following from the trenches in January 1915:

War seems to us to be first a dreadful resignation, a renunciation, a humiliation…and you don’t understand immediately the grandeur of the asceticism it forces on us, of the punishment it lays on the fighting man.

The Futurist artistic and social movement in Italy embraced Bergson’s philosophy and influenced thinking about the Great War. Futurist artists such as painter/sculptor Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)—who was drafted to fight in World War I and killed in a cavalry training exercise accident at age 33—appropriated aspects of Cubism to express the twentieth century’s new sense of time, space and energy defined by Albert Einstein.

Cubism was the early 20th century art movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in which the artist breaks up objects and reassembled them in abstract form, depicting them from a multitude of viewpoints. The Futurists, who resented being seen as an offshoot of Cubism, were preoccupied with depicting the speed and movement of modern life.

Italian poet and art theorist Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) founded the Futurist movement and authored the Futurist Manifesto. Marinetti insisted that the artist turn his back on past art and conventions to focus on the dynamic life of the modern industrial city.

In the Manifesto, Marinetti wrote that progress and civilization “worship human blood” and thrive on destruction. Futurist theorists believed the future belonged to the strong and the ruthless, and doubted that the Italian people embodied these traits.

In War, the World’s Only Hygiene, Marinetti wrote that war is an effective way to eliminate indifference and pride. It brings out “courage, energy, and intelligence.” Journalist Giovanni Papini wrote that the mass slaughter was good for Italy because there are too many useless, superfluous “rabble” and “idiots” in the population.

Bonadeo writes,

By 1914 politicians and generals understood that to endure life and to fight in the trenches the soldier needed something that was missing in twentieth-century man: the toughness of the savage. The trenches and the battlefields returned twentieth-century man to a kind of life that had very little to do with civilization. In the trenches and on the battlefields, twentieth-century man fought, died, survived, and changed for the worse.

In another way degradation served as an inducement to war. The Italian elite, charging the common people with real or imaginary decay, sent them to make war and to die in search of punishment and redemption.

Bonadeo ends on a hopeful note that humanity may one day abolish war:

Man may refuse to fight, not because he dreads death—after all, mortals’ common fate—but because he refuses to accept what death on the battlefield implies: the destruction of his very essence.