It's been one hundred years since the end of World War I. Many times I visited the memorial of Redipuglia – an Italian town close to the Slovenian border – dedicated to the soldiers who fell in the Great War. My last visit to Redipuglia was with my grandfather, who many times when I was younger had told me: before I die, I want to visit Redipuglia. He is still alive and healthy, by the way.
When I visit the cemetery of my hometown, my eye often falls on the many tombstones with the epitaph "Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto" (Knight of Vittorio Veneto), a military Order that was awarded in the late 1960s to any Italian who had fought for at least six months in the First World War. For many, including my great-grandfather, the Order was a prized treasure. They were proud to have fought, but I don't believe their pride came from having fought against someone. I think they were proud to have done their job for the country and their countrymen, and to have survived. Even as an anti-war advocate, I get their feelings. (One of my former secret goals was to write an essay on the Cavalieri di Vittorio Veneto and what the Order meant for them).
To celebrate the anniversary, on one of my latest flights I started re-reading the book "Un Anno sull'Altipiano" by Emilio Lussu, one of my favorite Italian books of the 20th century. Lussu fought in what was called at the time "The Great War", and some fifteen years later wrote about his experience of war on the altipiano (plateau) of Asiago (a town in Veneto, Northeastern Italy) with the Brigata Sassari. Lussu then became a member of the Italian Resistance during the Second World War. In the book, which is semi-autobiographical, he writes about the irrationality of war, the sense of impending doom felt by soldiers, the camaraderie among them, and the foolishness of the military brass. The book was later adapted for the big screen ("Uomini Contro", with Gian Maria Volonté in the role of Lussu).
I read many novels, biographies, and non-fiction books related to WWI, both in English and Italian. I started in my teens and never stopped; I was interested in different perspectives. I read soldiers' diaries to feel their desperation, heroism, and resignation; the memoirs of Ludendorff for the megalomania; the tragic books of Robert Graves for their gloom; Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" for the denunciation of nationalism and war. And all the movies and all the poems.
I guess I have always been fascinated by the foolishness of WWI, by people who believed in something even if their beliefs sound delirious and barbaric to the modern ear, by the tension between heroism, camaraderie, and shelling other soldiers and civilians for weeks. For what, nobody knows, and most likely, nobody even knew at the time.
I remember I was in a hotel in Saint-Vincent years ago while attending a conference (and later visiting the local, famous casino – I wish I had the money and desire to lose it to play Baccarat). It was November 4th (the day on which General Diaz told the Italian people over the radio that the war was over) and, as usual, there were some remembrances of WWI on Italian television. That day, they showed an old interview with one of the last WWI veterans, who had died a few years before. He was a member of the Italian assault troops, soldiers who crossed the space between trenches with the knife in their teeth, literally. (He said, with trembling voice, due to both old age and excitement: "We were going to the assault with the knife in our teeth, throwing shock bombs into the other trench. We had courage, much courage!"). The host asked him: "Were you scared?". He answered: "Not at all – they had been teaching us to love our country since we were little. Then, our commanders had all those medals on their chests!".
It is quite strange that listening to those stories we all agree should have never happened can nevertheless make you push your chest a bit higher.