Today is the 4th of November, and in this day in Italy we celebrate “National Unity”.
On the 4th of November 1918 the armistice became official between Italy and Austria-Hungary – and this is the reason why this day is special.
It’s the day the Great War ended for us Italians.
Now it’s the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
I don’t know if there will be any celebration hereabouts – we are after all in the wild hills of Astigianistan, but if on one side we’ve been subjected recently to a revision of those events, on the other it is also true that we are going through a very unpleasant resurgence of the sort of mindless and ignorant “patriotism” that is fed by slogans and only profits cunning rabble-rousers.
The War to End All Wars was a failure, and it killed off a whole generation: 1,052,400 to 1,243,400 Italians died in the war, counting both civilians and military personnel, and another million was wounded.
The grand total of war casualties, counting both soldiers and civilians, and both sides, is somewhere between 15 and 20 million people, depending on the estimates.
My grandfather, Natale Ponsetto, fought in that war.
He was in the Alpini – mountain chasseurs – and his first duty was as a gravedigger at the end of the line: trains would arrive, loaded in corpses, the band would play, then they would bury the dead. Day after day. For weeks.
Afterwards, for the rest of his life, my grandfather would never be able to listen to a military band. He would just get the shakes as soon as they started playing.
A lot has been said and written about the cheerful incompetence of the high commands, the unpreparedness of the forces in the field, the madness, the filth, the rats.
I served in the Air Farce, and I always liked planes anyway, and the biplane epic has a different taste, it’s more adventurous and cleaner than trench warfare – but still, much as I love biplanes, I cannot wax nostalgic or enthusiastic about the Great War.
It’s the past.
We went through something horrible.
And then, soon afterwards, the pomp and circumstance of the Great War was used to fuel the nationalist and imperial dreams of people that would again plunge us in a war in twenty years.
And today, the sick nostalgia for that second generation of madmen and for their worldview is being fueled by the rhetoric of the Great War – a subject most kids never study in school, a subject on which my fellow Italians are often extremely ignorant. I am scared, and worried.
And I think about my grandfather, who could not listen to brass bands anymore.
So this day I think we’ll just remember and honor the dead, and do without any sort of nationalistic pride or other stupidity.
As a lover of adventure novels and pulp, I often enjoyed – and sometimes wrote! – stories about flying aces and brave soldiers, and a stint in the trenches (or above them) is often a required part of the curriculum for pulp heroes.
But never like this moment in time it has been important to be able to tell fact from fiction.
Let’s honor the dead, and renounce the horror.