war

“Whenever I make a film that’s for war, you can take me out and shoot me.”

 

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury War Correspondent in Italy*

 

Italian Colonial Exposition 1940

Buildings of the 1940 Italian Overseas Exposition before the war

December 26, 1943 With US Army 21st General Hospital, Mostra Fairgrounds, Bagnoli. Italy–Candidates for the Purple Heart in recognition of battlefield wounds in Italy will now pass in review under the eyes of no less famous a figure than Benito Mussolini. His face, substantially larger than life, is prominent in a mural at the Albanian pavilion of his 1940 Colonial Exposition, an extravaganza intended to modestly showcase his glorious achievements as Italy’s leader. The immodest number of bullet holes which mar his likeness manage to render the image pleasant enough for medical personnel to work in view of it in what is now the surgical area of an Army Hospital, and few of the soldiers they attend to take the time to look up at the man who still looks down on them.
Just three weeks ago, as the Third and Forty-fifth Infantry Divisions began crossing the Volturno River, the men and women of this hospital, more than four thousand of them, began crossing the Mediterranean, bringing with them more than three thousand crates of medical supplies and equipment, to set up shop in this new location, right outside of Naples, and only thirty miles from the front lines. This proximity relieves much of the pressure on field hospitals even closer to the front, and allows greater flexibility in determining the best treatment for urgent and critical cases.
This proximity also allows wounded men to be brought directly from the battlefield to what is literally the newest, most modern hospital in the world, And Il Duce allows these men to recover in good humor; the post-op room was originally a memorial to Italy’s brave soldiers, most of whom have now surrendered or simply discarded their uniforms and quietly gone home. No man, regardless of whether he is American, British, or any of the other nationalities now fighting with the allies in Italy, has failed to find this amusing.
Another thing every man has found amusing is discovering what knockouts some of these nurses can be. To free every available doctor for surgery, a number of nurses volunteered to learn how to administer anaesthesia. I found it reassuring to see a man wounded less than an hour earlier ask his anesthetist if she’d go out with him after he recovered. Her only reply was a smile; before she could have spoken a word, he was unconscious.

* * *

There were, of course, a number of things I couldn’t mention in this column without risk of undermining the war effort. I couldn’t say that this man, like many battlefield casualties, was in shock. Nor could I say that, like most battlefield casualties, he had not been told how badly he was wounded. If he’d been wounded before, he might have known how unusual it was for the anaesthesia to be injected into the neck, rather than an arm or a leg. But he no longer had arms and legs. That was something else I couldn’t mention.

And this is only one hospital, Erich Maria Remarque had written. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this… A hospital alone shows what war is.

I remembered that as I typed, but still sent my column.

* * *

Dusk was well upon us by the time I stepped outside. I was nominally billeted in a field hospital nurses tent a few miles away, and wondering if I should try to find a closer place to sleep for the night or hope for a ride when I noticed a jeepload of clean uniforms heading my way. Replacements going somewhere, I supposed, until they stopped in front of me. A Signal Corps Captain looked at my armband, then spoke up.

“We were in San Pietro before anybody,” he said, with the tone of a man in shell shock. “There’d been an attack and a counterattack in the night, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of dead.”

What had he expected to find after a battle, confetti? I didn’t ask, I just stood there listening to the motor of the jeep idling, and glanced at the newsreel cameras on the floor of the jeep.

“Battalion?” the driver asked, a trace of Yiddish to the question, somehow. I pointed and the jeep was moving again.

I don’t know when I finally realized I’d met John Huston that evening. Certainly not by May of 1945, when I saw the Army’s fiercely edited two-reel release of the battlefield documentary Frank Capra had sent him to film.

* * *

On the Road to San Pietro

US Tank destroyed attempting to enter San Pietro

How do you create the cinematic documentation of a battle when you weren’t there until the battle was over, and the first thing you find when you do arrive is hundreds and hundreds of dead? Of course, a critic, particularly if he’s never directed a movie or been anywhere near a battlefield littered with corpses, many of them fragmentary, will say you fabricate the whole thing. Yes, anyone can recognize that John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro was a re-enactment, for the most part, with no particular effort made to capture realism in the scenes depicting the battles. Even the men shot in the five-reel original were staging their deaths. The only aspect of the film which was genuine and even in the least candid was the part Huston experienced personally on the first morning of filming. The corpses, even when repositioned for effect, or to keep the grotesquely distorted faces, if they were American, out of view, were absolutely real. They were not extras, they were the stars of the film, and Huston, editing either version, must have calculated how much carnage could be tolerated by the typical audience without blunting their sensitivity to what they were being shown, and how much of this brutal depiction of a brutal reality was necessary to validate his own statement, as the movie approaches its close, “These lives were valuable–valuable to their loved ones, to their country, and to the men themselves.”

* * *

The officers for whom Huston screened his original edit all walked out in quick succession, but George Marshall, who had to concern himself not only with morale, but also with the more difficult issues of desertion and combat fatigue, decided that a shorter edit of Huston’s stark depiction of battle would be an appropriate training film. Marshall was pleased by this version of the film, with a brief introduction by General Mark Clark, and Huston was promoted to Major.

* * *

The wind and snow on Christmas Eve were answers to prayer. Everyone’s prayer. The Germans–those still alive–were glad of something to cover their retreat. And those Americans still alive were glad of the excuse to let them slip away. The battle per se of San Pietro had been over for a week, and the 3rd Infantry was taking up forward positions in relief of what remained of the 36th. There had been a flood of T-patchers in the field hospital, and from those able and willing to talk, I’d pieced together a story that still needed a lot of window dressing and white washing before it could be typed up and cabled home.

Essentially, the Germans had built their own little Maginot Line from Lincoln Logs. A series of fortified foxholes with nearly perfect defilade and concealment, protected by alternating layers of barbed wire and land mines. Further, each of these could only be approached by a single man scraping his short hairs in the mud. Covering fire could be provided, but only carefully; more of his boots and buttocks were exposed to that fire than the whole of the German position. As I said, there were a vast series of these strung along the mountainside, interlocking in a pattern something like the teeth of a circular ripsaw. The flank had to be turned, and the 143rd Regiment had begun doing that in early December, scaling a mountainside in the face of mortar and machine gun fire which could excoriate the landscape without being aimed. The Germans knew the Americans were there. When that mountainside had been secured, and this in a relative sense, the assault itself began, one American at a time, approaching each in this series of small fortifications, until somebody was lucky enough to get a grenade in before another man had to pull him back, wounded or killed. You can imagine that casualties were high, but even I had not imagined how high.

* * *

I’d been to Mass that morning with the 100th Battalion; Japanese Americans from Hawaii, attached to the 36th. From the small number there, I’d assumed that only a few of them were Catholic.

Technically, the 36th was still at the front, but through the good offices of the 3rd Division and cooperation of the momentarily defeated Germans, the front was moving away, allowing the T-patchers to enjoy their Christmas dinner of C-rations on the hood of a jeep, or to gather around an impromptu Christmas tree chosen from among the myriad fragments of trees scattered by two weeks of uninterrupted combat. Their trees were decorated with strips of their C-ration’s foil packaging, usually discarded, but now kept and carefully torn to form tinsel garland.

In the early evening, as darkness became definite, I noticed four candles at the opening of several tents knotted together at the grommets, forming a shelter large enough for half a dozen men to gather. I went to it.

“Are you Jewish, Ma’am?” one of the Texans asked.

“My mother was.”

“Then I guess you are.” He tapped a wooden board, covered by a surprisingly clean white cloth. As I sat where he had indicated, each of the boys pushed a few of their piled M&Ms toward me. Then the one who had greeted me handed me the dreidel.

* * *

“Are you the reporter, Ma’am?” a voice behind me asked. The Jewish soldiers and I had been pushing M&Ms back forth for about an hour.

“Yes,” I said, turning around to see an NCO from Divisional HQ.

“You’ve had clerical experience?”

“Yes,” I said, now getting up. The two of us left, and he led me toward a jeep cleaner than most I’d seen that day. We sat in it.

“A battalion clerk has a problem,” he said. “You might be able to help, if you’re willing.”

“Yes, of course.”

We drove further from the front. Perhaps ten minutes, arriving at a farm building labeled as Bn HQ. He led me inside, where I saw a clerk, his head resting on a typewriter, weeping profusely. I wouldn’t have believed a clerk this far from the front could have combat fatigue, but that’s exactly what it looked like. There were packages piled up, filling nearly three-quarters of the office.

“You need help delivering these?” I asked.

“No Ma’am,” the driver said. “We need you to draw a line through the address of each one, and mark it KIA.”

I was on the floor, sitting, wondering if I’d fainted. Amid the fog, slowly dispersing it, I heard President Roosevelt, his voice crackling on the radio.

“We ask that God receive and cherish those who have given their lives, and that He keep them in honor and in the grateful memory of their countrymen forever. God bless all of you who fight our battles on this Christmas Eve.”

I reached up. The driver handed me a pen.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

I nodded. He left as I grabbed the first package. The clerk was still weeping over his typewriter when I finished, just past dawn, my hand stiff and fingers numb.

* * *

When the 36th Infantry Division returned to the front line in January, 1944, 80% of its men had been in the Division less than two weeks.

 

 

 

*This is actually an excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens amazing WW2 magnum opus, very intimately linked to this post.

Quick Thoughts on the November 2015 Paris Attacks

November 2015 Paris Terror Attack

Everyone interested in world affairs has probably been glued to the news over the past twenty hours or so, so there is no need to review the horror of the crimes that have committed, but it’s definitely worth sharing a couple of immediate thoughts about the situation, as they may be worth reflecting on.

1.  Extremist groups, it seems, are incapable of learning.  We’ve examined before the fact that these extremists are incapable of accepting the inevitability of a modern, free and inclusive world, in which globalization is a given and women are equal to men, but the sheer stupidity of this latest series of attacks surprises even in that context.

In the first place, France has traditionally been a lukewarm supporter of the international war on terror, at best.  The French combination of arrogance and an anachronistic view of their own importance has seen the country often holding back nations who would pursue the war more aggressively.  In fact, as a staunch opponent of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, France has actually been hindering the war against ISIS.

While it’s true that France is the origin of freedom in the modern sense, and thereby represents a highly symbolic target, an armed insurrection that has been catalogued as a criminal enterprise by all respectable elements on the worldwide stage should be a little more pragmatic when selecting targets.  All this attack will do is galvanize the French people against ISIS… an organization that seems not to understand that ANY of the countries they are attacking could wipe them out in a few weeks if they have popular support.  And now, the French do – and after listening to Hollande last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent in troops and did just that.  It would be the best thing for everyone.

And ISIS can’t say that this is a surprise.  In 2001, Osama Bin Laden decided it would be a good idea to attack the US.  That ended extremely badly for him, his Afghan allies, his organization, and also for Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with any of it, but was a target of opportunity.  A people that had been supporting a fight against terrorism half-heartedly suddenly awoke, rallied behind an otherwise unloved president and kicked some ass.

ku klux klan

It’s not just recent examples that show how silly this is, either.  After the US Civil War ended, the Ku Klux Klan was born as a terrorist group to attempt to end Reconstruction, which, though a colossal injustice in practice had the might of the Union army behind it.  That original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was eventually disbanded… because the leaders understood that the terror attacks were only serving to intensify the crackdown, and that claims had to be pursued using other methods.  Which shows that even white supremacists, a group not noted for their brilliance, are less moronic than the current generation of Islamic extremists.

2.  Has Al-Jazeera replaced the BBC as the go-to news source when something globally important happens?  In the 1990s, especially during the first Gulf War, CNN was often the only international option to watch news live, and was the most complete coverage on cable.

But as more and more options became available, most global audiences grew to prefer the BBC’s news channel, as the stories were covered with a much more global and complete set of assumptions.  CNN was clearly too US-centric to be useful, while Fox news, of course was ridiculous (last night they referred to Hollande as the President of Paris).  Watching feeds from France and Italy last nigh left me impressed with the RAI’s coverage, while I think the French channels were in shock.  But both the RAI and the French channels are hampered by the fact that not everyone understands French or Italian (my own French means that I need to concentrate hard on that), while almost everyone interested in world affairs speaks English.  The BBC was plodding along, and Euronews, caught with it’s late-night anchors on the air, was a mess.

And then I turned to Al-Jazeera.  What a revelation.  Impeccable British accents giving the news without stridence or partiality, combined with interviews with security analysts from the US, political analysts from everywhere – including the middle east – and French government officials.   A near-perfect balance.

And they had a team on the ground, a hyper-professional impeccably dressed reporter (British accent, of course) and a couple of camera men.  And twhat they were saying was better and more informed than anything else going on at the time.

I’d never paid much attention to Al-Jazeera before, but a quick side-by-side with everyone else gives me the feeling that impartial audiences are going to keep increasing for them if they keep up the good work. I know I’ll be looking to them within the first few minutes (as opposed to just out of curiosity) the next time anything big happens.

Ethiopia in WWII – Part 2

haile selassie

Today we bring you the second part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ story of Ethiopia in WWII from her monumental historical novel.  We’re certain you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

On November 14th, 1935, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories won what would be the last general election to be held in the UK for nearly ten years. Baldwin again sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, where he met with Laval on December 7th. By the following day, the two of them had devised what would be known as the Hoare-Laval Plan[1]. It was a potential compromise affording both Mussolini and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie a way out of a war which was not especially promising for either of them. More importantly, it would have precluded Hitler’s wooing a disgraced Mussolini away from the allies who had allowed his misstep to become an embarrassment.

Put simply, the plan would have given Mussolini a portion of Ethiopia, with which he could declare victory and promote Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel to the rank of Emperor. In exchange for this territorial concession, the remainder of Ethiopia would be left intact and independent, and spared the further ravages of a continued war. Unfortunately, a French official gave copies of the plan to a pair of reporters. Details of it were published in the Daily Telegraph in London, and by two papers in Paris.

As a work of statesmanship, the plan was unparalleled, and, since everybody got something, it typified what Laval had always sought in every dispute he’d had to arbitrate. But in Britain and France, as well as in the US, the public perceived it as what it was: a compromise. In strictly moral terms, it was utterly wrong.

On December 17th, Laval’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. By December 27th, Paul Reynaud, leading the conservative Democratic Alliance, and Léon Blum, leading the Socialists, had joined the opposition against him, and the vote of confidence they called for was even closer than it had been ten days earlier.

On January 22nd, 1936, while Laval himself was in Geneva, the Radical-Socialist Party withdrew its support, and his government fell. On January 24th, Albert Sarraut was named Prime Minister of France.

* * *

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, June 30th, 1936, Edvard Beneš, President of the Assembly, called the meeting to order, and then resigned. Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland, came forward to take his place and continued with the next order of business, an appeal to the League from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Although Italy had withdrawn its delegation from the League on May 12th, 1936, there were still journalists from Italy in the audience. They began jeering the moment Selassie was introduced. Nicolae Titulescu, the permanent representative of Romania to the League, immediately stood and shouted, “A la Porte, les Sauvages![2]” When the offending parties had been removed, Selassie began speaking[3].

“I, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to us,” he began. “There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor.”

For the first several minutes, he summarized the atrocities which had occurred in the aggression against his nation, reminding the League that they themselves had defined Italy’s actions as aggression, and condemned them, but taken no real action to end them. And he assured the League that the atrocities which had been reported to them were factual; that he had witnessed them himself.

In the concluding minutes of his address, he explained that the League’s concern was really no longer the survival of Ethiopia, but of the League itself, and that international morality was at stake. “Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set the terrible precedent of bowing before force?” he asked. “And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take?

“I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of a head of State,” he concluded. “What reply shall I have to take back to my people?”

The League of Nation’s only response was a decision by the League Council, on July 4th, to suspend economic sanctions against Italy. Fighting in Ethiopia had ended sixty days earlier.

* * *

italian troops in ethipioa with mussolini flag

Ethiopia was the final African nation to be subdued by a European power. Italy had last attempted this subduction forty years earlier, but on March 1, 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated and humiliated the Italians at the battle of Adwa. At that time, there were public disturbances in every Italian city, and full-scale riots in both Naples and Rome. Police were unable to disperse the crowd that continuously threw rocks at Prime Minister Crispi’s office, and when the army was sent to quell the riot, civilians barricaded the rail lines, preventing the army from intervening. Crispi resigned on March 14th, 1896, and King Umberto declared a national day of mourning.

* * *

In 1936, Italy was again humiliated, even though Ethiopia had been defeated. Italy’s mismanagement of the war in the first several months allowed the Ethiopians to inflict heavy casualties and impede Italian advances, in spite of being poorly equipped and inadequately supplied. When Mussolini resorted to the widespread use of poison gas against civilians and non-military targets, the profound American goodwill Air Marshal Balbo had established at Chicago in 1933 was irretrievably lost, and throughout 1936, at every theater in the US, if Haile Selassie appeared in a newsreel, the audience applauded and cheered.

And while most Italians were pleased and proud to be citizens of what was now an empire, even such a limited war was beyond Italy’s capacities. Mussolini had blamed economic hardships on the League of Nations embargo, but it had been largely ineffective, and once it was lifted, it became increasingly clear that Italy would not soon recover from building its empire, and could never recover the costs incurred by Mussolini’s disastrous victory.

* * *

That Edvard Beneš resigned as President of the Assembly on June 30th, 1936, was not coincidence. He was also President of Czechoslovakia, a country whose independence and sovereignty were guaranteed, as Ethiopia’s had been, by Britain and France.

[1] Except for the specific portion of Ethiopia ceded to Italy, Breckinridge Long, US ambassador to Italy, had drawn up an identical plan immediately prior to the Italian invasion.

[2] Show those hooligans the door. Literally, To the door, these savages. King Carol of Romania removed Titulescu from all official assignments shortly afterward.

[3] He spoke in Amharic. The quotations are from a translated text.