Friday, March 9, 2012

Inside the War

(Published in Civiltà fascista, January 1936)

By Indro Montanelli

I am not in Asmara. I state this to avoid any misunderstanding: both for personal dignity as a soldier, and to correct—where necessary—my, or our, colossal ignorance of events.

[...]

Those of us who are fighting in the war can not offer testimonies about the war in general, because we see only our short and variable sector, which is always of limited importance. We can only offer testimonies about "our" war, how we see it and what we expect. But will not such a testimony somewhat disappoint the metropolitan readers if we say that this war so far has been little more than a simple guerrilla war—not by our choice—and that we ourselves are rather disappointed? The reality down here is such that it has created an authentic psychological imbalance between the Italians of the two continents. Those who write to us should take this into account, but this is perhaps an inhuman expectation.

Let us therefore reduce our wishes to this alone: that the warlike eloquence of the Motherland better adapt itself to the reality of our situation. As a commanding officer of Eritrean troops—which constitutes the truly "funny" aspect of this war—I declare that nothing is more inaccurate than the reports of "lightning-advances", "square legions", "dazzling offensives" and other literary garnish which is printed in our daily press. Never before have we heard such exaggerated words...

[...]

What do we think of European affairs, as they are referred to in metropolitan epistolography? Nothing. They do not even enter our minds. England and the League of Nations are things which do not interest us.

Once, when we were in the Adua sector, news arrived—fabricated, no one knows how or by whom—that we were changing course and marching against a different enemy. An improvised banquet was held, during which, to be honest, we were much more concerned with eating than with talking, since we had been without food for several days. Eventually the Battalion Commander rose and said simply, as is his custom: "I am sure that the Battalion will do its duty against the new enemy, as it has done up to now. Long live the king!"

Based on what we have seen, what do we think of the Abyssinians, as soldiers? We've barely seen them! So far we occasionally see some remnants of fugitive bands. And it is our conviction and our fear that we will never see them en masse. Perhaps we are wrong, but in any case our contempt for the Abyssinians—as soldiers—is great. As bandits, we consider them quite bold and surprisingly fast. They act with a certain precision and only rarely are caught. They are the same ones who, after half an hour, circulate among our ranks, as friends, and bow down on the ground when we pass.

Coming here as a soldier, I was prohibited in advance from any criticism. And so, none of my words should be interpreted as such. I limit myself only to these simple observations:

1) Our conduct towards these populations is extraordinarily mild.

2) The Italian soldier, taken individually, well exceeds racial dignity.

The first point can be justified by our diplomatic needs and by the fact that the world has its eyes on us. This does not concern me. The second however, if one can sin by defect, is a serious one and is a symptom of a shortcoming which must be immediately corrected. There are two racisms: a European one—and this we leave to the blondes on the other side of the Alps to concern themselves with; and an African one—and this is a racism which, if we do not yet know it, we must quickly learn it and adopt it. We will never be dominators unless we have a strong consciousness of our predestined superiority. One must not fraternize with negroes. One can not do it, one must never do it. At least not until they learn some civilization. I speak as a commander of black troops; by now I am attached to them and am as fond of them as I am of my family. But we must not give in to sentimentality. Moreover, it does not require any Freudian psychological intuition to realize that natives love whites only because they fear them or because they realize that whites are infinitely superior to themselves. No indulgences, no love affairs. Keep in mind that many families—our families—are going to settle here. The white man must be the master. Any sentimentalism that could jeopardize this must be disposed of.

My Battalion and I defeated everyone in the Tigray region, from west to east. I estimate—and I am a farmer and therefore a bit of a connoisseur—that some millions of Italians could live throughout the region here, even if not comfortably at first. But this "uncomfortability" pleases me: this land will finally be the necessary training ground for tough, callous and sublime Italians. The harsh climate will no longer be a mere word or invocation.

Except for a few halfwits, none of us wants the war to end. It may sound silly, but it is true. We soldiers have only one desire: to continue, to finally grab a hold of this elusive enemy and strangle it. We'd do it without flinching. All of us, more or less, have had a small taste of fire, and we already know what it is. We wish to settle accounts, and it seems to us that diplomatic channels would never lead to a real settlement. I will say, moreover: we sometimes feel a strange attitude towards aviation and artillery, who, with their admirable preliminary actions to our advances, annihilate everything in our path and almost always render our duty useless.

Except for some halfwits, none of us believe that a peace treaty—whatever it may be—can conclude our task here. We do not expect to be here for months, but for years. This is a boundless land, and not easy to tame. It will impose a very strict selection, it will be a rather harsh test which, in order to overcome, will require superhuman energies, both physically and morally.

This may bring a smile to those who are not on the front. But the Italians who see Africa from afar or who have a certain British-like metropolitan attitude, can do without coming or staying here. They can go back to Via Veneto...