Book Review – Mark Thompson’s The White War

I never thought much about Italy’s experience in the First World War. What I knew about it was an offhand remark from the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, who was emasculated on “a joke front like the Italian”. I knew Erwin Rommel had first come to glory there, putting into practice the theories of warfare that would drive German success early in World War Two, at a time before those theories had even crystallized. And I knew that Italy performed in-line with jokes about its military incompetence..

But it turns out there is a remarkable and important story to be told about the Italian front. I only happened on it by chance in the remaindered section of the Harvard Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Mark Thompson’s The White War for $5, after it had likely sat ignored on the history shelves in the same way that “history buffs” like me tend to ignore its subject matter.

In the main, Thompson’s book fulfills its most important obligation: it tells an interesting and unfamiliar story, and it tells it very well. The White War is stocked with scarcely believable characters, like the proto-Fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who styled himself as the poet laureate of the Italian right and was basically allowed to treat the battlefield as a kind of muse-for-hire. One day he is seen giving pep talks to headquarters staff, the next he is flying over Austrian lines, dropping propaganda leaflets. The next time he pops up, he is arranging some kind of absurd raid to capture a distant castle and raise the Italian flag over its ramparts, thereby boosting morale across the entire front.

In a way, a character like D’Annunzio is laughable, and stereotypically Italian. Look at him bluster, look at his vainglory. Look at this failure.

But the horror of Thompson’s book is that millions of men and women were caught up in this joke, and at the mercy of the pure viciousness that lay behind the strutting vainglory. As the Italian raid on the Austrian castle fell apart at a river crossing, under heavy Austrian fire, stranded Italian troops began advancing toward the Austrians to surrender. D’Annunzio, watching from across the river, was disgusted by their “cowardice” and orders the artillery to execute a fire mission against the Italian “traitors”. And such was the poet’s power in this Italian army that the batteries did indeed open fire and on the victims of D’Annunzio’s own folly.

But all that pales next to the character of Luigi Cadorna, a general whose name I had never heard prior to this book.

Discovering Cadorna and his place in the annals of history’s worst commanders is like discovering there is an extra planet in the solar system that nobody ever mentions. He’s so profoundly awful, as a general and as a human being, that the mind reels.

In fact, The White War warms to its task as Thompson really begins dissecting Cadorna’s record, and shifts focus from the front lines to the rear echelons and headquarters. Cadorna revealed himself to be an ineffectual martinet in the opening stages of the war, as he squandered massive opportunities and then, for good measure, squandered immense numbers of lives trying to crack impregnable Austrian positions across the Alps. Yet he was so arrogant, and so coddled by an Italian government that feared his prestige, that he was neither shaken by his failures nor fearful of their consequences.

But as the war dragged on, Cadorna’s lack of accountability and belief in iron discipline began going to darker and darker places, and Thompson follows right along. Cadorna, so contemptuous of the soldiers he was charged with leading, became convinced that Italian setbacks were due to poor morale, poor discipline, and outright cowardice.

His solution, at first, was limited to trying to remake the Italian soldiery in his image: ascetic, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to duty. Soldiers barely received any leave and, on the rare occasions their units were rotated off the front lines, they were sent not for R&R but for hard-labor behind the lines, lest they become soft. The theory was that soldiers should greet their return to the front with zeal and relief, and go about each day without a thought of home and peacetime pursuits.

But as years of hopeless slaughter took their toll (Thompson’s descriptions of combat along the varied and universally forbidding terrain of the Austro-Italian border are frequently jaw-dropping, like when he describes Italian “lines” where soldiers were living in tents anchored to cliff faces), the Italian troops became increasingly hopeless and their performance seemingly declined. There were more instances of indiscipline and routing.

Cadorna escalated matters, taking a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach, instituting an entirely extralegal regime of summary executions for all manner of infractions, to be pursued at the discretion of officers in the field. Courts martial, he decided, were too lenient for the weak, slovenly Italian army. He openly called it a policy of decimation.

The incidents Thompson brings to light are shocking. Cadorna is a real-life version of General Broulard in Paths of Glory, only far worse than even Stanley Kubrick could plausibly make out. Under his regime, subordinate commanders began looking for reasons to execute soldiers, so that they could demonstrate their fealty and zeal to the generalissimo’s vision.

In one gut-twisting example, Italy’s Ravenna Brigade “mutinies” when it discovers it is being sent back to the line after only a short respite. A few drunk soldiers fire guns in the air, and many soldiers refuse to go. Then the assistant division commander and brigade CO hear out the men’s grievances, summon military police to restore order, and pack the brigade on its way.

Except the division commander and eventually the corps commander get wind of the incident and began demanding executions. First a handful of men are shot and then, as each higher-ranking officer hears of the incident, ever more executions are demanded. In the end, Thompson writes, “29 men died to punish a minor rebellion in one battalion that lasted a few hours, causing no casualties.” (p. 265)

This is just one, unusually well-documented example, Thompson writes. The actual death toll for Cadorna’s summary executions goes as high as 750, if not higher.

Months later, in the autumn of 1917, Cadorna was stunned when a joint German-Austrian offensive hammered his lines at Caporetto and his army collapsed, with entire formations refusing to obey his order to fight to the death.

The Undertow of Progress

This would all make for a riveting account of a disastrous military campaign, but what elevates The White War is Thompson’s broader interest in Italian politics and culture. Cadorna as a general is a villain. But Cadorna’s absolute authority in Italy, his aimless brutality…. all these are harbingers of what is to come.

Over the course of The White War, Thompson shows the seeds of Fascism taking root in a soil rich with political, social, and cultural dysfunction. Italy, a young state in 1915, immediately began drifting toward militaristic hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism as soon as war was declared. The press was promptly muzzled, and happily went along with the policy of official censorship. Civilians were denounced and jailed for defeatism and lack of patriotism. Italy would not become formally fascist until 1924, but its slide in that direction started early in the war.

This had real consequences during the war and lent Italy’s ultimate victory a toxic legacy. There were always more delusions and excuses that enabled Cadorna’s mismanagement of the war. Socialist agitators sapped the soldiers of their will to fight. Italy’s allies weren’t helping enough. Unpatriotic politicians were shaking the army’s belief in itself every time they raised questions about the campaign. The soldiers were weak, lazy, ignorant who broke faith when victory was at hand. Each of these stories became a part of the right-wing’s founding myth of fascist Italy.

Cadorna himself was called “Il Duce” long before Mussolini (who lurks at the margins of his narrative, a minor player in the unfolding political drama, and not yet sure of his own beliefs). He was actively indulgent of suggestions that he be made dictator. Cocooned by a restricted press that parroted his own propaganda back at him, and a quiescent general staff that had been conditioned to flattery and mimicry, Cadorna became convinced of these “facts” that he’d helped invent.

Thompson also shows how Cadorna’s mindless credos, his oft-disproven and oft-repeated belief in the power of the offensive and the “irresistible spirit” of a good army, had their underpinnings in a widely-shared, somewhat incoherent set of beliefs called vitalism, which valued intuition personal character over intellect or material goods. In an insightful and important passage that helps explain the entire era, he writes:

“Vitalism appealed to the anti-intellectual bent of intellectuals who already doubted the rationalist rules of their game. Trapped in the vast dynamics of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, industrialisation and commerce, and by the theories of natural evolution, human history and the unconscious mind discovered by Darwin, Marx and Freud, what room was left for individual reason and moral will? How should men not succumb to the dark currents running below Progress (justly called ‘the political principle of the nineteenth century’), namely a gnawing sense of degeneration and impotence, merging fear of technology with fear of women? In hindsight, vitalism was a resistance movement, a late-romantic defence of the individual male and his solitary resources, a consolation after the ‘death of God’ in the mid-nineteenth century and before the birth of ‘human rights’ after 1945. For the vitalist vision is self-deifying, promising to restore mankind to his rightful place in the scheme of things, able to master all species and materials through mystical life-force.” (p. 229-230)

This is a passage that immediately helps crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into World War I, and even more of what came out of it. It’s fascinating that the Italian Front provides such a perfect window into the 20th century, in Thompson’s telling.

The ultimate tragedy of The White War, beyond all the lives lost, is that Thompson convincingly demonstrates that this incoherent mix of self-loathing and denial never really left Italy. Italy, a young country at the time of World War 1, was traumatized by its monumental failures against the Austrians. It promoted the idea that Italy itself was broken and needed to be fixed, and Fascism took advantage of that impulse when it sought to rehabilitate the war and sell it as a “founding myth” of Mussolini’s fledgling empire. When that was discredited, the self-doubt crept back into Italian politics.

In Thompson’s view, Italy is stuck with the memory of Caporetto, and the sudden disintegration of their army, their confidence, their view of themselves as a nation. In one form or another, the Italian front unleashed forces and beliefs that have twisted Italian politics ever since.

Flickering Lights

Last week my back gave out. In the space of a few minutes I went from a minor twinge in my lower back to significant pain. A few hours later I was in absolute agony, trapped in bed and unable to so much as lift my head or shift my legs.

At its worst, I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at all. I debated waiting and seeing how things unfolded, versus calling for an ambulance to take me to the emergency room. I contemplated the jar next to the bed, and whether I’d have to use it or whether I might manage to escape the bed long enough to make it to the bathroom. I looked at my ceiling and counted the screws in the old, sealed and painted-over light fixture. Two of them. Flatheads. I counted them again. They were still a pair of flathead screws. I started to fantasize about having a screwdriver and making them turn. About what a fixture would look like up there, and what I’d want it to be.

I turned the pages on my Nook, dimly aware of what I was reading. A Warhammer 40K novel about the crippled Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor. I thought about his character trapped in a chair, a mind roaming free but pinned to a ruined body. Then I’d think about how tired my arms were, holding the reader over my head. I’d plan my next move. Maybe I’d try and wriggle a few inches toward the wall, so I could get my head propped a bit. Not yet, it still hurt too much, but maybe in an hour.

Eventually things started to get better. A friend called, a physical therapist, and she told me what was probably going on and how to start fixing it. Some videos followed a few minutes later, showing me how to do things like get out of bed without screaming. She said I had to get out of bed: standing and moving was the only thing that was going to help. I mentioned that was going to be tough and got a glimpse of her professional side: understanding but also uninterested.

“Yeah, it’s going to suck. Get out of bed.”

She was right, of course. With MK’s help I was able to stand and start shuffling around the apartment. It hurt. A lot, and then a bit less. And then less after that. Enough that I could even start to joke about it.

I guess I’d say I was startled. Not by the injury, really. The truth is I probably should have seen this coming. I have lived in my office chair since September, pulling ever-longer days on oh-so-urgent work and professional play. I kept waking up with a stiff lower back, a pain that was in no way normal but became normal through habituation. My weight was slowly but steadily increasing, well beyond any numbers I was comfortable with.

But all of this was trouble for later. I needed to work, needed to make money. After that, I could address all the other things I was letting go to hell in my life. I never noticed that there was no “after”. That I was saving health, fitness, and rest for a time that would never arrive, because work never ends. So when my body finally shut me down, I wasn’t surprised. It was almost part of the plan.

But what did surprise me was how quickly my life reoriented itself around my health. How everything that had been important on Monday was irrelevant and forgotten by Wednesday night. Unlike anything else, it revealed how distorted my perspective has become over the last year. Work that I thought was urgent, too important to be delayed even an hour, was set aside indefinitely without a second thought. Editors that, in my head, I imagined as waiting impatiently for my next draft were the first people to tell me to forget about work and not to worry. In the space of 48 hours my overbooked and stressful life became simple and uncluttered.

Nobody wanted me to hurt myself. Nobody needed anything so badly that I should put it ahead of my well-being. All of that worry and stress that contributed to this injury proved to be my own creation. Everyone seemed to have a better sense of what my priorities should be than I did.

And as the agony of Tuesday and Wednesday fade into memory, I begin to worry I’ll forget the clarity brought on by a few days of near-paralysis and over a week of pain and discomfort. I worry I’ll forget what healing felt like, what it felt like to put my well-being first. I worry I’ll once again start telling myself that I can’t take a walk or a trip to the gym because it’s more important to publish a preview two hours earlier.

I guess I never really did take my health that seriously, in part because my chosen pursuits and occupation are all mental, not physical. Aches and pains would be nice to live without, but it’s not like I needed to be all that fit to do what I do. My always-limited time seemed like it was better invested in more work, play, and reading. Things that could translate to me being better and more effective at my job.

But having briefly lost my health, I finally see how everything hinges on the physical soundness that I took for granted and abused. There’s no life of the mind when you’re pissing into a jar and thinking, for the first and only time in your life, how nice a catheter would be. There’s no play when you can’t sit down and, even standing, your thoughts keep getting yanked toward the lances of pain shooting through your back and down into your hips.

It all just went away, briefly, like a brownout on an over-capacity powergrid. And as I lay there in the darkness, I realized I would have done anything to have the lights come back on, to have my life once again be about the things I can do, instead of the things I could not.

Go Bid the Soldiers Shoot

We finally retired my Falcon Northwest 2008 Fragbox due to a slowly failing motherboard. My pal Drew drew up some new specs that could recycled the parts that still worked, and I am now once again on a high-end gaming rig. But it was still a bittersweet moment as we retired the old machine, and I was moved to say a few words.

Moments later I sang “Danny Boy” and read some Yeats over the Jameson-soaked case. In memoriam:

The Fragbox FalconWumpus was activated on October 31st after its predecessor Broken Piece of Shit Fragbox failed after two weeks. The first game I played on it was SWAT 4. It was paid for with money from The Escapist and my blind faith that I could get enough work as a freelancer to justify the expense. Through its efforts and stability, running for almost four years with only two or three isolated blue-screens, I was able to focus on writing and gaming. Though gaming slowly left it behind, it never delivered less than adequate performance. It enjoyed a brief renaissance this last year after PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Logan Decker helped with a major upgrade. Our love was renewed over maxed-out Crysis, but it was not to last. It spent its final days playing Max Payne 3 and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and watching StarCraft 2 streams with its family.

It is survived by a GeForce 560 card, a 750W power supply, two hard drives, a Falcon Northwest coffee mug and its freelance writer. It will be a missed.

Rediscovering Reading

I used to read almost a hundred books a year. Sometimes more, but the 80-100 range is where I usually stayed. Funny the things you take for granted. My experience as a child and young adult reader (with sincere but nevertheless slightly affected precocious tastes) was of weekends lost to the pages of books, and of weeknights disappearing into an unexpected dawn as I finally finished the books I could not put down. Then I would creep out of bed and pull away the towel I always stuffed beneath the door in order to keep my parents from spotting the light.

In college, I felt like I read less, but I probably ended up reading even more. I would lock up a booth or a table in my favorite coffee shop for hours on end and retreat to what Prof. Kern called the “historian’s research lab”: stacks of primary and secondary sources, surrounded on all sides by notes. I still miss that active sort of reading, the purposefulness of my college studies. Maybe that is why I almost stopped reading entirely. Once college was over, there was no further need to spend eight hours a day reading and memorizing, and I had almost forgotten other reasons for doing it.

Or maybe I simply got tired of getting bad book suggestions from NY Times reviewers and NPR, two sources that can always be counted on to recommend topical new history that is irrelevant almost as soon as it is published, who seem to love plodding literary fiction, and who seem never to have encountered genre at all. I tried to reserve my time for only the best books, but all I ended up with was a stack of obligations that I didn’t really enjoy.

All that, and then I’ve been busy. I put off reading until I could get some free time for it, except the nature of nearly full-employment is that there are no more long stretches of free time. I can’t cruise by on five hours of sleep a night anymore, and I can’t blow off work to crank through a paperback. So I basically stopped reading.

Not all reading. But books and magazines dropped out of the rotation, and about the only thing I could find time for was articles on the web. A few good blogs, and whatever Twitter said was good. But that’s the kind of reading that doesn’t quite count. The nature of the web itself doesn’t help, of course. Crowded with links and ads, a hundred things on each page clamoring for attention, and that’s before you even look up at the browser tabs and their illusory promise that you really can keep from missing a thing, and that you wouldn’t want to. I was a consumer of content, a voracious one, but not a reader.

Oddly enough, it was my friend J.P. Grant who snapped me out of it, although he didn’t mean to. He simply gifted me with several volumes of Warhammer 40K fiction as a Nook-warming present, a gift that was as much a joke as anything. We love the unrestrained, arch-Gothic gravitas of the Warhammer universe, but I never imagined I would actually want to read more than a few pages set there. But maybe it was the knowledge that I was reading the literary equivalent of junk-food (and we are talking Bugles-and-fried-Twinkies levels of junk-food here) that let me drop all my pretensions, including respect for the written word as something to be consumed in life’s quieter, more thoughtful moments. When you’re reading about Space Marines blowing each others’ heads apart with bolters, or Imperial Commissars enjoying romantic dinner dates with Inquisitors after a hard day of destroying Necron tomb-worlds, you might as well just read the damn thing in whatever fragmented fashion you can manage. It’s not like you’ll want a silent room in which you can enjoy the sound of the prose.

But those books served their purpose: they reminded me how much fun it can be to tear through a novel just to find out what happens next, and how relaxing it is to become absorbed in a story. They also showed me that I do have time to read, just maybe not the way I used to. Most importantly, however, is that they reminded me how nice it is to read without too many expectations, to encounter a book on your own terms without an idea of idea of how you “should” react.

So when I was on vacation this last week, I managed to finish Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy of fantasy novels, and on the flight home I grabbed Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and renewed my acquaintance with Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angie. I’ve got A Dance with Dragons on the table next to me, and after I finish that, I might catch up with Michael Connelly or maybe get started on Terry Pratchett. Hell, there are even some comics I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. I won’t completely abandon my reading list, with its tomes on Russian political philosophers and Irish recession fiction, but I’ll remember that it’s what I get out of reading that matters, not whether I could hold my own at an author’s reading in Manhattan. If it’s a choice between barely reading Important Books or reading lots of enjoyable genre stories, I’ll take my dog-eared paperbacks and impulse Nook purchases. It’s more fun to have stories back in my life.

Break Time

I’m coming up on four years as a freelancer, and in all that time I’m not sure I’ve ever had a proper vacation. Under-employment, which was my status the first two years, is not the same thing as having time off. You have the luxury of taking the day to play games or go hang out in a coffee shop nursing a single latte (they love it when you do that, by the way), but that free time carries feelings of guilt. “Why aren’t you pitching?” is a constant refrain. And if you ever hope to be more than under-employed, chances are you work harder at getting work than you would if you had a steady job.

Anyway, I’m on break now. I didn’t go home for the holidays this year, the first time I’ve not spent Christmas with my family, but it has been the right move.  No travel, no dividing time among families, no coming home in early January more tired than when I left.

So what have I been doing with all this leisure? Well, trying to remember how to enjoy it. The thing about a long-overdue vacation is that you realize all the ways you have let yourself get a little crazy. It’s not just a matter of stopping work and picking up a book. The day after Christmas, I noticed I was tempted to start writing up pitches and get started on some deadlines due in mid-January. Watching people returning to work on Twitter, and half the editors I’ve ever known suddenly getting new gigs, I start to feel like I’m already back at work and I need to start surveying the freelance landscape. It’s even more complicated for me because my home is my office, which is awesome until you realize all your work habits persist right into a break.

So oddly enough, I’m working really hard at not working. I was flat-out exhausted by the end of 2011, and I still need some time before I can get back to fulfilling assignments. My last few months, I felt like the creative part of my work was completely overtaken by the dictates of deadlines and professionalism. If I’m to have a productive and happy year, I need to adjust that balance.

I have plenty of help right now. I’ve spent a lot of this break with friends old and new, and this weekend I’m heading out of town for a weekend of experimental cooking. You can usually find me curled up with a good book and a glass of whiskey, or perhaps I’m under a blanket watching a movie. I just finished Arkham City and will have a lot to say about that soon. Bioshock 2 “Minerva’s Den” and The Witcher both beckon. And I’m even getting a nice walk in just about every day. Who knows, I might even make it to a gym before I head back to work!

But seriously, if it ever looks like I might be working too hard, or I go silent for too long, feel free to drop me a line and let me know I might be overdoing it. Because I find the times I most need a detached perspective are the times when I absolutely lose mine.

 

The Happiest Happy Hour – September 23

Last weekend some friends of ours got married in one of the best ceremonies and celebrations I’ve ever seen, but that wedding also meant two other things. The first is that MK’s summer break was over, and she had to leave to do the second part of her extended internship. It also meant that I didn’t get any work done over that weekend, which meant that three days’ worth of work had to be crammed into Monday and the early part of Tuesday.

I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened on either of those days. I know that for one of them, I started working at 10 am and finished my last assignment after 1 am. A pizza box on the floor of my apartment and a couple receipts from an Indian and Chinese restaurant indicated I somehow ate this week. But really, it’s been a blur of games, printed drafts covered in red ink, screenshot editors, and a blinking text cursor.

But it’s over now, and I have a couple precious days to cook, clean, and work on some pieces for next week. I feel like I just turned in my last final exam, and I half-expect to find my fraternity brothers waiting for me at the campus bar, a rail gin and tonic with my name on it sitting in its little plastic cup.

Instead, though, it’s just me in my living room with two fingers of Johnnie Black on the rocks, and OK Computer on the stereo. Not bad, but I think I could do with loud laughter, crude sex jokes, and Star Trek discussions.

Still, I can only feel happy and relieved. I survived my first week as a PC Gamer blogger, and you can find me every weekday over at pcgamer.com. This week I was just trying to keep the lights on, because this job arrived on short-notice in the middle of a full freelance schedule. I didn’t do any original pieces. That all changes next week, however. I plan on doing a lot more interviews, impressions pieces, and perhaps even some original reporting. I’ll be linking all of it through my Twitter. Longer, meatier pieces I will link here, on my Work page.

For a moment, then, all is right withe the world. Lara Crigger and I were laughing about how long it takes, and what a huge milestone it is, for a freelancer to break the poverty line. I think I’m there and if things keep up like they are right now, I might actually be making the equivalent of a decent starting salary in a real career.

This, by the way, is why you are unlikely to find me writing anything about how to become a games writer. Until this year, my fourth, I did not earn enough to entirely support myself.  I have a long way to go before I would even be able to contemplate supporting a wife or a child on my own. I say that only because careers are supposed to provide a measure of independence for you and security for those you love. As yet, my work does not. I think it will, eventually, but every time things start going well, some outlet is closed or an editor cancels a regular gig. That’s another part of the freelancer’s life.

I don’t recommend it. If you can do something else, do that, because “making it” means working incredibly hard just for the chance of maybe making a living wage. Knowing that major sources of income could vanish with a couple emails.

Me, I can’t do anything else. Maybe someday. But not today. Today I am proud of my work, and am looking forward to Monday.