The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Friday, November 4, 2022

Ukraine: The Battle for Flat Mountain


Monte Piana ("Flat Mountain") in the Italian Alps. A bloody and protracted battle was fought there during WWI between the forces of Italy and of Austria-Hungary. One more example of how often history rhymes. This ancient battle may tell us something about the current situation in Ukraine

Monte Piana in Northern Italy is a place that deserves to be seen, It is a strange mountain with a flat plateau at the top, located in the middle of the rugged Dolomite Mountains. An eerie place that still maintains relics of the bloody battles that were fought there between 1915 and 1917. 

There is a dirt road that takes you to the top, at over 2200 meters in height. There, you can walk along the gentle slope of the plateau, an area of less than one square km. It is difficult to imagine how so many people could have fought and died for that chunk of land. And yet, it happened. The number of casualties is unknown, but it is estimated as between 10,000 and 20,000, some say many more. If the ghosts of all the dead were to congregate together on the plateau, they would form a crowd of the density that you may see in a city park on a warm Sunday. Maybe they do that on moonless nights. 

On the plateau, there is very little left of the great battles of more than a century ago. You can see shallow depressions on the ground that, probably, mark the hits of artillery shells. There are traces of old trenches and fortifications, wood splinters that, probably, were part of barracks or fences. It takes a certain degree of imagination to picture in your mind how life must have been for those men who found themselves stranded there, surrounded by spectacular mountains. A scenario of incredible beauty. The kind of beauty that kills. 

The story of the battles of Monte Piana is simple: it was an open-air slaughterhouse. The Austrians occupied the North Side, the small plateau, while the Italians occupied the Southern side, the larger one, The two plateaus were separated by a natural trench that marked the boundary of the two sides during most of the war. The Italians would resupply their forces, and bring back the wounded and the dead, using a road that they built expressly for that purpose (it still exists). The Austrians would do the same on the other side, using a precarious cable car that arrived at the top.   

The problem for both sides was that they were in the range of the artillery pieces placed on nearby mountains. Howitzer shells continuously battered the area and that forced both armies to build tunnels in the sides of the mountain, where they would be reasonably safe. But some soldiers had to man the trenches on the plateau, and that meant crouching down all the time, trying to make themselves as small as possible, hoping that the next shell would kill someone else. They could do little more than wait until their unit, reduced to a small fraction of its initial strength, was replaced with a fresh one. 

On that miniature battlefield, the Italians were more aggressive than the Austrians and, every once in a while, the survivors of the artillery barrage were told to run toward the enemy with their bayonets. A run toward death: every time, they were mowed down by the Austrian machine guns; one of the slits from where they fired was still there when I visited the plateau, a few years ago. Sometimes, the Italians would be able to gain a foothold in the Northern Plateau. They were always repulsed by an Austrian counterattack. 

What's most impressive about this story is how futile it all was. Even assuming that one of the two sides could have conquered the whole plateau (and both did for short periods during the early months of the war), they could not have kept it, and in any case, it would have been useless. Anything placed there in the open would have been blown up to smithereens by the howitzers placed on higher ground around. So, why engage in that absurd battle? Why, instead, not use the troops to fight somewhere where there was a chance to break through the enemy lines? But I can imagine the headquarters of both sides: could someone propose to retreat and leave the plateau to the enemy? Unthinkable: it is a question of National honor. 

And so, the slaughter went on for about 2 years. Then, in late 1917, the Austrians broke through the Italian lines at Kobarid (a city that the Italians call "Caporetto") and nearly succeeded in knocking Italy out of the war. The retreating Italian army abandoned Monte Piana and the Austrians occupied it without fighting. About one year later, the starved and demoralized soldiers of the Austrian Empire marched back North. It was now the turn of the Italians to occupy the Monte Piana plateau without fighting. The whole story was futile as it could possibly have been.

I searched the Web for contemporary images of the battle for Monte Piana, but I couldn't find any. In the Italian press, you find almost nothing about the events on the plateau, except for occasional reports of the heroic death of someone there. It seems that two years of useless slaughter went unrecorded and nearly unknown. Not too surprising, since there was nothing to report except about failed attacks to conquer positions that were not worth conquering anyway. So, in terms of the futility of battles, you may take a look at this clip from "Return to Cold Mountain," which shows a scene that may have been similar to the battle for Monte Piana: a massed bayonet attack against a well-defended higher position. Beautiful music, stunning scenery, it may give us some idea of what the futile attacks against the trenches of Monte Piana were.

And now, let's see if this sad story can teach us something about current events. Compare the absurd battle of Monte Piana with the current one, just as absurd, in Ukraine. In both cases, we have a flat area where the fight is dominated by long-range weapons. It was artillery on Monte Piana, it is still artillery nowadays, although more precise, and more long-range, with drones dominating the battlefield. So, the battle has taken very much the aspect of what was World War I. Trenches, soldiers standing there while battered by the enemy artillery, little or no chance to maneuver using tanks or other mobile weapons. The times of Guderian's panzergruppen of WWII seem to be gone, perhaps forever. Recently, the Ukrainians have gained some territory by massing troops on specific objectives along the battle line, but it seems to have cost them dearly. In a certain way, the Ukrainians are behaving like the Italians at Monte Piana, attacking, while the Russians are playing the role of the Austro-Hungarians, defending and counterattacking. 

Of course, history never repeats itself, but there is some rhyming, here. If things go nowadays as they went during WWI, the battle in Ukraine will be completely futile, a useless slaughter of young men on both sides. The war will be decided somewhere else. It will end when one of the two sides, NATO or Russia, collapses economically, just like it happened in WWI -- where the economic collapse of the Central Empires eventually gave the victory to the allies. 

And now? Who will collapse first? Time will tell, but the useless slaughter continues. And history continues to rhyme, as it always does. 

 This post is a condensed version of a section of the book that I published in 2018, titled "La Linea d'Ombra della Memoria" (The Shadow Line of Memory) -- in Italian. It tells the story of a forgotten hero of WWI, but it is a wide-ranging discussion of the history of the "Great War."  


  1. "This [recently volunteered, free of charge, good-will and subliminal messages-free documentary] may tell us something about the current situation in Ukraine" - and what's behind it..

    This [recently volunteered, free of charge, good-will and subliminal messages-free News ] may tell us something about the current, always-bad situation in war-torn Iraq - and what's behind it...

    It talks about arresting few high-rank Iraqi officials who smuggle 5 to 7 trucks loaded with oil daily (yes, 5 to 7 trucks daily)...

    The report doesn't touch on the 7 million barrel of Iraqi oil smuggled daily into the international energy black market - unreported and unpaid for - according to local media reports in the ME...

    Only Exxon and few Iraqi officials - are behind the rare events of bad oil trades in the world today - the rest of the Civilisation is clean - rest assured...

    That includes the rest of the Energy market and Putin - who practically ended up making Russia's oil and natural gas traded only by the energy black market - looted - leaving his people consumed and destroyed by drones...

    A tank takes incalculable amount of Energy to construct over the energy to build the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

    A drone takes incalculable amount of Energy to build - over building a tank.

    That's why humans have built Pyramids first, then a steam engine, then tanks and only after that - drones...

    Stop now Circus Wars and silly "US World War 3 Plans"...

    Overhaul the Magna Carta - adding to it the right for humans to understand what Energy really is:

    "No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can produce sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.
    Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


  2. Well, the cost of the war is part of what drives the economic collapse. Those fighting aren't doing productive economic activities, and those dying never will.

  3. I find this kind of matter-of-factly retelling of war atrocities the most horrifying of all. We’re deeply deranged naked apes, that’s for stark sure 🤦

  4. I find this kind of matter-of-factly retelling of war atrocities the most horrifying of all. We’re deeply deranged naked apes, that’s for stark sure 🤦

  5. My fear here is that the whole stupid Russia-Ukraine thing might escalate to the point where nuclear weapons are used. Once that transpires it's truly game over for us all.

    There can be no question that it is the West that is the main culprit that led us to this whole mess. As pointed out by Chris Hedges, "The West has been baiting Moscow for decades... First, they broke promises not to expand NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany. Then they broke promises not to “permanently station substantial combat forces” in the new NATO member countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Then they broke promises not to station missile systems along Russia’s border. Then they broke promises not to interfere in the internal affairs of border states such as Ukraine, orchestrating the 2014 coup that ousted the elected government of Victor Yanukovich, replacing it with an anti-Russian — fascist aligned — government, which, in turn, led to an 8-year-long civil war, as the Russian populated regions in the east sought independence from Kiev. They armed Ukraine with NATO weapons and trained 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers after the coup. Then they recruited neutral Finland and Sweden into NATO..." Even now the Biden administration is still stubbornly refusing any negotiations with Russia. Quite evidently there are people in the Western world who -- shall I put it frankly -- WANT to see people die. Lots of people. Maybe even the entire planet.

    It ought to count as the Eighth Great Wonder of the World why the West -- and dare I say it, probably the Jews as well -- should find such difficulty in getting along with others. Why can't we just live and let live? The countries of East Asia had been able to do that for more than a millennium. Check out this video.

    The West could learn a thing or two from East Asia. Though I suspect the West is probably too proud to do that. It's a sad world we live in.

  6. Ugo,

    A compelling rhyme.

    And Looking down from the top of the surrounding mountains, the battle on the Monte Piana plateau is about which power will control resources.

    The world had grown to the limits of what coal can do then. Further increase in population would require oil. The mountain battles are about who would be the capitalists who would control the dwindling coal, and the new oil.

    Now the world has grown to the limits of what oil can do. Further maintenance of existing population will require lots of stuff. The Eastern Ukraine battle is about who will be the capitalists who will control the dwindling oil, and the bounty of Siberia. Lots of stuff there. Gas, trees, minerals. Lots of stuff.

    Then as now a hierarchic hegemony of exploitation kills its base from the skies.

  7. Ukraine is an interesting one, what will force the end, will they run out of soldiers to burn as cannon fodder, having ~ a third the population of Russia, will the people of Europe refuse to obey their US master after a certain amount of shivering in the dark while their quality of life evaporates, will Trump return and pull US funding? The only thing that seems certain is the unwavering determination of the US to fight to the last European. Even a scorched-earth sacrifice of our continent in a nuclear incident would be no pain to them with the incentive of taking control of Russia's wealth.

  8. Well, the two situation are a bit different. Ukraine was home to 40 million people. UKrainian fight for their home.