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."
Showing posts with label WWI. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WWI. Show all posts

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."  

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Age Of Exterminations (II) -- How to Exterminate the Young

In 2018, I published a book titled The Shadow Line of Memory." It was the biography of an Italian intellectual, Armando Vacca, who did his best to fight for peace at the beginning of the Great War. He was eventually defeated and punished by being sent to the most dangerous frontline of that time, where he survived for no more than a couple of weeks. That book led me to study the story of how propaganda managed to win the hearts and minds of the Italians in 1914-15, resulting in Italy joining the war. The ensuing disaster is not usually listed as an "extermination," but the Italian losses amounted to close to one-third of the young men of military age at that time. If this was not an extermination, what was it? And I think there were deep reasons for it to occur. I thought I could propose this story to you now. You may find something in it that may help you understand a few apparently unrelated things that are happening nowadays. 

The power of propaganda is immense. It is so strong especially because people don't realize that they are embedded in it and the things that propaganda makes them do look like the most natural and obvious ones.  It was Baudelaire who said, "the devil's best trick is to convince people that he does not exist."

So, here is a story of a triumph of propaganda: how it convinced most Italians in 1914-15 that it was a good idea to go to war against their neighbors, the Austrians in one of the greatest follies of history, what our ancestors called, rightly, "The Great War."  

It all started when, in July 1914, a Serbian madman shot an Austrian Archduke. That caused the Great Powers of the time to attack each other in a sort of large-scale domino game. Austria attacked Serbia, Germany attacked France, Russia attacked Austria, and more. 

And Italy? It is a story poorly known outside Italy, but interesting for many reasons. Italy at that time was a nation of peasants, its economy was weak, and its military power limited. Sometimes, it was called the "proletarian nation," in contrast with the Northern "plutocracies," Britain and others. Italy was poor, but secure inside its borders: protected by the sea and by the Alps. No need to go to war against anyone. 

True, Italy had a grudge with Austria that had to do with some lands at the border that Italians believed were part of Italy. But Austria was already fighting on two fronts, Russia and Serbia. Its government surely would concede something to Italy rather than risk opening a third front. There is evidence that, indeed, Austria offered Italy to return part of these lands in exchange for Italy remaining neutral. 

Yet, less than one year after the start of the Great War, Italy had joined the allied powers and was at war with Austria. It was one of the most impressive examples in history of how propaganda can affect an entire nation. An avalanche of hate that engulfed everyone and everything. 

When in 1914 some people started claiming that Italy should have attacked Austria, their statements looked unreal, silly. What mad idea was that? Italy was not a great power: it had no interests to defend, no empire to create, no threat to fear. It had everything to gain by remaining neutral. The government was against the war. The Socialists were appalled at the idea that the Italian workers would fight their comrades of other countries. The Catholics couldn't accept the idea of a Catholic country, Italy, attacking another Catholic country, Austria. It just made no sense. 

But the war party refused to listen. Slowly, the voices for war increased in volume and in diffusion. It was an asymmetric struggle: on one side there was reason, on the other emotion. And, as usual, emotion beats reason. Italy, it was said, cannot afford to lose this occasion to show the bravery of its citizens. The idea of negotiations with Austria was rejected with an incredible vehemency. Italians, it was said, do not ask for what is theirs, they take it! Blood, yes, there was to be blood. It is a good thing: blood is sacred, it must be spilled for the good of the country!

When I was writing my book on this story, I spent much time reading the Italian newspapers of 1914-1915. It was fascinating and horrifying at the same time: I got the distinct impression of an evil force rising. It seemed to me that I was reading of the return of ancient rituals, rites involving bloody human sacrifices. Especially impressive was the story of a young Catholic intellectual, GiosuĂ© Borsi, who became so intoxicated with propaganda that he came to believe that it was God's will that he should kill Austrians. He volunteered, and survived for just a few days in the trenches. Truly, it was as if a malevolent entity was masterminding the whole thing. Maybe evil Chthonic deities do exist? 

Incredibly, this wave of evil grew to engulf the whole Italian media of the time. The Socialists ceased to oppose the war and some of their leaders, such as Benito Mussolini, switched to promote it. The Catholics, too, gradually joined the voices of those who were arguing for war, apparently believing that contributing to the war effort would give them more political power. During the "Radiant May" of 1915, young Italians marched in the streets to request that the government would send them to die. And the government complied, declaring war on Austria on May 24th. 

And the opponents? Those evil pacifists who had tried to argue against war? They were insulted, denigrated, and finally silenced. The war party succeeded in convincing everybody that Italy had not just one enemy, but two. An external enemy, Austria, and an internal enemy, the pacifists. They were the Austria-lovers, the spies, the traitors, the monsters who menaced the Italian people with their dark machinations. They were also smelling bad, they were dirty, and they ate disgusting food. When the war started, it was the time of reckoning for them. No more excuses: if they were of military age, they had to enlist in the army. 

We have no direct proof that there was a specific policy to send pacifists to die in the most dangerous areas of the front. But we know that it was what happened to some of them, including Armando Vacca, the person whose biography I wrote in my book. Instead, those on the other side of the debate were privileged. Mussolini, for instance, was sent to a quiet area of the frontline. From there, he emerged slightly wounded by the malfunctioning of an Italian artillery piece, and with the fame of a war hero.

We know what was the result of this folly: summing up direct casualties, the dispersed, and the wounded, Italy suffered more than two million lossesabout a third of the males of military age at that time (as a bonus, add some 600,000 losses among civilians). Austria suffered similar losses.  You don't want to call it an extermination? If not, what was it?

The power of propaganda is well known, but there are many ways for it to appear. In the case of the United States, we know that in 1917 the government decided to intervene in the Great War to protect its investments in Europe. That implied creating and financing a propaganda campaign to convince the American public. The campaign involved creating the "Committee for Public Information," possibly the first Government propaganda agency of the 20th century. The techniques the committee developed were imitated many times in later history, especially by the German Nazis. 

How about in Italy? We have evidence that Mussolini's campaign for war was financed by some Italian financial lobbies, people who wanted to make a profit out of the war. But, on the whole, there was nothing similar to the Committee for Public Information. So, how could the pro-war propaganda be so successful?

I came to think that there was a reason for the extermination of so many young men. It was because the Italian society wanted to exterminate them.

Of course, it was not planned, it was never mentioned and, most likely, it was not even a thought that was entertained by those who pushed so enthusiastically for war. But the human mind functions in subtle ways and very little of what it does is because of some rational chain of concepts. 

Why do people kill? Most often, they kill what they are afraid of. So, could Italians be afraid of their own young? It could be. I came to think that it was, actually, likely. 

Go see the population curve of Italy before WWI. It is a nearly perfect pyramid. At that time, Italy had about 6 million males of military age, about 15% of the Italian population. What were these young men doing? What were they thinking? What did they want? Those who were in power at that time had good reasons to think that they would want their share of the national wealth.

Indeed, those were times of social and economic tensions, with Socialism and Communism claiming that a popular revolution would bring all the power to the people. And who would revolt against the current order if not those young men? Then, it made sense to get rid of as many of them as possible by sending them to die in great numbers on those remote mountains. 

As a strategy, it could have backfired. It did in Russia, where the result of WWI was that Communism took power. In Italy, the years after the war saw a Communist revolution nearly starting, but it was quelled by the ascent of Fascism. As always, history is not made with "ifs." What had to happen, happened. 

Whatever the cause, the great wheel of history started moving in 1914, and it didn't care who was going to be squashed into a pulp under it. Maybe the ancient Chthonic Gods of war were driving that wheel. Maybe they still exist, even though nowadays they seem to have taken different forms. Propaganda, for sure, can still do its job with the same methods: denigrate, demonize, insult, and scare people. It works. You can see it at work right now. 


A reflection on the long term trends of propaganda

Propaganda in its modern form didn't exist up to a few centuries ago. In a not too remote future, it might cease to exist as well. Even right now, things are changing in the belly of the great beast that we call the memesphere.

Propaganda was so effective during the 20th century because the memesphere was vertically organized. At the time of WWI, for the more than 50% of the Italians who could read and write, there was no other significant source of information other than newspapers, and their number was limited. Then, as now, just a few newspapers had national diffusion and if they all took the same position, they would control the memesphere. 

The information people obtain in a vertical network is like rain falling: you can try to avoid getting wet using an umbrella, but you can't choose the moment when it rains or not. So, the Italian memesphere of a century ago acted like an organism, a giant societal brain that had to choose between war and peace. It could not stand in between: it had to decide on one thing or the other. And it was so tightly integrated that it acted as a whole -- there was no possibility of parts of it opting out. Those who tried to do that, the pacifists, were neutralized or exterminated.

The memesphere of today is not so different. People still rely for their information mostly on the equivalent of the newspapers of one century ago: what we call the "Media" -- entities that mediate between reality and the people. But it is also true that things have been changing and that communication is now much more horizontal than it used to be.

Reality is not what you read in the media. Reality is what you see and what the people you trust tell you they saw. You can use Heinlein's terminology: reality is what you grok yourself, or you are told by an impartial witness. This kind of horizontal communication is a different organization of the memesphere. It is today the galaxy of entities we call "social media" -- a misnomer because they are NOT media. Social media involve direct, horizontal communication among people, it is not "mediated." The "bubbles" that people who think alike create in social media are often criticized and reviled as dens of conspirationists, but they are exactly what the game is about. These bubbles are virtual holobionts embedded in the larger organism of the memesphere. If you create an internet bubble, a network of people who think in the same way, then this group is impermeable to propaganda. It is not a bug, it is a feature of the new memesphere.

You see how things are changing from how desperately the powers that be are trying to take control of the Web using censorship: the devil is not able anymore to convince people that he doesn't exist. Will the pacifists (or their modern equivalent) be exterminated again? Maybe. But maybe not. The great wheel of history keeps moving. It is not following a plan, it is not driven by evil deities: there is nobody driving it and it is creating its path as it follows it. And, as always, it doesn't care about those who are squashed into a pulp under it as it rolls onward. Change is the only thing that never changes.