The Honor In War?
By John Ward
Never before have I seen a headless human body run. My mother has. She saw it as she dodged allied bombing in Genova during the Second World War. Yes, I know, that’s a long time ago, seventy four years ago, but still the most destructive war ever to plague our planet. This was the war after The War to End All Wars.
Giuseppina was running with her family to a Sottopassagio, a tunnel under the street, like the entrance to a subway, where they would take shelter when the air-raid sirens started their fearful banshee wail, when she saw the headless man, his body running the last few steps, obeying the final commands of the severed head, before falling to the ground, legs flailing, arms and torso twitching grotesquely.
So many residents of Genova ran to the tunnels under streets, or to the “Gallerias,” the above ground tunnels that ran through the hills of northwest Italy, that there was not always room for everyone.
My grandfather, an idiot, had been a celebrated carpenter in Morocco when the war broke out. He was a master craftsman and he ran a business that made furniture with the delicacy and precision one finds in Thomas Chippendale’s work. Exquisitely seamless, his furniture was bought by Moroccan luminaries, and members of the royal family, including King Hassan, father of the current king. With a reputation for excellent carpentry, you would think he would stay out of the war in a neutral country where his talent was revered and making him an excellent living. However, that irresistible mix of toxins – patriotism and testosterone – got the better of him and he announced to his family that they must return to help Italy in its war effort against the allies.
Not only did he make his family go back to Italy, but he chose Genova, an industrial port city, which would be bombed almost as heavily as Dresden.
The image of the running and twitching headless man was burned into the consciousness of my teen-aged mother and stayed there for the rest of her short life, because she was running herself, trying to get to a shelter.
On one occasion, when the sirens wailed out their terrifying warning, the family decided to go to a “Galleria” instead of the Sottopassagio they usually used as cover. After the bombing stopped the people were allowed to return to their homes. Giuseppina’s family walked through the smoking wreckage past their usual shelter and saw piles of bodies all around the entrance. When they asked one of the men piling the bodies up what had happened, he told them that some idiot had forgotten to unlock the gates at the bottom of the long staircase that night and everyone who ran into the entrance in panic, crushed and suffocated those that had entered first. Those that could not get in were blown to bits. My mother’s family saw this as a sign from God that they were to survive the war, although God did let my infant Uncle Ezio get eviscerated by an allied shell one night.
My mother said: There was a pattern to the bombing. It was always at night.“First you would hear the sirens start howling,” she told me, “then you could hear the low rumble of the big motors, then you heard the pock, pock, pock of the anti-aircraft guns as their shells burst in the air around the bombers. Then came the whistling of the bombs as they fell, an eerie high pitched portent of death, followed by the earth shaking explosions and the screams of the people in the streets.”
The British, who had no bombs to spare always took longer to pick their targets – factories, shipyards, ships, trains and tunnels so the engines rumbled on for a long time before the sound of the whistling bombs. The Americans, who had a greater supply of ordinance, did not stay long in the sky and didn’t bother picking their targets in their haste to leave, so bombs were dropped wherever they could drop them and get away from the flack as quickly as possible.
This resulted in many bombs falling into the city, residential areas, hospitals, parks, schools, etc. It was not purposeful, it was just a pragmatic attempt to bomb and survive and since there was no shortage of ordinance, why take the risk. Since she hadn’t the time to wait until the headless man stopped twitching, he ran on in her mind for as long as she lived. A thin, frightened body still trying to get to safety in a tunnel some place other headless bodies might be sheltering together.
And despite the poetry of people like Rupert Brook and Siegfried Sassoon, who suffered through the First World War and committed their experiences to paper, despite the fact that The First World War was so vicious and barbaric that it was called the “War to End All Wars,” mankind forgot that there is no honour in war, no mercy, no gallantry, no winners, no point, no reason, no justification and we fall into the old belief: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.) F . . . war and those who profit by it!
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