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Armistice Day: On the Blindness of War

To observe Armistice Day, I'd like to remember the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, veteran of the trenches of World War I and arguably Italy's first Modernist poet. Ungaretti grew up in the pre-war Italian enclave of Alexandria, Egypt. In 1912, he left Egypt for Paris to complete his studies at the Sorbonne. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Ungaretti went to Italy and joined the infantry.

With historical distance, Ungaretti's reasons for joining the army may seem absurd to us today, but they were as earnestly felt as the equally absurd reasons for joining the army now. Ungaretti was a self-professed anarchist who saw the war as Germany's fault and hated that country's arrogance. He identified with the art and liberty of France, despite its hostility to anarchists, and when he went to Italy, he found himself swept up by a rising nationalistic fervor. Ungaretti felt a solidarity with the common people and saw the war as a vehicle for bringing to them liberty and victory. Above all, he celebrated his newfound fraternity with his fellow soldiers.

When Italy entered the war, Ungaretti's regiment was soon shipped off to Carso, on the Italian-Austrian front, where he experienced first-hand the horrors of trench warfare. It was here that Ungaretti's minimalist poetry was born and here that he first realized the stupidity of war. As Ungaretti said later:

It was one of the most stupid wars that one can imagine, aside from the fact that war is always stupid: but that one was particularly stupid. The people that commanded that war . . . very well, we'll let that go . . . that's another story. Well, stuck there with death, among those deaths, there wasn't time: I needed to speak in decisive words, absolute words, and there was this necessity of expressing myself with very few words, of honing them, of not saying what was not necessary to say, that is, in language bare, nude, extremely expressive . . . I had before me a landscape of desolation, where there wasn't anything; it was a little like the desert: there was mud, then there was the rubble . . . The mud, the mud of Carso, one of the worst things one can imagine: a mud smooth, red--one fell down in that mud and then remained stuck: I was completely, totally dressed in mud . . . [my translation of a quote found in Leone Piccioni's Vita di un poeta: Giuseppe Ungaretti]

In mid-December of 1916, after a year of mud, waste and death, Ungaretti was granted leave in Naples. However, on January 17th, he was shipped back to the Austrian-Italian front. A month later, behind the lines in Versa, he wrote the following the poem:

Lontano, lontano
come un cieco
m'hanno portato per mano

or in my translation:

Faraway, faraway
like a blind man
they led me by the hand

After so long in the presence of death, after so much suffering and so many comrades destroyed, Ungaretti, in his exhaustion, had lost any vision of war's ideals. It hardly matters whether he was coming or going from the front: this was Ungaretti's moment of complete disillusionment, when he realized, in a flash, that he had been blindly led on, faraway from all that matters to life.

As I contemplate this poem on Armistice Day, I'm reminded how the American people allowed themselves to be led blindly into the Iraq war and how, after three years and eight months, after approximately 650,000 deaths, Bush and his "study team" are preparing a fresh assault on this hopeless, catastrophic, and idiotic war. My hope for this day is that the American people regain the full powers of their sight and demand the return of our soldiers from a war they cannot, through no fault of their own, win.

Crossposted on The English Teacher and Dkos.

< Vets and Military Families Get Political | Washington for John Edwards Blog LAUNCH >
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   now that is a truthiness worth repeating.  No military having already given so much in loss of life and limb, having taken so much in life and limb wants to hear their efforts are for naught (Vietnam psychic wounds still exist today for military, country and individuals who lived that era).   What they (military and their families) want to hear is that they gave their best and it was policy, Adminstration, and country who failed them - noth that they failed in their efforts.  

   So let's get on with it - keeping the troops there is an unnecessary additional burden of guilt for all.

General Paul Eaton video, May 2007If Pres. Bush Won't Listen, Congress Must

by Lietta Ruger on Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 09:14:08 AM PST

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