Continuing in the vein of the Art of War, I read Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy on the plane today. I brought it along with me to Florida because it was a thin volume, eminently packable, and because my sister, who gave it to me for Christmas off my Amazon wish list, asked to borrow it.
The book chronicles Norman Lewis’ year as a British intelligence officer (field service officer) in occupied Italy. I can’t quite tell the backstory, but it seems he was pressed into service there because he knew Spanish, which was deemed close enough to Italian. He must have learned enough to get by because, among other things, he negotiates the finer details of an arrangement between an English officer and his Italian mistress. He tells fantastic stories, such as about his informant/friend who makes a meagre living posing as an uncle in from Rome at local funerals, making the deceased appear more important than he is.
Many of the stories, though, are tragic, about poverty and mistrust and miscommunication in the larger theater of war. He writes about petty thieves sentenced to years in prison for stealing the copper from the Allies’ telephone wires while the well-connected profit from the black market. He writes about typhus and smallpox spreading through towns with destroyed water systems. He writes about prostitution and violence, and people scrambling to get by. He writes about religious miracles, deceit, and the inherent civility he encountered among the people of Naples and the surrounding villages. There’s a lot packed into the 187 pages.
Norman Lewis is a gifted writer. He made wartime Naples come to life for me, and in doing so gave me a bit of perspective on the occupation of Iraq.
The fact is that we have upset the balance of nature here. I personally have been rigid where I should have been flexible. Here the police – corrupt and tyrannical as they are – and the civil population play a game together, but the rules are complex and I do not understand them, and through lack of this understanding, I lose respect. (p. 168)
I have arrived at a time when, in their hearts, these people must be thoroughly sick and tired of us. A year ago we liberated them from the Fascist Monster, and they still sit doing their best to smile politely at us, as hungry as ever, more disease-ridden than ever before, in the ruins of their beautiful city where law and order have ceased to exist. And what is the prize that is to be eventually won? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Benito Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared to this. (p. 169).
Well, I find it sad yet comforting that this paragraph, with some word changes, could be published today about Iraq. I suppose we should learn from history, that we should know better, but we don’t seem to.
Yes, I’m sad about the lack of progress, about recreating the same mess in some new place, but somehow it doesn’t make me feel so alone and extraordinary and culpable. Norman Lewis’ book gave me the sense that our problems are in no way unique to this time and to this set of actors. Essentially, we’re not as special as we think. I found this book oddly reassuring, even while I feel much more compassion for the lives of people caught up in the terror, confusion, lawlessness, vendettas, thievery, risk, shame, and parasites that accompany war.