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Book Review: The White War

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In May 1915, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary in an effort to detach and seize several mountain provinces, as well as Trieste and portions of the Adriatic Coast. Since the beginning of the war, Italy had engaged in negotiations with both the Allies and the Central Powers. Although initially attached by treaty to Berlin and Vienna, neither the Germans nor the Austrians viewed Italian intervention as decisive or likely. The Austrians made some offer of territorial concessions, but this did not include Trieste. Moreover, Italian nationalism viewed the “Italian” lands held by Austria as far more integral to Italy’s “natural” status than similar areas in French hands. Eventually, with minimal debate and without substantial public support, pro-war Italian factions had engineered a declaration of war against Austria. Three and a half years later, Italy would win Trieste at the cost of 650000 military dead, a percentage higher than that of the United Kingdom. Mark Thompson’s The White War examines the Italian campaign in depth, and is harshly critical of Italy’s civilian and military leadership.

The idea of war against Austria was not particularly popular in Italy in 1915. The Italian state was itself relatively new, and had considerable difficulty winning the loyalties of locals and creating a cohesive Italian identity. The notion that Trieste and a few Alpine areas were necessary to create the “real” Italy was alien to the bulk of the Italian peasantry, and wasn’t particularly popular to the working class. The intellectual class, however, ate it up. Although not fully united behind the idea of war, Italian intellectuals by and large saw Trieste and environs as belonging to Italy by right, and believed that war was the only way to win it. This is to say that they believed that war was a positive good; Italy wouldn’t simply gain more by fighting, but any gains were better won with blood than won through negotiation. Gabriele D’Annunzio was the chief exemplar of the Italian intellectual warrior-caste; in addition to cheer-leading, he participated directly in the butchery by ineptly leading several bizarre military effort during the war. The control by the war-party of the Italian intellectual class, and accordingly its control over the media, meant that it was possible for the Italian government to wage an aggressive war with the genuinely unenthusiastic support of the bulk of the country. World War I was unpopular in Italy, but control of the media was able to substantially obscure this fact.

Enthusiasm aside, Italy was not prepared for a major war. Its soldiers were poorly trained, it lacked artillery and infantry equipment, and its senior leadership was substantial behind the curve. The first offensives were, accordingly, disastrous. For an obsolete empire, Austria-Hungary fought well enough for three years. Imperial forces were consistently outnumbered by the Italians, and usually suffered from severe material shortages. The army of Austria-Hungary was a hodgepodge of different nationalities, each with its own reasons for fighting. Nevertheless, working with the benefit of forbidding defensive terrain, the Austrians did very well against the Italians. Italy threw its army repeatedly against fortified Imperial positions with little or no effect apart from the general massacre of its men. Italy won exactly one of the twelve Battles of the Isonzo, even then gaining only trivial Austrian territory. Nevertheless, the relentless Italian pressure put the institutions of the Dual Monarchy under severe strain, and limited Austria’s ability to prosecute the war against Serbia and Russia.

In October 1917 the Germans decided that they had had enough, and took command of a combined German-Austrian operation on the Italian front. With troops fresh from the collapsing Russian front, the Germans and Austrians were able to build up a substantial numerical advantage. When the offensive was launched, the Italian response was hopeless. Italian territorial gains were lost within days, and the Central Powers pushed almost all the war to Venice. The Italians were simply incapable of fighting a modern foe when that foe had sufficient equipment and reserves. A young officer named Erwin Rommel won glory in this campaign, capturing some 9000 Italian soldiers while commanding a battalion. The most memorable parts of A Farewell to Arms, for my money the most memorable Hemingway, also cover the Battle of Caporetto. The German and Austrian failure to exploit the victory is one of the great “roads not taken” of World War I. Italian lines had not fully solidified when the Caporetto offensive slowed, and it’s possible that more vigorous prosecution could have effectively destroyed the Italian Army as a fighting force. Instead, the Germans withdrew to prepare for their spring offensives on the Western Front, and the Austrians were unable to make up the slack. In hindsight, there can be little question that a Central Powers strategy of serially knocking Allied countries out of the war would have been better than the gamble of unrestricted submarine warfare; by late 1917 the Germans and Austrians had essentially defeated Serbia, Rumania, and Russia, and breaking Italian resistance might have driven France and the UK to terms.

Although Thompson doesn’t dwell on the point, he does bring up the relationship between Catholicism and Italian nationalism. Italian nationalists viewed the Catholic hierarchy with great suspicion, largely because of its resistance to Italian unification in the 19th century. The fact that the Dual Monarchy was Catholic only served to increase the level of suspicion, and priests in occupied areas came under surveillance. Some were even interned. After the death of Emperor Franz Josef, Charles I of Austria took efforts at mediation through the Pope, although these came to nothing. Italy’s other regional and class divides also received attention from the state, although it’s worth noting that there was no general worker or regional uprisings to the extent seen in Germany or Austria-Hungary.

Thompson is harshly critical of the Italian high command for most of the war, and repeatedly makes the point that the Italian Army itself was incapable of fighting a major war against a modern opponent. It is possible for both of these things to be true at the same time, but of course there is some tension between them. Offensive infantry action against a determined and entrenched opponent is possible, but it requires a great deal of training and social trust. The Italian Army lacked such training, and also lacked the national social cohesion that helped facilitate military effectiveness. Given that a defensive position out of the gate wasn’t an option (why would you declare war, then go on the defensive?) I’m not completely convinced that Italy’s generals deserve quite the degree of condemnation that Thompson accords. Of course, this isn’t to say that the fault lies with the individual soldiers; Italians fought with extraordinary bravery against insurmountable odds, and experienced precisely what happens when a resistable force meets an immoveable object. I also wish that Thompson had included some discussion of the naval war. Although it wasn’t decisive, it was taken seriously by both sides and had some effect on the larger war. It also included some events that were compatible with Thompson’s thesis on war and Italian nationalism, such as the destruction of the Viribus Unitas.

Thompson doesn’t shy away from parallels between Italy’s vicious war party and modern American neoconservatives. Neocons don’t sing the praises of war as a postive act, or at least they don’t do so publicly, but they do romanticize force in a manner reminiscent of D’Annunzio and his ilk. Neoconservatives also mirror the Italian war party in their view of the role of the media, which in war is understood to be one of maintaining fighting enthusiasm rather than telling anything approaching the truth. It bears mentioning that this approach to the media isn’t just bad for democracy and bad for truth, but is also bad for war; in both the Iraq War and in Italy’s experience of World War I, media control almost certainly produced a less capable military force, by obscuring the failures of military organizations and reducing incentive to change and adapt.

Finally, Thompson’s White War illuminates the folly of the Cult of Will; the idea that objectives are achievable if we simply want them hard enough, and if that failure is the result of insufficient enthusiasm. The Cult of Will was present in full force in Italy in 1915, and anyone who pointed out that throwing poorly trained conscripts against prepared defensive positions in mountainous was stupid was immediately denounced as a traitor and enemy of the nation. But of course, all the enthusiasm in the world was insufficient to break the Austrian position; the Italians finally made meager gains only when the entire Central Powers collapsed in late 1918, an event which was not precipitated by the succession of inept Italian offensives. In the end, the fact that you really want something (and even that you want it more than the other guy; many of the Imperial soldiers couldn’t give a rats ass about either the Hapsburgs or the Alpine provinces) doesn’t meant that you’ll actually get it. The Will to Win is great, but I’ll take artillery if given the choice.

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