Italian Campaign: Not-so-soft Underbelly

Campaign map at Florence American Cemetery. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra

Campaign map at Florence American Cemetery. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra

The Florence American Cemetery is nestled on a hillside in a valley a few kilometers southwest of the city. Here more than four thousand American soldiers are buried, and 1,400 more who remain missing have their names engraved on a memorial wall. These Americans fought and died in the latter months of the Italian Campaign as the Germans continued to put up a strong resistance following the liberation of Rome.  Visiting with my students this summer, I was impressed with the meticulous design and upkeep of the site, courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission. In this place, the hills, vineyards, and olive groves of Tuscany so near, a peaceful monument to violent conflict and the sacrifice of life seems almost incongruous. Churchill famously called for a campaign in the “soft underbelly of Europe.” If only.

Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra

Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra

Italian partisans liberated much of northern Italy, including such major cities as Milan. But the American dead remembered near Florence were still in combat until the last day, May 2, 1945. A few more died in the following days, as some Italians, enraged by American bombs that had killed friend and foe alike, took revenge. Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of the bombing campaign in central Italy, published as a photo essay in Life, gave readers novel aerial viewpoints on the war, turning it into a kind of abstract expressionism of death. The reality of what was happening on the ground is difficult to discern.

Perhaps the best visual document we have of the campaign is John Huston’s documentary filmed in 1943 and finally released in 1945, The Battle of San Pietro. Filmed by the Army Signal Corps, the authorities deemed Huston’s film too graphic to be released during the war itself, a decision typical of the information management program described by George Roeder in his book on wartime photography, The Censored War. In Huston’s work, we see the camera shake with the impact of nearby artillery shells. We see soldiers cut down by shrapnel. And we see the faces of young men who will not survive this campaign.

Still from John Huston's Battle of San Pietro.

Still from John Huston’s Battle of San Pietro.

What starts out as a documentary on the actions of the army ends as something else, something less defined. Huston gives us the town of San Pietro—first as a distant collection of buildings on a hill, then as a point on a tactics map, and then, once the Germans have finally withdrawn, as a ruin. In the effort to gain the ground on which the town sits, it has been first evacuated and then shelled to rubble. And then the “inhabitants” emerge from nearby hiding places. Out of caves and into catastrophe, the floor of their poverty lowered immeasurably by the destruction of their town. On their faces are emotions too complex to be easily read by the Army’s cameras. So this was liberation, the price to be paid. Huston as narrator assures American audiences that the army has no obligation to remain and fix up the town—they must move on to the next one. But his cameras have stayed. He hasn’t marched away and neither, emotionally, can we.

Still from John Huston's Battle of San Pietro.

Still from John Huston’s Battle of San Pietro.

And then there is Roberto Rossellini’s supreme 1946 film Paisan. Rossellini shows confident Americans and wary Italians confronting each other from the invasion of Sicily in summer 1943 until the waning days of the resistance in 1945 in the Po River marshes. Paisan is at once an epic of the campaign, a series of short stories on the horrors and ironies of war, and a plea for understanding in the midst of extreme crisis. I’ll write more on Paisan in a future post.

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