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the day of battle

4 january 2009

The Second World War in Italy is one of the most storied campaigns in military history. But did it need to be fought at all? Rick Atkinson concludes The Day of Battle (recently in paperback from Holt) with a reluctant "yes." "If not Italy, where?" he asks (583). In mid-1943, the Allies were not nearly ready to invade the northern coast of Europe. But they had large armies, navies, and air forces in the Mediterranean, who needed to be spending the next year fighting somebody, somewhere. Conflicts develop their own self-sustaining internal logics, almost like organisms. "And the war came," as Abraham Lincoln might have put it.

Insofar as it was anybody's conscious plan, Winston Churchill was the driving force behind the Allies' Mediterranean effort. Churchill is famous for coining the phrase "the soft underbelly," to distinguish the supposedly cozy battlegrounds of Sicily and Italy from the steely carapace of Occupied France. (Churchill, it will be remembered, had had a similar bright idea about Gallipoli, 28 years earlier.) Not only did Churchill insist that the Allies invade Europe from the south, but when the Allied march up the Italian peninsula stalled completely, he insisted that they make another amphibious end-run around their bigger amphibious end-run. Thus was born the Anzio beachhead, which has become synonymous in military history with waste of lives, frustration, and illogic. A huge landing force, two entire divisions, opened up a small beachhead at Anzio, just south of Rome, with relative ease in January 1944. Four months later, they were still where they were in January, having undergone four months of hellish bombardment and having barely avoided expulsion back into the sea.

Insanity and inanity characterize Atkinson's retelling of the Italian campaign. The Day of Battle is a more bitter, wiser-seeming book than his An Army at Dawn, though that book is no mean feat of storytelling. Atkinson deliberately mirrors the maturing of an army in his own prose style. He is particularly good with an account of the destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, an utterly unnecessary and inhumane act by the Allies. If the bombing of the abbey had even saved Allied lives, it might have been worth it. But in the event, not only was an architectural treasure destroyed and many civilians killed, but the bombing exposed Allied troops to counterattack from a high point that the Germans had hitherto avoided taking, out of respect for the Church. Unintended consequences were almost the only ones for much of the Allied Italian strategy.

One unintended consequence of the invasion of Italy is that it produced some of the most significant literature of the War. The Italian surrender and subsequent German occupation of the peninsula touched off the Italian Holocaust, which resulted in Giorgio Bassani's Li giardino dei Finzi-Contini, Primo Levi's Se questo un uomo, and other masterpieces. In the Allied ranks were Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle; flying overhead was Joseph Heller, accumulating his missions en route to the unfillable quota that became Catch-22. The displacement of Italian city-dwellers is the theme of Moravia's La Ciociara; the aftermath of the German defensive strategy – a peninsula crammed with booby-traps and mines – was to become the milieu of Michael Ondaatje's great novel The English Patient.

Pointless warfare is a great tragedy. But even utter tragedy can provoke the human spirit into art. One of the major artworks occasioned by the Italian campaign is now Rick Atkinson's Day of Battle, which takes its place as a classic of military history.

Atkinson, Rick. The Day of Battle: The war in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. 2007. New York: Holt, 2008.