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War Stories

[It’s ANZAC Day in New Zealand and Australia – the anniversary of the day that our troops landed at Gallipoli, in 1915. Today we commemorate all New Zealanders and Australians who have lost their lives in wars throughout our history. This post was originally written for the political blog Just Left and published there on ANZAC Day 2009. I want to share it with you again today. It’s got nothing to do with sport I’m afraid, but fear not, normal service will resume this weekend.]

Sermoneta

My father was born in a little medieval hill town about 60km south of Rome called Sermoneta. It is a fortress built to withstand invasion by armies that have repeatedly attacked through the ages due to the strategic position of the town. It’s situated on a olive grove covered mountain high above the ancient road between Rome and Naples. This position gives it the capability of spotting large armies advancing on Rome in plenty of time to send word to the Pope.

The town is well equipped for fending off marauders. My favourite features are slots in the walls of the town. When I first saw them I assumed they were for archers to shoot from. But no, nothing that fancy. They were for tipping boiling olive oil onto anyone attempting to gain access by scaling the barricade.

What it must have been like to either be a local or a Neapolitan trying to get in and sack the place sends shivers up my spine every time I think about it. Imagine climbing a wall and looking up – perhaps in response to a cartoon style “hello there” – only to see burning hot oil cascading down to meet you. Or from the point of view of the townsfolk, shaking with fear as they prepare the only weapon available to them. Desperately boiling up the fruit of their back breaking labour in the hope of repelling those coming to take all that was theirs.

Me and my dad.

My father was a proud Fascist. The Pontine Marshes at the bottom of the mountain that Sermoneta sits on were swamps that emperors, popes, and kings had tried to drain for the previous 2000 years. It was not only a vast region that was completely unreceptive to any sort of agriculture, but it also provided a breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitoes. When Mussolini decided to tackle this problem, he ordered a massive project that included rounding up the unemployed from across the country and putting them to work digging canals, mostly by hand. They built new towns, cities and farms on the newly arable plots. Mussolini then personally handed the titles to the land back to the workers co-opted to the project. He became a hero to those people and remains to this day a hero in the local area. One of the cities built on the Pontine Marshes, Latina, elected an openly Fascist mayor in 2002 with 73% of the vote.

My father’s ‘Young Fascist’ membership card issued in 1932. He was 6 years old.

When the Second World War began, my father was still very young. But he was a patriot and a lover of il Duce. He joined the black brigades and did what he felt was right for his country and for fascism. I don’t approve of the cause for which he fought but that is probably partly because I am examining history with a huge dollop of hindsight. My upbringing could not have been more different from his. He died in 1979 when I was only three. I never got the opportunity to really know what shaped his beliefs. I can only try to learn everything I can about the circumstances that gave rise to fascism in Italy and make an educated guess.

When I first went to my father’s homeland, my cousin took me to Anzio. We went down to the beach where the famous allied landing took place on 22 January 1944, when my guide was about 10 years old. He told me that one night he went to bed with everything calm and quiet as always…

Anzio

When they awoke the next morning the entire horizon was a solid wall of American warships. Lightning was raining down unremittingly in the form of missiles. Thundering landing crafts were ferrying hundreds of thousands of troops ashore.

Allied landing at Anzio

Ironically, given the earlier history of Sermoneta, on this occasion nobody had seen it coming.

From my perspective as a socialist, I don’t often agree with what America gets up to around the world in the way of conflicts. But I thank my lucky stars they saw fit to tackle this one. And it cost them dearly. We went to the American military cemetery near Anzio which really brought home just how massive that cost was. Some graves had names. Many just said “a valiant comrade known only to god”.

Amreican Cemetary, Anzio

Anzio is far and away the most moving place I have ever set foot in. It is a priority of mine to get to Gallipoli one day. I assume it has a similar feel to it.

What is the point of this post? I guess I just felt like sharing some of the thoughts that go through my head on ANZAC Day. I think about war and what place it has in my personal history. It is not exclusive to the 20th century. It is just as unpleasant in Iraq today as it was when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon ready to take on Pompey Magnus.

I guess I have always had a different kind of relationship with ANZAC Day to most of my friends. I have relatives on my mother’s side who went to war and fought for King and Country in the New Zealand sense. But above all ANZAC Day reminds me that wars are not as simple as good guys and bad guys; winners and losers. They should never be entered into lightly. But that does not mean they can never be necessary.

They shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them
We will remember them

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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