TCS Daily

From Rome to Baghdad

By Philip R. O'Connor - June 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Sixty years ago today Americans awoke to the news that Rome had been liberated from the fascists. The Allied Italian Campaign was, as Iraq is now, a separately managed conflict in a global war. In 1944, the enemy was a coalition seeking to impose frightful and dehumanizing regimes -- paradise for them and hell on earth for everyone else. Those looking for an apt analogy for the Iraq War can look to Italy 1943-45.

In Italy there were deep disagreements among the Allies over strategic military and political objectives, tactics, the tolerance of casualties and the extent to which defeated Italian forces could be used against the Germans. Contingents from two-dozen other countries were there, with differing capabilities and recurring threats of withdrawal.

The "plan" was to get on the beach and then off the beach. From there, the plan constantly evolved, since the Germans, like the Iraqi insurgents, had their own evolving plans. The Allies' "exit strategy," was unconditional surrender through a door marked "Berlin." The big plan was essentially a "bring it on" strategy that drew 30 German divisions into Italy, away from France and the Eastern Front.

The Italian Campaign moved Spain toward positive neutrality and Turkey toward joining the Allies. It also provided an operational base for actions in Greece and the Balkans. Similarly, the recent Libyan surrender on arms proliferation surely was spurred by our actions in Iraq.

In 1943 the Allies mishandled the initial "catastrophic success" of Mussolini's arrest and negotiated armistice after the invasion of Sicily. We mis-timed the announcement of the surrender, relied on inadequate Italian leaders, called off an airborne seizure of Rome and proceeded with amphibious assaults at Salerno, south of Naples, rather than farther north near Rome. Thus began a "long, hard slog" up the Italian boot.

In Italy, American military doctrine proved insufficient for the mission. We underestimated the tenacity of the Germans and their ingenuity with booby traps and ambushes and their nearly suicidal defense of mountain positions. The vision of armored columns sweeping up the boot was frustrated time and again. Mules and muleskinners had to be brought back into the Army to do what trucks and tanks could not do in the never-ending mountains. In Iraq, while the vision of rapid attack across the desert was fulfilled, we likely missed Iraqi absorption of Soviet military doctrine, which provides, if forced to retreat, for rear-guard loyalists to launch systematic, in-depth assaults on all echelons of the opposing deployment. The American military is adapting in Iraq as it had to in Italy.

The Italian Campaign was also no stranger to presidential politics, religious sensibilities, military misconduct, atrocities and news media-fueled imbroglios.

Republican Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey refrained from criticizing President Roosevelt's handling of the specifics of the war. But he attacked FDR as responsible for the nation's unpreparedness for war, for allowing the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and for stiffening German resistance with a public declaration of a post-war agrarian Germany.

Roosevelt, worried about the votes of Italian-Americans and other Catholics, limited the bombing of Rome, partly to avoid inadvertent damage to Vatican City. And when American bombers in February 1944 destroyed the world-renowned 900 year-old Abbey of Montecassino, mistakenly believed occupied by German artillery spotters, Nazi propaganda portrayed the Allies as barbaric enemies of civilization. But American Catholics on the home front knew who was really destroying civilization and accepted the destruction of one of their faith's most treasured sites.

Nazi atrocities were widely reported in the Allied press: the round-up of the Jews of Rome, murders of thousands of Italian soldiers after the armistice, labor deportations and massacres in villages suspected of aiding the Resistance. Saddam was a warmed-over Nazi.

But what of Allied atrocities? Two Americans were acquitted in the massacre of over a hundred Italian and German prisoners in Sicily, claiming they had acted in the belief that General Patton had encouraged a "no prisoners" policy. Barely reported were routine murders and rapes of Italian civilians committed by some Free French colonial soldiers, which caused Pope Pius XII to ask the Allied command to keep the colonial troops out of Rome for fear of the potential for mayhem. Despite these events, commanders in the field were not summoned back to Washington for congressional hearings.

A far less serious matter, the "slapping" incident, in which General Patton upbraided and lightly struck two soldiers he felt were malingering, became a media feeding frenzy several months after Eisenhower had already admonished Patton and forced him to apologize. Embedded reporters with the Army in Sicily all voluntarily declined to file stories. But the Washington rumor mill ignited stateside reports leading to Congressional cries for Patton's head and media charges of cover-up by Ike. Roosevelt, with a war to win, kept his head, and Ike, Patton and Secretary of War Henry Stimson stayed on the job.

Importantly, the Italian Campaign provided the Italian people a "liberation myth" to cling to. The Italian military and the Resistance made life miserable for the Germans but were not decisive. Yet, the Italian nation found redemption from Fascism in belated sacrifices for its own liberation. The Bush Administration is trying to provide the Iraqis a liberation myth in which they free themselves, too.

Over 12,000 of 18,000 American heroes killed in the Italian Campaign rest in two U.S. cemeteries in the land they helped free. In Iraq and elsewhere, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines exhibit the same courage, dedication and inventiveness as did their forebears in Italy.

Historians still debate the Italian Campaign and whether it was "worth it" and will surely debate Iraq for decades to come. So each of us must take our own lessons from the Italian Campaign for understanding Iraq. Mine is that news stories and presidential elections come and go and that no matter the mistakes, the disasters and even crimes along the way, there is no reasonable alternative to perseverance and an unyielding commitment to freedom's mission. We live in dangerous times and can no more go back to our pre-9/11 somnolence, than Americans in the first week of June 1944 could will themselves back to pre-Pearl Harbor innocence.

Philip R. O'Connor is author of "A Loyola Rome Student's Guide to World War II in Rome and Italy."


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