(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for A Farewell To Arms, but, in the words of Michael C, it’s been out for 75 years now. Get to it already.
To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)
Last month, I started a new series that shares passages describing war at its worst--sections of novels I've read, mostly fiction, that most perfectly depict the chaos, anarchy and terrible violence of war. Today, I want to share the sequence that inspired this series, the Italian Army retreat in book three of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
I first read A Farewell to Arms in high school--and I loved it--but the impact of the battle scenes didn’t really hit me until I read it again recently. This chapter could be one of the saddest things I've ever read. And it illustrates, as does every post in this “War at its Worst” series, the terrible cost of war.
After a series of disastrous campaigns, the Germans force the Italians to retreat back from the Alps. In this moment of pure anarchy, hierarchy means nothing; survival means everything. We follow Lieutenant Henry as he and his men attempt to join the retreat, desperately avoiding death.
What is war at its worst? It is soldiers fighting other soldiers, civilians fighting civilians, everyone trying to get out before the Germans come. Lieutenant Henry and his troops join the slow-moving, congealed column of Soldiers and civilians. "Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped...In the night, many peasants had joined the column from the roads of the country and in the column there were carts loaded with household goods; there were mirrors projecting up between mattresses, and chickens and ducks tied to carts...they had saved the most valuable things."
It is also about fear, because soon the planes will come. "I was certain that if the rain should stop and planes come over and get to work on that column it would be all over."
The fear turns into paranoia. "The Italians were even more dangerous. They were frightened and firing on anything they saw. Last night on the retreat we had heard that there had been many Germans in Italian uniforms mixing with the retreat...one of those things you always heard in war. It was one of the things the enemy always did to you...There was no need to confuse our retreat. The size of the army and the fewness of the roads did that."
This fear is best represented by two young girls, virgins, who join Henry and his men. "Every time he said the word the girl stiffened a little. Then sitting stiffly and looking at him she began to cry. I saw her lips working and then tears came down her plump cheeks. Her sister, not looking up, took her hand...The older one, who had been so fierce, began to sob." As they say later, “A retreat was no place for virgins.” Both are terrified because they know their future. Very likely, they will almost certainly be raped or killed.
When Henry and his men head to the side roads, to avoid the German planes, a hopeless situation somehow gets worse. Order is flipped upside down. Two mechanics try to desert Lieutenant Henry. He must kill them. It is Henry’s first kill, and it is a fellow soldier. An officer killing a soldier.
Then more tragedy, and more upending of social order. Fellow Italians open fire. "Aymo, as he was crossing the tracks, lurched, tripped and fell face down...He was hit low in the back of the neck and the bullet ranged upward and come out under the right eye. He died while I was stopping up the two holes." Stay in one place, and the invading Army will capture you, and probably kill you. Move forward, and your own army will shoot at you.
The whole thing culminates in the ultimate betrayal of military order. The Carabinieri, Italian military police, make a check point at a bridge, sorting out the officers and spies, and shooting both. They kill the officers for deserting their men and allowing "barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland." Lieutenant Henry watches the Carabinieri question a gray-haired, fat Lieutenant Colonel. Then he hears the gun shots.
"I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country...So far they had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it."