Giuseppe Berto: A universal evil has given them the power to kill unknown people, people very like themselves
From The Sky Is Red (1946)
Translated by Angus Davidson
Hundreds of planes had flown a long distance during the night in order to reach the little town. Inside each plane was a crew, every man with his own job – pilots, observers, radio operators, bombardiers – highly trained specialists, reliable, efficient.
The men think, as they fly through the night. Underneath is the dark earth, and nothing can be seen. Above are the stars, and the stars help a man to think. As they fly through the night, these men have thoughts of far distant things, of places in another part of the earth, places to which they belong and to which they hope to go back some day. There exists in them an immeasurable longing to go back home, a longing which makes them a little melancholy but which is at the same time a shield against the difficulties of life. Always, whether in weariness or pain, they think about going back home.
As they approach the town, the men abandon their thoughts of distant things. The planes get ready for the bombing. Formation, timing, target-sighting. They are all easy in their minds because it is an easy job which will not spoil anyone’s chance of going back home.
A light plane has gone on ahead and has dropped clusters of parachute flares. The others take their direction from these flares. From the ground one or two machine-guns have started, quite ridiculously, to fire at the flares. Their bullets rise in a continuous string and die in mid-air.
The observers look down and recognize the places they have studied on their maps at the briefing. They are now following the railway. In front can be seen the station, about the size of a packet of cigarettes, with its marshaling yards and its railway bridge. A little further on there should be the iron bridge over the river.
Now they are ready. All on board are conscious of a moment of tension. The planes are over their target.
Their target is a station, a railway bridge, another bridge, some marshaling yards. From above they look like children’s toys, these things that have to be destroyed because the enemy is using them for purposes of war. But all around, and close behind them, there are other things which also look as small as children’s toys. These are the houses of the town, which are not marked on the maps with the special signs that are used to pick out the target. They are therefore ignored, and it is as though they were not there.
Another thing that is ignored is that inside these houses live people, large numbers of people. The little town has, perhaps, more than a hundred thousand inhabitants, now that so many refugees have come there from the neighboring cities. More than a hundred thousand people are smitten with terror. They have seen the flares and heard the engines, and have understood.
But the others, up in the sky, do not think of that. They know nothing of the people they are preparing to kill. They do not know how they speak or how they live, with what hopes and with what miseries. They have never seen a single one of those hundred thousand people.
They are people who speak with an ancient grace, who aspire to a leisurely, quiet life, who are no longer able to accomplish much, whether from hatred or from love. For the moment they are content merely to live, merely to reach the end of the war alive, so that they may live better afterwards. And the hopes of so many of them, for a better future, are centered precisely upon those men who are waiting, tensely, in the moment before they touch the levers.
The men of the sky know nothing of all that, and they do not think of it. They too, when they picture their own lives, picture them as leisurely and quiet, with a nice house and the right sort of work and people round about them with whom they can live in peace. And yet a universal evil has given them the power to kill unknown people, people very like themselves. An evil so enormous that, because of it, they bring terror and death and destruction without thinking about it, with a consciousness of performing a duty.
Their hands make only a simple gesture to move the levers. The bomb-doors under the fuselage open, and the bombs slip into the air. They cannot hear the noise the bombs make as they fall.
The planes drop their bombs in formation, and each formation is very wide, covering the station and many houses round it. The men who have pulled the levers look anxiously down, watching the sudden flashes of the explosive bombs and the luminous bursts of the incendiaries. The hits are well concentrated in the neighborhood of the target.
The formations make a wide circle and return over the town. Even the ridiculous machine-guns have stopped firing now. Down below there is a cloud of dust and smoke through which the fires and the bombs which are still bursting can scarcely be seen. The station, the railway lines, the bridge, are all covered by the cloud, which the light of the flares does not succeed in penetrating. They drop their bombs into the middle of it. With such a large number of bombs dropped over such a wide area, the target must surely have been hit.
Now they are on their return journey. For many miles they can see behind them the glow of the burning town. The men feel satisfied. No anti-aircraft fire, no night fighters, a mission well accomplished. For a certain time the enemy will not be able to make use of the station, the railway-lines, and perhaps the bridge, if it was hit. And if, in order to achieve this, they have produced a sum of human misery that nothing on earth, even the greatest good, can ever wipe out, that is a thing that has no importance. They do not think of it, and it is not their fault, because of the universal evil.
In a short time the glow of the fires is lost in the distance, and the men fly on under the stars.
And the stars fly too; they fly at a fantastic speed towards the places to which those men belong, in another part of the earth. In a matter of a few hours, the stars which are now above their heads will be above Kentucky, Missouri, California. And each of those men who have destroyed houses and human creatures can still think lovingly of other houses and other human creatures.