Ignazio Silone: Resorting to the bloody diversion of war
From Bread and Wine (1936)
Translated by Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher
The train stopped at every little station and more conscripts got in. Nearly all of them smelled of drink and of the stable. Those for whom there was no room on the seats lay down on the carriage floor. Among them, besides peasants, there must have been builders, mechanics, artisans, but it was impossible to distinguish between them. Poverty had made them all look alike. They all looked ragged young paupers, with bodies molded by generations of famine, scarred by inhuman toil, deformed, tatooed, marked and marked again, by unemployment, alcohol, and epidemics…
By many small signs he was able to distinguish the inhabitants of the villages, those of the plain, those who had descended from their shepherd huts; people whose capacity for suffering was without limit, people inured to isolation, ignorance, and suspicion, to sterile hatred between family and family, to being cheated in isolation, exploited in isolation, insulted in isolation, made miserable in isolation. And now the government bureaucracy, on the brink of bankruptcy, was about to resort to the blood diversion of war. But to do this it had to conscript them, bring them out of their isolation and make them combine. It had to mobilize them and put arms into their hands. One knew how mobilizations of the hungry and poverty-stricken began; how they ended no man could tell…
The country the train passed through was no longer his Marsica, but a new and strange country. It was the Land of Propaganda. Government party war slogans were everywhere, on the train, on the stations, on the telegraph poles, on walls, pavements, trees, public lavatories, church towers, garden gates, bridge parapets, schools, and barracks. Everything belonging to ordinary, humble, everyday life that was able to peep through the rhetorical, artificial landscape that had been superimposed on it looked tamer, more intimidated, more resigned than ever. Forsia was completely unrecognizable beneath its multicolored decorations, its announcements of meetings, its festoons, flags, slogans lauding war and massacre, scrawled in white lead, varnish, tar, or charcoal on every wall…
Near the station at Avezzano there was a chemical factory which was now turning out poison gas for civilizing the Abyssinians. That would also be highly inflammable. Perhaps even the illiterate would end by understanding and follow his example.
“…When I started explaining that the Church often had to make the best of a bad business in order to avoid worse evils, he interrupted me. ‘The theory of the lesser evil may be valid in a political society, but not in a religious society,’ he said to me. I tried not to argue with him on an abstract level, because the worst heresies are capable of seductively insinuating themselves into abstract discussions. So I replied: ‘Imagine what would happen if the Church openly condemned the present war. What persecutions would descend on its head! What moral and material damage would result!’ You will never imagine what Don Benedetto replied: ‘My dear Don Girasole,’ he said, ‘can you imagine John the Baptist offering Herod a concordat to escape having his head cut off? Can you imagine Jesus offering Pontius Pilate a concordat to avoid crucifixion?'”