Alberto Moravia: “Ah well, war is war, you know”
From Two Women (1958)
Translated by Angus Davidson
Nowadays guns and planes were able to make short work of soldiers at a great distance from what was strictly called the front; nowadays a battle resembled the operation carried out by a housewife with a spray gun, who kills all the flies without dirtying her hands and without even touching them. Modern war, said Michele, had nothing whatever to do with charges and assaults and hand-to-hand fighting; valor had become useless; the winner was the one who had the most numerous and the longest-range guns, and the planes with the widest radius of action and the greatest speed. “War has become an affair of machines,” he concluded, “and soldiers are little more than clever mechanics.”
Once again I understood what modern war is. Not the hand-to-hand fighting which I had so much admired in the magazine illustrations of 1915, but a thing entirely remote and indirect: first the planes and the guns have a preliminary clean-up; and after that the main body of the troops advances, rarely coming into contact with the enemy but going forward sitting comfortably in motor vehicles with their rifles between their legs, chewing gum and reading picture papers. Someone told me afterward that in some places these troops had heavy losses. But never against other troops; as a result, rather, of the enemy’s guns firing on them in an attempt to halt them.
There had been a direct hit on the cottage and they had all been killed; wife, husband and four children. I listened to these things without saying anything, and so also did Rosetta. In former times I would have exclaimed: “Why, how terrible! Poor things! What a dreadful disaster!” But now I didn’t feel in the mood to say anything. Our misfortunes actually make us indifferent to the misfortunes of others. And I reflected afterward that this, undoubtedly, is one of the worst effects of war: that it makes people unfeeling, that it hardens their hearts, that it kills pity.
The church was lighted by a great window above the entrance door which had once had stained glass in it. Nothing remained now but a few sharp fragments; there was bright daylight inside the building. I went up to the two remaining benches, moved one of them round so that it faced the altar, put down my box on it and said to Rosetta: “That’s what war is, you see: they don’t even have respect for churches.” Then I sat down and Rosetta sat down beside me.
I experienced a strange feeling, for I found myself in a holy place with no desire to pray. I turned my eyes toward the ancient picture hanging crooked above the altar, with the Madonna, all greasy from the black smoke of candles, no longer looking down towards the benches, but slantwise toward the ceiling, and it seemed to me that if I wanted to pray I ought first of all to straighten the picture. But even so, perhaps I should not have been able to pray; I felt numbed and apathetic and bewildered. I had hoped to rediscover the village where I was born and the people among whom I had grown up and, of course my parents as well, instead of which I had found nothing but an empty shell: they had all gone away, perhaps even the Madonna too, disgusted at her picture being handled in this way and left so crooked. Then I looked at Rosetta beside me and saw that she, unlike me, was praying, her hands clasped together, her head bent, her lips moving slightly. “You’re quite right to pray,” I said in a low voice. “Pray for me too…I haven’t the heart for it.”
“An entire family destroyed – oh well, you know, war is war – an entire family massacred, a real slaughter indeed, men, women and children, and Michele on top of the heap, with a whole lot of bullets in his chest which they’d fired at him when he threw himself into the middle. We knew about it because a little girl hid behind a haystack and escaped and then came down and told the whole story. But surely, didn’t you know? All Fondi is talking about it. Ah well, war is war, you know.”