Un paio di notti fa ho sognato questo libro. Mi trovavo in un negozio, non ricordo il genere. Nella stanza c’era un uomo, giovane, ma non giovanissimo. Aveva con sé un quotidiano e un libro, ancora avvolto nella plastica. Uno di quei libri che vendono insieme ai giornali, maggiorando un po’ il prezzo del quotidiano. Di solito sono edizioni un po’ scadenti, ma questo, almeno dal mio punto di osservazione, non lo era. Mi avvicinai e vidi che il giornale era La Repubblica, e il libro La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia, nell’edizione che ho io, quella che mio nonno Enrico regalò a me e a mio fratello Fabio, quando avevamo meno di dieci anni. Sorrisi, sorpreso e contento. Ricordo che provai un senso di affetto per quello sconosciuto, come mi capita a volte, quando incontro qualcuno che, discretamente, sento simile. Ricambiò il sorriso e fece un cenno al libro, come a dire “che roba, eh?”. E io risposi con un cenno che voleva dire “eh sì, una bella scelta”. E mi incamminai verso l’edicola.
Mese: luglio 2022
With the guns
I missili russi contro le città ucraine, contro obiettivi civili, come il condominio stipato di persone centrato ieri da un missile Uragan, mi hanno fatto tornare in mente un libro piccolo ma importante che mi è capitato di leggere qualche anno fa; racchiude un racconto lungo di D.H. Lawrence (“Inghilterra, mia Inghilterra”) e un suo articolo (“With the Guns” – “Con i mortai”) pubblicato il 18 agosto 1914 sul Manchester Guardian, finora inedito in Italia.
Nell’autunno del 1913, durante un soggiorno in Baviera, Lawrence assiste per alcuni giorni a delle esercitazioni militari tedesche preparatorie alla guerra che poi scoppierà poco dopo. E’ la prima volta che vede dei mortai, i soldati che caricano i proiettili e un ufficiale che dall’alto di una torretta dirige, col binocolo, la traiettoria dei lanci, diretti oltre una collina. Lawrence è colpito dalla mancanza di umanità, dalla asetticità di questa nuova tipologia di guerra. I soldati stessi non vedono dove cadano i colpi.
I bombardamenti hanno sempre fatto parte delle guerre, ma Lawrence intuisce che le nuove tecnologie renderanno in futuro questa pratica militare preponderante e conseguentemente muterà la stessa idea di nemico: non vedendolo direttamente, non incrociando più il suo sguardo, sarà più facile ucciderlo.
Aveva indubbiamente ragione.
“The Reservists were leaving for London by the nine o’clock train. They were young men, some of them drunk. There was one bawling and brawling before the ticket window; there were two swaying on the steps of the subway shouting, and ending, “Let’s go an’ have another afore we go.” There were a few women seeing off their sweethearts and brothers, but, on the whole, the reservist had been a lodger in the town and had only his own pals. One woman stood before the carriage window. She and her sweetheart were being very matter-of-fact, cheerful, and bumptious over the parting.
“Well, so-long!” she cried as the train began to move. “When you see ‘em let ‘em have it.”
“Ay, no fear,” shouted the man, and the train was gone, the man grinning. I thought what it would really be like, “when he saw ‘em.”
Last autumn I followed the Bavarian army down the Isar valley and near the foot of the Alps. Then I could see what war would be like – an affair entirely of machines, with men attached to the machines as the subordinate part thereof, as the butt is the part of a rifle.
I remember standing on a little round hill one August afternoon. There was a beautiful blue sky, and white clouds from the mountains. Away on the right, amid woods and corn-clad hills, lay the big Starnberg lake. This is just a year ago, but it seems to belong to some period outside of time.
On the crown of the little hill were three quick-firing guns, with the gunners behind. At the side, perched up on a tiny platform at the top of a high pair of steps, was an officer looking through a fixed spy-glass. A little further behind, lower down the hill, was a group of horses and soldiers.
Every moment came the hard, tearing hideous voice of the German command from the officer perched aloft, giving the range to the guns; and then the sharp cry, “Fire!” There was a burst, something in the guns started back, the faintest breath of vapour disappeared. The shots had gone.
I watched, but I could not see where they had gone, nor what had been aimed at. Evidently they were directed against an enemy a mile and a half away, men unseen by any of the soldiers at the guns. Whether the shot they fired hit or missed, killed or did not touch, I and the gun-party did not know.
Only the officer was shouting the range again, the guns were again starting back, we were again staring over the face of the green and dappled, inscrutable country into which the missiles sped unseen.
What work was there to do? – only mechanically to adjust the guns and fire the shot. What was there to feel? – only the unnatural suspense and suppression of serving a machine which, for ought we knew, was killing our fellow-men, whilst we stood there, blind, without knowledge or participation, subordinate to the cold machine. This was the glamour and the glory of the war: blue sky overhead and living green country all around, but we, amid it all, a part in some iron insensate will, our flesh and blood, our soul and intelligence shed away, and all that remained of us a cold, metallic adherence to an iron machine. There was neither ferocity nor joy nor exultation nor exhilaration nor even quick fear: only a mechanical, expressionless movement.
And this is how the gunner would “let ‘em have it.” He would mechanically move a certain apparatus when he heard a certain shout. Of the result he would see and know nothing. He had nothing to do with it.
Then I remember going at night down a road, whilst the sound of guns thudded continuously. And suddenly I started, seeing the bank of the road stir. It was a mass of scarcely visible forms, lying waiting for a rush. They were lying under fire, silent, scarcely stirring, a mass. If one of the shells that were supposed to be coming had dropped among them it would have burst a hole in the mass. Who would have been torn, killed, no one would have known. There would just have been a hole in the living shadowy mass; that was all. Who it was did not matter. There were no individuals, and every individual soldier knew it. He was a fragment of a mass, and as a fragment of a mass he must live and die or be torn. He had no rights, no self, no being. There was only the mass lying there, solid and obscure along the bank of the road in the night.
This was how the gunner “would let ‘em have it.” A shell would fall into this mass of vulnerable bodies, there would be a torn hole in the mass. This would be his “letting ‘em have it.”
And I remember a captain of the bersaglieri who talked to me in the train in Italy when he had come back from Tripoli. The Italian soldier, he said, was the finest soldier in the world at a rush. But – and he spoke with a certain horror that cramped his voice – when it came to lying there under the Snyder fire you had to stand behind them with a revolver. And I saw he could not get beyond the agony of this.
“Well,” I said, “that is because they cannot feel themselves parts of a machine. They have all the old natural courage, when one rushes at one’s enemy. But it is unnatural to them to lie still under machine-fire. It is unnatural to anybody. War with machines, and the machine predominant, is too unnatural for an Italian. It is a wicked thing a machine, and your Italians are too naturally good. They will do anything to get away from it. Let us see our enemy and go for him. But we cannot endure this taking death out of machines, and giving death out of machines, our blood cold, without any enemy to rise against.”
I remember also standing on a little hill crowned by a white church. This hill was defended, surrounded by a trench half-way down. In this trench stood the soldiers side by side, down there in the earth, a great line of them.
The night came on. Suddenly, on the other side, high up in the darkness, burst a beautiful greenish globe of light, and then came into being a magic circle of countryside set in darkness, a greenish jewel of landscape, splendid bulk of trees, a green meadow, vivid. The ball fell and it was dark, and in one’s eye remained treasured the little vision that had appeared far off in the darkness. Then again a light ball burst and sloped down. There was the white farmhouse with the wooden, slanting roof, the green apple trees, the orchard paling, a jewel, a landscape set deep in the darkness. It was beautiful beyond belief. Then it was dark. Then the searchlights suddenly sprang upon the countryside, revealing the magic, fingering everything with magic, pushing the darkness aside, showing the lovely hillsides, the sable bulks of trees, the pallor of corn. A searchlight was creeping at us. It slid up our hill. It was upon us; we turned out backs to it, it was unendurable. Then it was gone.
Then out of a little wood at the foot of the hill came the intolerable crackling and bursting of rifles. The men in the trenches returned fire. Nothing could be seen. I thought of the bullets that would find their marks. But whose bullets? And what mark. Why must I fire off my gun in the darkness towards a noise? Why must a bullet come out of the darkness, breaking a hole in me? But better a bullet than the laceration of a shell, if it came to dying. But what is it all about? I cannot understand; I am not to understand. My God, why am I a man at all, when this is all, this machinery piercing and tearing?
It is a war of artillery, a war of machines, and men no more than the subjective material of the machine. It is so unnatural as to be unthinkable.
Yet we must think of it.”