The Irish Times


ID: 198300008521

July 18, 2017

Originally published by The Irish Times, 1983.

ON OCTOBER 20th, 1944, Norman Lewis wrote in his journal, “A year among the Italians has converted me to such an admiration for their humanity and culture that were I given the chance to be born again, Italy would be the country of my choice.” This explains why “Naples 44” gives an overall impression of beauty, dignity, mellowness, graciousness; the hallmarks of indestructible traditions serenely surviving the barbarisms of yet another war. In his journal Norman Lewis recorded every sort of brutality, corruption, chicanery, depravity and squalor. Yet he never allowed himself to be depressed by his experiences as a field security officer.

Always he remained aware of immemorial controlling rituals below the surface, of wit glinting through the most macabre and sordid “deals”, of exotic codes of honour and courage giving a bizarre—and not entirely phone—aura of respectability to the most outrageous Mafia manoeuvrings. Always, too, he responded to people as individuals; so his pages vibrate with the entries and exits of a preposterous yet wholly credible cast of happy rascals, melancholy eccentrics, lascivious noblewomen, licentious soldiery, keen-witted child-crooks and suave Black Marketeers who might be anything from senior officers of the Allied Military Government to Vatican prelates to Community Party bosses.

Of course for an ordinary decent Englishman it was all a bit confusing at times, especially as Field Security personnel were allowed an astonishing autonomy which could put them in uncommonly awkward situations. They were expected to combat corruption only in so far as it affected the operations of the Allied Armies. But often it was hard to know where to draw the line; or, indeed, whether it was would be prudent to draw any line. Towards the end of his year in the Naples area, Norman Lewis wrote sadly: I personally have been rigid when I should have been flexible. Here the police—corupt and tyrannical as they are—and the civil population play a game together, but the rules are complex and I do not understand them, and through lack of this understanding I lose respect.”

“Naples ‘44” forces us to dwell on the physical and moral dreadfulness of what is now quaintly called “convention war”, to distinguish it from that sophisticated nuclear war—all new and different and excitingly unconventional—at present being considered as a “possible option” by the Pentagon.

On September 11th, 1943, at Salerno, Norman Lewis learned that Americans of the 45th Division had been ordered to take no German prisoners and to beat to death with their rifle butts any German who tried to surrender. Mr Lewis wrote that evening: I find this almost incredible.” A fortnight later he was relieved to noticed that some of the Americans were “beginning to question the ethics of this order. One man who surrendered to a German tank crew was simply stripped of his weapons and turned loose because he could not be carried in the tank, and as a result he is naturally a propagandist for what he accepts as the general high standard of German humanity.”

As German tanks rolled towards the Allied position at Salerno, the American officers stealthily deserted, abandoning their men, who soon succumbed to total panic and “in the belief that our position had been infiltrated by German infantry began to shoot each other and there were blood-chilling screams from men hit by their own bullets … Official history will in due time set to work to dress-up this part of the action at Salerno with what dignity it can. What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos.”

Norman Lewis also records his compatriots’ misdeeds. At Secuirty Headquarters in Salno, he saw a British officer interrogating an Italian civilian by battering his head with a chair—“a treatment which the Italian, his face a mask of blood, suffered with stoicism.” The officer then called in a private of the Hampshires and asked him, “Would you like to take this man away, and shoot him?” The private spat on his hands and replied, “I don’t mind if I do, sir.” Norman Lewis described this as “the most revolting espied I have ever seen since joining the forces.” But of course there was much worse to come.

When the French colonial troops took a town or village, they raped the entire population—old men and children as well as women of all ages. Often two Moroccans assaulted a woman simultaneously, one committing sodomy while the other had normal intercourse. Many victims suffered damage to the genitals, uterus and rectum. At Ceccano, the British had to build a guarded camp to protect the Italian from the Moors—many of whom had by then joined other deserters, from all the Allied Armies, in terrorising areas far behind the line of battle.

Norman Lewis wondered, “What is it that turns an ordinary decent Moroccan peasant into the most terrible of sexual psychopaths as soon as he becomes a soldier?” A few days later he was recording Italian vengeance: Five Moors were given food or wine containing some paralysing poison. While fully conscious they were castrated, and then beheaded. The decapitation was entrusted to pubescent boys to prove their worth, but the boys lacked both the skill and strength to carry the task out in a speedy manner.”

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“Naples 44” frequently reminds us that modern man is the most dangerous of all animals. We who lead sheltered lives can at times delude ourselves that civilisation is winning out, that we of the 20th century are not as our forefathers were—delighting in public hangings, and all that. But once war has removed the restraints imposed by modern society, most men still behave like the hordes of Attila the Hun, whether they be Guards officers or Moroccan peasants. Where we really have advanced is in the devising of national international structures for the maintenance of laws and order. And perhaps one day, if we survive long enough, we’ll learn how to use those structures effectively, to avoid war.