Saturday, December 16, 2006

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

“They always find the money to have a war,” my dad told me, the ever-present Camel regular dangling from his lips, eyes squinting through the haze at the television. “Italy was poor. During the Depression, it was very poor. But Mussolini still managed to invade Albania, then invade Ethiopia a few years later.” Maybe the Gulf of Tonkin incident precipitated this commentary. The conversation took place long ago and I can’t be sure. I just remember the talking head’s furrowed brow conveying the desperation of the situation. So where’d the old man get off feigning such world-weary insight? He could barely speak English. He saw plots in high places. Worst, he was subjecting his kid to secondhand smoke, the monster.

Lucky for him, those were unenlightened times, long before the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments calved Child Protection Units. He’d never get away with poisoning a youngster’s mind and lungs like that today, not with the Waco Killers in service and protection mode. Never mind that my mind and lungs seem to have fared quite well. Never mind, for that matter, that his could have fared worse: he’s still kicking at 80.

My mom and dad are southern Belgian (Wallonia) and northern Italian (Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia). Their fathers fled hard economic times in Italy to work in the coal mines of Belgium in the 1920s and 1930s, only to be sent back with the onset of hostilities in World War Two, their guest worker visas expired. The families moved back to Belgium after the war, where Mom and Dad met and married. They emigrated to Canada in 1955, then to the United States several years later.

Our neck of Toronto teemed with Italian immigrants, a number of them relatives and paisani. Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday afternoon dinner parties at my aunt and uncle’s cramped row house, feasting on pasta, minestrone, vitello, pollo, polenta, risotto and insalata. Food holds an exalted place in Northern Italian culture, no less than it does for our southern cousins. Far from mere sustenance, it facilitates and cements family and social ties. People would laugh, swap barbs, erupt in folk songs, argue politics and wax nostalgic for the Old Country at these peasant extravaganzas. Amidst the conviviality, though, there was an undercurrent of pessimism. From time to time, somebody would stop to marvel at the cornucopia of gustatory delights assaulting his senses, pause and shake his head with dark foreboding: “Tutta questa bonta di Dio! Non e’ possibile. Deve venir’ una guerra.” (“All of this goodness from God! It’s not possible. We’re due for a war.”)

It seemed to be a recurring theme. For a mostly fun-loving and spirited people, the tribe harbored deep-seated fears of impending calamity. They knew a simple directive from a high-level politico somewhere could unleash the dogs of war, turn their lives upside down and relieve them of the modest material comforts they’d worked so hard to secure.

The National Greatness crowd can blithely talk of “interests” and “international responsibilities” and bombing campaigns to export democracy to the unwashed masses. My parents, alleged beneficiaries of one such campaign, the Greatest Generation’s no less, had no use for its mythology. While Northern Italy didn’t experience the kind of devastation visited upon Germany, Russia or Japan, my mom did dodge Italian insurgents and German occupational forces—and the occasional American bomb to liberate her from those same Italian insurgents and German occupational forces. When it came to war, both she and my dad had had a taste of the home field disadvantage.

After several years in Canada, my parents moved to Michigan. In the heartland of the One Indispensable Nation, the home field disadvantage threatened to transmogrify into Road Team Burden. I turned 18 years of age. The law required I register for the draft.

I was sitting in the kitchen discussing the matter with my parents. My mom found the prospect disconcerting. Who could blame her? She hadn’t raised her son to feed the maw of the war machine. Happily, though, the Empire had begun to show symptoms of the dread (and dreadfully short-lived, as it turned out) Vietnam Syndrome. My mom was hopeful: “I think Americans have soured on war. Look at what happened in Vietnam. You don’t think there will be any more Vietnams anytime soon, do you?”

No, I didn’t think there’d be any more Vietnams anytime soon. (How naïve I could be when I was 18!) And yet, if the call went out, how did she think I should answer? How about my dad? Might he not disown a draft-dodging son? He had a sense of honor; some wars, surely, are defensive. So I posed the hypothetical: “Well, I sure hope there isn’t another Vietnam. But citizenship has its obligations. This country has given me a good life. If there is another war, don’t you think I should fight for my country?” I was only half-baiting the guy. I wanted to hear what he thought.

Little did I know. This I never saw coming:

“What?! Fight for your country! Are you crazy?! Where is this country of yours? You know what they called me when I lived in Belgium? Sale de macaroni [“Dirty Macaroni,” TP]! I went to Canada, they called me a wop! Then I came to America and I was a dago! Your country?! No! You have no country! You know where my country is? Right here! Between my legs! That’s my country! That’s all I live for! That’s all I’ll fight for! That’s all I’ll die for!” The rant came rapid-fire in his impeccable Venetian dialect, his blue eyes glinting with indignation, a thick tobacco-stained index finger gesturing vigorously at his nether regions: “Sa-tu dove se trova la mia patria? Qua! In mezzo le mie gambe! La’ e’ la mia patria! E sol per quel che vive! E sol’ per quel che combattero’! E sol per quel che moriro’!” It was too rich.

Like most dads, mine has never been one for touchy-feely declarations of love. But his fiery oration let me know he cared. Indeed, it imparted a lesson echoed in the estimable Butler Shaffer’s prescription for peace: “All that is required to end the wholesale butchery that most of us are eager to celebrate with the waving of flags is for each of us to put the faces of our children and grandchildren alongside the image of the state and ask ourselves: which am I prepared to sacrifice for the sake of the other?” (My dad would just have the children and grandchildren themselves put a different part of their anatomy alongside the image of the state and ask them which they are prepared to sacrifice for the other.)

General Anthony C. McAuliffe famously issued a one-word response to a German surrender ultimatum at the Battle of the Bulge. Anyone interested in dissuading a young man from participation in the butchery of war might do well to expropriate the General’s dismissive interjection and tie it to my dad’s vision for an enlightened and self-interested patriotism. Surrender to that bloodthirsty band of knaves and nincompoops intent on ruling the world from the banks of the Potomac? “Nuts!” indeed.

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