War and Reconstruction: Establishing Democracy in Italy and Iraq

I read two books this month about U.S. attempts to establish democracy in a conquered/freed nation. A Bell for Adano by John Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. It’s about Major Victor Joppolo, an Italian American officer in the U.S. army who was “more or less the American mayor after our invasion” of Adano a small village in Sicily. Sunrise Over Fallujah is a contemporary young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers about young American soldier, Robin Perry, and his tour of duty in Iraq as a member of a Civil Affairs unit, a sort of put-out-the-fires public relations unit that’s called on to smooth relations with the Iraqi people in special, sometimes ticklish, situations.

The two books, although dealing with similar situations, had completely different atmospheres and a completely different take on war and its aftermath. Operation Iraqi Freedom versus Allied Miitary Government Occupied Territory (AMGOT). In one war, the Americans and their allies are invading an enemy’s country to conquer the fascists and establish democracy, no doubts that democracy is best or that it will work, just confidence and determination to finish a tough job no matter what the obstacles. Maor Joppolo must deal with army bureaucracy and with Italian obfuscation, but he is, as the author tells us from the beginning, “good.” In fact, again according to Mr. Hersey, “there were probably not any really bad men in Amgot, but there were some stupid ones.” Hersey’s American soldiers are more or less well-meaning, sometimes drunk, sometimes selfish, but bumbling toward a trustful relationship with the Italian people who are under their temporary rule in spite of mistakes and because of their essential good nature.

In the other war, the soldiers are confused about their mission, circumscribed and limited in their ability to do anything meaningful, worried about seeming too “gung-ho” and worried about not doing enough, afraid for their lives as they see roadside bombs kill comrades, and finally deceived and betrayed by their own commanders into participating in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. The Iraqis themselves are very minor characters in Sunrise Over Fallujah; one Iraqi who works for the soldiers at their base is asked what he thinks about the Americans being in his country, but his answer is ambiguous and noncommittal as befits some one who is being paid to work for the U.S. military.

All the Italians, even the “enemy” fascists, in Hersey’s book are somewhat comical and clownish; there’s not much to fear from the former mayor of Adano who can’t even decide if he wants to escape and run to the Germans or stay and be “reconstructed.” And Hersey’s good guys and bad guys are easily distinguished. Myers’ Iraqis are much more shadowy figures, and Robin can’t decide who the enemy is half the time. The issue of trust and whom you can trust in such a foreign land is a continuing problem in in Sunrise. Finally, the soldiers in Iraq in Sunrise Over Fallujah find that they can only trust their buddies, and sometimes not even everyone in their own unit.

In both books a child dies, by accident, at the hands of the Americans. But in A Bell for Adano the accidental death of an Italian child run over by an American military truck results in a new policy for ensuring the safety of the children who run beside the trucks to beg for candy from the AMerican GI’s. Major Joppolo says that the accident is a result of the Americans’ generosity:

“Sometimes generosity is a fault with Americans, sometimes it does harm. It has brought high prices here, and it has brought you misery. But it is the best thing we Americans can bring with us to Europe. So please do not hate the Americans.”

Throughout the book, Major Joppolo is sure that, in spite of mistakes and tragedies, the Americans are in Italy to do good, to defeat the bad guys and lead the Italian civilians to a better life. And the Italians, for the most part, go along with the major’s view of things. They see the AMericans as liberators, and even when mistakes are made, the Italian protest is muted and more mournful than angry.

In Sunrise Over Fallujah, children die as a result of “collateral damage” from an American bombing run, and the protagonist, Robin Perry, also holds a dying Iraqi child in his arms. (I don’t remember the exact circumstances, and I’ve already returned the book to the library.) No one talks about the good intentions of the Americans or tries to explain the tragedies as misplaced American generosity. No one is ever sure that what the Americans are doing or trying to do in Iraq is good or right or better for the Iraqi people.

I tend to believe that war and reconstruction are always much more Fallujah-like (confusing and dangerous) than Adano-like (good-natured and bumbling), but maybe the difference is one of attitude and a crisis of confidence. Was the American military governance of Sicily really more of a farce than a tragedy because the Americans of that generation believed in what they were doing and so made others believe in it, too, even their erstwhile enemies? Can we do the same thing, win hearts and minds, establish democracy, in Fallujah and in Iraq, or are the people of Iraq too foreign, too Muslim, too different, and too dangerous? I’m not there, and I don’t know, but reading these two books in conjunction with one another has made me think. We do live in different world now than my grandparents lived in after WW II, but we are engaged in much the same task as Major Joppolo was in A Bell for Adano. Surely, if we could win Italian hearts and minds in 1945, we can win Iraqi hearts and mind in 2008. It’s just going to take a bunch of Major Joppolos and a great deal of wisdom and restraint on the part of some very young soldiers like Robin Perry.


6 thoughts on “War and Reconstruction: Establishing Democracy in Italy and Iraq

  1. I think this post is fascinating – I love how you combined the two books, comparing their perspectives on similar situations.

  2. I read Bell for Adano (not really knowing what it was going to be about)shortly after the war in Iraq began. I was struck by the exact passage that you quoted here – about Americans trying to do their best, but often being mistrusted or misunderstood. Thank you for your excellent review of both books.

  3. It seems to me that before we can hope to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis we are going to have to win the hearts and minds of Americans, Americans who have been taught that we are the problem and who are no longer willing to defend their own country.

  4. This book really reminded me of the movie, Local Hero. Both Joppolo and Mac in LH, set out to do a job in a strange environment and then fall under the spell of the place. It changes them. In the end, they doesn’t get to stay in paradise but they will never be the same. In both stories there is random interference from a superior that upsets the apple cart, so to speak. In Adano and Local Hero the outcome for the inhabitants who are left behind is hopeful but ambiguous.

    Hersey was a war correspondent in the Pacific and Sicilian invasions. He had seen a lot by the time he wrote Adano. Supposedly, he wrote the book in 3 weeks or an equally short time. I thought it was very interesting that Adano was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on VE day. To me it was an affirmation that the American mission to free Europe and rebuild it with democratic principles was a valid and worthwhile endeavor. Hard to imagine an affirming message like that coming out of the media today.

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