Haile Selassie calls it a "death-dealing rain." His description is technically accurate and imbued with poetry, and as such outdoes anything our propagandists could devise. It will likely persist in the histories of Italy's rebirth.
Of course, the world sits on its hands, but what could the good Ethiopian expect? There's less outrage than awe: dropping five-hundred-pound canisters of mustard and phosgene is one thing; spraying it in aerosolized form from wing-mounted attachments is another. Only a full diving suit might offer protection. And who in the Makale region of Abyssinia in 1936 has one of those?
I cannot say I was destined for an officer-ship in the Regia Aeronautica. Narrow in the torso, lightly muscled, I did not present an imposing physical specimen when I arrived at Caserta. The Royal Flight Academy's training officers smirked and traded jokes about me at that first muster, and for many days after. I became disoriented during the physical-training sessions meant to weed out the weaker aspirants. I was wracked by air sickness my first time aloft. Failure, it appeared, was to be my fate.
But I excelled in the classroom, where the science of aeronautics somehow spelled itself out. Attitudes of yaw, degrees of lift, deviations in vector headings. The intricately knotted equations came loose beneath my gaze. While my classmates used our infrequent breaks to smoke or drink coffee, I pored over the well-thumbed manuals to see if there was anything our balding instructor had missed. Soon there wasn't a single calculation that eluded me. I took secret payments to help trainees who couldn't keep up. (Don't underestimate the potential for profit in such an enterprise.)
Feeding on the confidence born, I worked to master the physical challenges. I became the ruler of my body and succeeded in quelling its various rebellions. Through rigorous exercise I developed strength; extra running, squat thrusts, and other strenuous activity lent bulk to my physique.
Then to the azure skies doming the turrets and crenellations of the Academy. I made thin air my element and soon began to thrive. Weeks passed, and then came the afternoon I outmaneuvered our class leader, six thousand feet above the earth, struts of the aging bi-wing bending outward with the stress of my ascent, the fabric of the lower leading edge peeling back in the consequent plunge to reveal the beveled wood beneath.
Nine months on, I was graduated near the top of my class. Proficient in multiple classes of fighter and bomber, I was selected for the advance deployment in Eritrea -- one of only two hundred pilots in all of Italy so chosen. I have since achieved the rank of SergenteMaggiore. As group commander, I wear the pale-blue swallowtail insignia bisected by a red horizontal bar. Someday, as Stormo, I will wear the full rectangular insignia of wing commander. My crewmen know me as Boboa; I've absolved them of the need to address me any more formally than that. It is a courtesy I've extended to no one else.
My brother died of diphtheria when he was twelve. He left behind a wooden crèche he'd painstakingly assembled from matchsticks, poplar twigs, and lichen-covered potsherds from our mother's garden. The manger held real hay, kept in place with a simple paste and shielded from time by a light amber glaze. The Abyssinian king was painted the color of the chestnuts my mother would roast at that time of year. A wedge of quartz no larger than the stone of an apricot was fitted into the space where the angled roof sections nearly met; its facets reflected the light of a flickering candle my brother placed nearby.
I was two years his junior, and this simple trick amazed me. Decades later, it still does: I kept the crèche for myself, and I set it up on Christmas Eve just as my brother did, and just as my son will when it passes to him. I sometimes find myself staring at the candle's glimmering flame as if it's the light of a real star.
The Savoia-Marchetti 81 presents as well on the ground, three to a wing, as it does aloft. In other words, a trio in formation is pleasing from any vantage -- although "pleasing" might not be the word selected by imminent targets, assuming they are even in a state of mind to form a conscious description of their approaching doom.
The bomb bay comprises two chambers, aft and mid-fuselage, linked by a crawl space bristling with exposed rivets. Daylight streams through the half-dozen porthole-like windows lining each side. The bomber handles nimbly yet sturdily -- and is surprisingly fleet given its modest engines. Maybe it's the absence of fitted armor; only portions of its body are clad in metal, with wood and fabric sufficing in the struts, spats and tail. Do not equate this with vulnerability. We ferry ordnance of greater than two tons; we're armed with individual thousand-pound bombs; we're equipped with a spray attachment that has expanded the dimensions of aerial warfare beyond anything heretofore known.
News comes that Mussolini wants to witness a demonstration. Two of his sons are said to be in country already, as well as Count Galleazo Ciano, the son-in-law.
We keep waiting to see them. My crewmen, excited, revel in what they see as a show of solidarity. "They're just like us," my technician says. "Patriots. Risking it all for the glory of Italy." He could use a shave, and the near-equatorial climate of eastern Africa does not suit him. He sips hot tea, like an Englishman. He claims to have a girl waiting for him in Calabria. He does his job well, and I accord him corresponding respect.
"War brings the imprint of nobility to those who have the virtue to fight it,'' he quotes from over the rim of his teacup. I do not bother correcting him. Mussolini's exact phrasing differs somewhat, but that it's become something of a credo, even if bastardized, is the far larger point.
There were twelve ahead of me, until my brother died, and then there were only eleven.
What is it like to be the last of so many? My mother was an old lady from the time I can remember. My father, God rest him, lives in my mind as the black-mustachioed soldier in the portrait mounted to the wall against which our enormous table stood.
I had sisters, and they raised me, while my brothers hunted rabbit and quail on the golden, brush-covered hillsides. They'd come home -- their kill strung on twine, their palms black with blood -- and use the tips of their boots to knock down the toy banquet service before which my sisters, as if playing with a doll, had arranged me.
I was forever the baby, il bambino, until I was married. By then I at last had learned to fend for myself.
My technician asks: "Boboa, do you miss your wife?" He asks: "Do you miss your son?"
Cloud cover keeps us temporarily grounded, and we wait out the hours beneath torn mosquito netting, lighting new cigarettes from the red ends of old to pass the time. I think of my wife's black hair and perfectly symmetrical breasts, each areola a blushing rose. I think of my son's sunken chest and trembling gaze. When I'm home I eagerly partake of her many delights, then work just as energetically to make him a man.
He was born early, my only son, and (I fear) does not possess the fortitude that enabled his father to overcome similar physical and temperamental disadvantages. A lasting image I have is of him standing over spilled toys -- a make-believe banking set, with glittering coins and brightly painted notes, with stamp pads and pretend fountain pens. It is as if the whole thing has simply fallen from his arms, although I suppose it's just as reasonable to think someone might have knocked it out of his grasp. The pieces lie scattered across the stone floor. A bead of mucous, clear but thick, rests above his quivering lip.
"Yes," I answer, lowering the coal of the cigarette to the spotted wings of a mosquito nestled in the hair of my forearm. It withers instantly, and a fine coil of smoke rises. "I miss my wife. My son as well."
We amassed eight divisions, including two of the feared black-shirt infantry, in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland in less than six months -- nearly seven-hundred-thousand men. We brought in two thousand pieces of artillery, six hundred tanks, and about as many aircraft. We fortified our supply lines. We ensured the fitness and loyalty of our Eritrean askari -- who better than proven native fighters to soften the enemy for us? Selassie's bare-footed soldiers might have little more than horse-carts and magic spells at their disposal, yet one cannot underestimate the strength of a people fighting for what they believe to be their homeland.
Our own casualties have borne this out: hundreds killed, more than a thousand wounded. We knew we could count on a spirited fight, but we are not discouraged. We continue to hold the unsurpassed advantage in men, firepower, and technology.
The efficacy of vaporized mustard gas has been established. We have an open order to continue its use.
Two sisters are all that remain of my siblings. Time has claimed the others -- although some unquestionably hastened the process with ill-advised habits and unnecessary recklessness.
One of my surviving sisters lives comfortably in Turin with her industrialist husband; his success in the manufacture and distribution of an electrical ignition device has positioned their children as heirs to a great fortune.
The other married a painter, of all things, and took up residence in a crumbling villa outside Sienna. He makes plain his disgust for the fascists, while I find hilarious his speckled canvasses and knotted beard. The last time I saw him, he called me a toy soldier to my face -- I believe I was supposed to think it an insult -- but he has yet to refuse my gifts of financial support. Maybe this is at the root of the resentment he feels for me.
What drives us in part is the sting of defeat. The first war for Abyssinia may have concluded fifty years ago, but wounds that deep are slow to heal. We are here to right the record, to build the New Roman Empire, and thus too to warn the world. We may one day regret our growing attachment to Hitler, but no man of awareness or even conscience can dispute the facts that underpin his motives. The welling conspiracy must be stanched at its source, and we will work toward that common goal.
I'm thankful, though, to be in service to Duce. The Italian is fundamentally different from the German. Even here at the front we have our cigarettes, our coffee. We officers have wine with our midday meal. The enlightened past of our civilization imbues the present; the instincts and sensibilities that inspired the great eternal works remain a part of us today.
My father was a war hero, having single-handedly apprehended a dozen Austrian soldiers with nothing but his sword. He was part of the offensive on Gorizia: Days of passionate and picturesque fighting amid the peaks and passes, with nothing less than control of the Doberdo plateau and thus the railway link to Trieste at stake. He was there when King Victor Emanuel himself arrived to encourage another charge against the enemy's freshly amassed reserves.
The soaring crests and plunging ravines were no place to wage an artillery battle in the summer months of 1915. My father's prisoners represented only a handful of the weakened thousands taken in the course of the engagement, but his action came at a particularly critical junction and was a catalyst to morale.
Anyway, this was the narrative promulgated by our family. I never heard it from the mouth of the man himself. The steely countenance and aggressive posture on display in the portrait had become artifacts by the time I was old enough to take note; after his homecoming, he kept mainly to his rooms, and was usually abed, appearing on holy days or other occasions, stooped and trembling, the cuts from my mother's unsteady shaving hand still crimson on his neck.
At first, they run. They always do -- it is an entirely understandable instinct. But there is little beneath which to find shelter. We see them shift and dash, like filings spilled through a cone of paper -- coming together, breaking apart, coming together again. Up go their hands, but what good is it? They are as defenseless as the mosquito on my forearm, and they wither just as easily.
We fly in arrays of nine, fifteen and eighteen craft. We are escorted by our familiar and reliable bi-winged Fiat CR32 fighters -- screaming bees to our growling locusts. My technician calls them, affectionately, the little scamps. We fly low and straight, an airborne armada, wingtip to wingtip. I can see the graying mustache of Brienzi, the pilot to my starboard side, and the scarred cheek of Totino, to port. That's the tightness of our formation; that's how close we are.
We make continuous sorties, using up all available daylight. At dusk, a thick wet sheet stretches heavy over the land, and at dawn we are aloft again. My bombardier picks targets from his position in the retractable gondola beneath the cockpit, then relays coordinates into my earpiece. My technician's thumb and forefinger grow red and blistered from activating the spray mechanism; my back is sore and my buttocks are numb against the cracking seat.
Now and then the cloud of gas obscures the hills below, but a new target always presents itself. And if we don't get it, then the next wave will, or the one after that.
Through such diligence, we successfully treat the vast majority of the human population. We've made sure to target women -- the breeders of the next generation.
We are under orders now to poison the livestock, the water, the very earth itself.
He was taken more with the colors of the notes than their denominations. He devised an elaborate system of categorization and storage: pale orange atop pale blue atop white; any deviation was the source of great consternation. He pressed the inked stamps to the reproduction of Garibaldi at the center of each, obliterating the man's face. He used the coins as representative pieces in an imaginary family -- the largest was papa, the next largest mama, and so on. The fountain pens became flowers, which he presented to me when I took my afternoon espresso.
Instead of maturing, my son regressed, before my eyes growing less rather than increasingly masculine. It was a banking set and he didn't learn a thing about banking! So: The coins flew through the air like sparks, the notes fluttered around us like confetti. The stamps, the pens -- they found their places on the stone floor too, at the ends of trajectories determined by their mass and weight and the force exerted on them by the upward thrust of my forearm against the tray my son used to transport his favorite toy from room to room.
My wife, boring holes through me with her blazing black eyes, comforted him in the fragrant valley of her bosom.
It is a lesson -- and a harsh one, to be sure, but the necessary lessons are often so. Not just to the vanquished combatants, but also to potential foes. Italy must be seen as strong, decisive, relentless, ruthless. What good are aircraft on the ground, wheels chocked and engines cool? As Mussolini has said, it is far better to use them, that's what we built them for. So we shout: Virtute siderum tenus. With valor to the stars.
From above, the land is devoid of human life. There are silt-brown lakes, which we dutifully spray, and meager, meandering rows of crops, whose leaves droop beneath the wet weight of vaporized chemical. We let loose on sheep and even chickens when we see them. Cattle make easy prey, and when a bent-necked steer appears atop a low rise, I bank in that direction. My technician depresses the control. The beast raises its head and plants its four legs wide. Its great cock and balls are visible, even from the air. It shakes it large head as if confused. It kneels, and as we pass it falls to the ground. Soon enough its hide will be splitting under the corrosive glaze of the gas.
"God forgive us," my technician says, flexing the cramped muscles of his hand.
I remind him of the accolades our unit will receive. "A noi." Together, as fascists.
It is finished soon after, for all but the cleanup. We rest on hammocks and await instructions. Boredom sets in. We envision Selassie in chains and look forward to going home, whenever that might be.
My thoughts turn to Christmas, still many months off. Perhaps it's the heat, or the sudden inactivity. I see my dead brother's crèche, pulled from storage and set on the great hearth of the kitchen, just as it was when I was a child. I will place a candle close enough to throw light on the facets of the quartz star. Over the twelve days commencing with the birth of the savior, my son and I will gradually move the trio of kings -- the Celt, the Arabian, the chestnut-colored Abyssinian -- ever closer to the manger, meting out their steps like bits of bread to prisoners.
Yes, it will torture him, this incremental progress, but I will counsel forbearance. With time comes strength. He will see: The gift that comes on their feast day will be the sweeter for it. Patience.
His own epiphany, a lesson I fully intend for him to learn, and to remember long after I have gone.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Dominic Preziosi. All rights reserved.