Published on Thursday, January 23, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
How Will Iraqis Greet Their 'Liberators'?
In '43, a GI found grateful Sicilians. Scorn may be payoff of our next war
by Walter Bernstein
Recently, my wife and I vacationed in Sicily. I had not been there since 1943, when I was a soldier in the Army. My wife wanted to visit the village where her mother was born, and I discovered it was near a village named Ficarra.
I remembered Ficarra well, both the combat and the liberation. What I remembered best was the liberation, my first experience of what our fighting was all about. It occurred during the campaign to drive Axis troops out of Sicily and back onto the Italian mainland. I was part of a reconnaissance team that drove up a winding dirt road to see whether there were German troops in this hilltop village. There were, and there was a brief firefight with no casualties. Then the Germans pulled out.
I was curious about what the town looked like now. Of course, it looked like nothing I remembered. It had been tiny, too small even to be on a map, but now there were stores and a new church. We wandered around the town square, watched by several men sitting on a bench. We went over to them, and my wife explained what we were doing there. They nodded, no one speaking, and then a man standing on the edge of the group suddenly said something.
My wife turned to me and said, "He said there were seven of them." He had been hiding in his mother's house, a deserter from the Italian army, and had seen us come up in two jeeps, seven of us. The man and I stood there, staring at each other over all those years, speechless.
And it all came back to me, that hot, dusty day, shooting from doorways at dim, running figures and how pumped up and scared I was. I remembered the frightened faces of the three German soldiers we captured -- young men certain we were going to shoot them -- and I recalled the stillness after the fighting, the stink of gunpowder hanging in the air. And then the stillness was shattered by the sharp, clapping sounds of shutters being thrown back and people pouring out of the houses to greet us, some of them holding out loaves of brown bread, apologizing that, because of the war, the flour was not white.
As I was flooded by those memories, I thought -- although I didn't want to -- of Baghdad. I wondered: Will the shutters open there after the smart bombs have done their work, the collateral damage not yet tidied up? Will we be greeted with bread or grenades or simply the sullen hate of the conquered?
My generation was not the greatest (there is no greatest generation), but we believed in our war, believed it was just and necessary. It was the last war the whole country believed in.
The prospective war with Iraq is not one I believe in. We have been attacked and must fight back, but Iraq is not who attacked us, and I have yet to see proof that it can or will.
Whatever is claimed, this will not be a war of liberation.
We were proud of ourselves that day in Ficarra 60 years ago, secure in the rightness of our cause. Standing in that same square, I thought of what the United States is planning for Baghdad.
I am not proud. And I do not think I am alone.
Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist" (Da Capo Press, 2000).
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times