Italian War Memorial: Ai Caduti

The role of the soldier is not to kill for his country, but to die for it

In any Italian town or city, you will find a war memorial that lists the names of all of the local residents, virtually always men, who died during World War II. At the top of this list is the title: Ai Caduti, or ‘To the Fallen’. These local memorials highlight the importance of the town as a form of political, social and cultural organization and identity, a phenomenon known as campanilismo in Italian, the geographical reference being the bell tower of the local church, to which residents have a strong connection. It is a scale of social formation that is largely degraded in the United States, given the high mobility of many of its residents, but it is still a very strong feature of Italian society.

There is something deeper than town loyalty being displayed in these monuments, however, something more anthropological than sociological, more animal than human, more animal and therefore more spiritual, the root of animal being anima, or spirit. Let’s look at what that might be.

When primates – baboons, say – have to move across a forest, jungle, swamp or plain, they have to protect themselves, because who knows what predators lurk in the shadows: big cats, large reptiles, other primates, even other baboons. It really is nature red in tooth and claw, a risk environment that modern human beings have all but forgotten, except for the terrible times when the car breaks down, the ski trail ends, or the wave breaks over the cliff, and unsuspecting victims suddenly find themselves stripped of the protections that modern infrastructures provide.

Baboons of course are in this hazardous state all of the time, but they too have evolved and devised protections against it. So when a troop of baboons decides it needs to leave its established territory, it gathers in a group that has a particular formation and that serves a particular purpose. Females, and especially mothers with their infants, and all other juvenile members of the troop, take the center of the formation. Ringing the outside are all of the male members of the troop, with the youngest and strongest taking the outermost positions.

The strategy behind the formation is clearly to protect the females and the infants, who form and represent the regenerative capacity of the troop; they are its future, the carrier of the troop’s genes. The role of the young males turns out to be somewhat surprising, however. A baboon, no matter how strong or healthy, is not much of a match for a hungry lion, tiger, hyena, leopard, cheetah or crocodile. When attacked by a predator, a young male baboon will certainly fight for his life and for the safety of his troop, but his main role in the formation is, more simply, to be eaten. He is fodder. Once the predator has its meal, it goes away and the troop is safe to continue on its trek across dangerous territory.

What insight does this give us into war monuments? They always honor the fallen, those who were slain in war. They never honor, for example, the soldiers who killed the greatest number of soldiers on the opposing side. Such a display would have to be aggressive and violent, at least implicitly, and would be considered barbaric in a civilized society. No, the memorial is always ai caduti, and if it includes any kind of figural representation, it is of a fallen soldier, either dead or wounded, perhaps being carried off by his fellow soldiers. To win at war, to be a hero, at least as it is depicted in war memorials, is to sacrifice your life, your self, for your collective, for your troop.

‘Troop’ is a funny word in this sense. Used in the singular, it refers to the group, the collective, just as I used it in reference to the group of baboons. Used in the plural, however — troops — it refers again to a collective, but can be used as a way of saying ‘soldiers’, which suggests a possible backward formation of a singular ‘troop’ to mean a single member of a collective. This is not grammatically true but it is true semantically, so that there arises an ambiguity about the word, such that troop can refer to both a singular and a collective entity. What a fitting description of the role and mindset of the soldier who sacrifices his life for the collective and is in fact in many ways considered to be indistinguishable from it.

So, no, the role of the soldier is not to kill for his country, but to die for it.

This dynamic finds another strong manifestation in the practice of human sacrifice, the most common and eminent example of it being found in Christianity, the central story of which is that Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for all others, or at least those who profess their faith in him as their spiritual savior. It is also no accident that the second most sacred image in Christianity, particularly Catholicism, after Christ on the Cross, is La Pietà, in which Mary holds the body of her slain son across her lap. The dynamic seen in the animal world, mother and child in the safe center, young men on the dangerous perimeter, is evident also here in human and even divine form: the young male dies for the welfare of the collective, not by killing or even fighting but by willingly sacrificing his life. The fact that Jesus plays both roles – vulnerable infant and sacrificing young man – compounds the story in an intriguing way, one that calls for further explication of the complicated relationship among God the father, Christ the son, and the Holy Spirit — the trinity — and the Virgin Mary, and also somewhat of course, Joseph. Viewed in materialist terms, religion seems nonsensical, but viewed through sociological and anthropological lenses, its meaning is revealed.

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, and the English biologist Rupert Sheldrake, are very fond of such analyses and have developed worldwide followings because they offer something that is apparently in short supply in contemporary life, at least in modern industrial democracies, a kind of ultimate sense of meaning and purpose.

This idea of the individual who sacrifices themself for the sake of the collective offers a way to interpret other social phenomena. Why do our brilliant young musicians and actors so often kill themselves at such a young age when they seemingly have everything that life could offer? Drug and alcohol abuse, an erroneous sense of invulnerability, the stresses of fame and success — these are all proximate explanations for such tragedies. But there is something working at a deeper level that has to do with the symbiotic but unstable relation between the individual and the collective that calls for greater understanding.

Not surprisingly, the war memorials that dot the Italian landscape contain and represent this essential aspect of human interaction in a distinct and moving way, and their origins are, well, immemorial.