Antonio Denti: Notes on War in Times of Peace

Generations

I’d rather fight a war tomorrow than think my son might have to do it one day.

This sentence, which I know to be true, does not belong to me. It does not emanate from me. It inhabits me because I am part of this living planet. It originates in the deepest strata of life, in the mechanisms that regulate the way life is handed down from being to being, from generation to generation, across time. It does not make me any more courageous than the moderately frightened – or more heroic than the moderately selfish – man that I am.

I know it is true because I felt it, sharp and clear as a crystal, a few days ago. I was speaking with a very good friend and, as we spoke, we watched our kids playing in the shallow water. She, my friend, is an astronomer. We met when we were little more than children ourselves, at fifteen. And, even if we are in our forties and she lives in Australia, we have never lost touch. We meet briefly every few years, and when we do – a little like teenagers – all we talk about are fundamental questions and cosmic issues.

We were looking at our children. And she said, more or less, “We have lived in times of peace. But them – I am not so sure.”

The sun was still shining. The kids were still playing. It was just a sentence made of words. But I could feel it passing over me like a dark shadow, like a moving wall of black clouds. That possibility, unthinkable just a few years ago. A dark shadow, a quick shiver. I knew then that I’d go to war, if I knew it would prevent it.

I have seen war, more than once. It is because of my job. I am a news agency cameraman. I saw it in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Banda Aceh, in Israel, in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Tunisia… It is where I collected the photo-notes that make up this article. But I always saw it briefly, always as an outsider. And it was never my war. War never saw me.

I was born in Sicily in 1972, and I have never fought in a war. Neither has my father, Ettore, who was born in 1945.

His father, Antonino, who was born in Sicily in 1896, did. He fought three wars. He was 18 when he went to fight the Austrians in the Italian north-east. It was the Great War. He gained several medals there and I remember reading, as a child, the handwritten accolades signed on behalf of the king describing with magniloquent words how this young man did not hesitate to dive into no man’s land under enemy fire, to retrieve a wounded comrade. This grandfather, whom I never met, eventually became a professional soldier and went on to fight in Italy’s colonial war in Libya for ten years. By the time the Second World War came round he was a major and by the time he died, when my father was sixteen, he was a general. War had been his life’s trade.

My other grandfather, Angelo, had a very, very different story though he too fought a war. He was born in Sicily in 1910. He was not interested at all in martial activities and became a doctor. An unlucky coincidence had him start his two-year compulsory military service in 1937. By the time he was about to finish and go back to his life the Second World War had started and he was drafted to fight on the eastern front, against Yugoslavia. Which he did. By 1945, this man who had no interest in fighting, had been a soldier for seven years.

Angelo was a very, very important presence in my life. He died in 2007 at the age of 97. After the war he started where he had left off, became a very well respected psychiatrist, had five children and many grandchildren. In the very last months of his long and full life, as he began drifting away from the daily life of the house of which he was the centre, strangely and suddenly,  he started talking more and more of his days as a soldier, of his days at war.

He died on a luminous winter day. Just before entering the short agony that ended his long life he insisted on shaving with his electric razor. He sat down in front of the window and shaved carefully, way I had seen him do it so many times in my childhood, before going to school. I am sure he shaved like that, slowly and carefully, even in the midst of war, in the midst of storm and thunder.

Just before his coffin was sealed, his four daughters exited the house and went into the vast garden-forest that surrounds it. They picked roses – his favourite flower – in every colour, and they raced back to put their petals and buds in the coffin. I was looking for the last time at this man I loved deeply, covered in roses, surrounded by his beautiful daughters shedding tears. And I thought, what more? What an epitaph. What a testimony to a life truly lived.

I was in that same forest-garden a few days ago. I live in Rome but I try to go back to the house where I grew up, in Sicily, when I can. It was late and the vast garden was enveloped in the darkness of the night. We were having dinner and our children, mine and my sisters’ and cousins’, were playing by the house, in the well-lit terrace.

Suddenly the older kid invited the others to follow him into the darkness of the garden to play hide-and-seek. My son, who is three years old, started shouting that he did not want to go, that he wanted to play hide-and-seek inside the house. He was about to start crying. I got up and walked up to him to ask what was wrong. So he looked up at me and as he did I saw – clear in his eyes – the intense, painful struggle between the desire to go and play with the others and the deep fear of the dark and unknown garden.  That fear, which prevented him from going and nailed him to the light. That terror, where every shadow hides a deadly danger, which I had come to know so well, in that very place, decades earlier. And that, later, I  had forgotten. I saw in his face the desperation of someone who knows that fear will prevail, that terror will be stronger. 

He was looking towards the dark garden, where he could hear the others running and laughing. My heart shrank. I would have taken his fear and put it into me if I could have. But I couldn’t, just as my father couldn’t take on my fear, nor his father – the warrior – his.

I told him that I’d go with him and smoke a cigarette in the garden. He hesitated briefly, then took my hand as we walked down the stairs that led into the darkness, where the others were playing. As we approached them, he left me and ran towards the shadows where the hide-and-seek action was taking place. I stood back and lit my cigarette.

I looked at them briefly, before going back to my dinner. He was running, laughing and moving fast among the dark bushes and trees. His terror was gone, swept away by a moment of confidence and courage, by the warm hand of a father. Suddenly, in the long shadows of the trees where he had seen only deadly danger and peril he could see adventure, fun and life. The miracle of courage.

For how much longer will I be able to walk with him into the dark gardens that await? Not long. For how much longer will my hand still manage to give him courage? I don’t know. But not long. It is the nature of life that one must walk towards the shadows alone.

I will not be able to fight any of the many wars that he will have to face. No. Like all fathers, all I can do is try and help him to learn what little magic can make us see adventure where danger lurked when we walk into a dark forest.