How NOT to write a military article. The case of Dr Emanuele Sica.
Sica, Emanuele, The Italian Army and the Battle of the Alps,
Canadian Journal of History; 47:2, Autumn 2012.
A very critical review.
Sica has written what amounts to a misleading account of the June 1940 Italian incursion into France. It is a sad piece of writing from someone who should know better. His examination of the Italian attack along the French Alpine “Little Maginot” Line is so riddled with inaccuracy and non-starters one hardly knows where to begin.
As I cannot reprint the entire text due to copyright restrictions, I will reveal its main contentions. Like most misguided writers writing about the Italian military effort in the Second World War, Sica is interested not so much in truth but on winning an argument. Like them, he starts with a premise, a common one that is firmly grounded in the historiography of the Second World War: that the Italian military forces were inept, incompetent, out of their depth, lacking in resources, leadership, morale and even, common sense. The only charge I would agree with is the charge of lacking resources. This is true, especially when one considers that Italian industrial output was as little as one sixth that of Germany or the UK. Losses were difficult to make up for, which explains why the Italians had to choose their fights carefully.
Now, for his article. This is a young man who has lectured briefly at the modest University of Waterloo (Canada) and received his PhD there. His only publication to date is this article in question. He managed to secure a lecturing position at the Royal Canadian Military Academy, but how is anyone’s guess.
In his abstract, which contains, or should contain what he is about to prove, he maintains that the Italian campaign was:
- hindered by poor strategy
- ineffective tactics
- an outdated military doctrine
- inadequate material due to the erosion of Italy’s industrial base in the 1930s.
However, none of the above does he actually prove. What he does prove is how easy it is for an armchair military writer to get it so wrong.
First of all, he goes into a long winded account of the 18th century military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz (1780 –1831) and extracts a few quotes from him. We can see what’s coming already. An armchair intellectual, indeed one still wet behind the ears, is using an 18th century thinker to assist him in explaining a modern-day battle. It’s a worry, but still, let’s give this young man the benefit of the doubt. He proceeds to highlight the differences between the Prussian Junker military tradition with the Italian and specifically with the Piedmontese tradition. Why he would, he doesn’t explain, but his conclusion is predictable: “Unfortunately, the Piedmontese army and its Italian counterpart could not stand up to the comparison.” All very interesting, but hardly relevant, even if true. Sadkovich was right when he maintains that it is almost a universal tendency to view the Italian military through the prism of the German paradigm. Sica does it so well, and even goes one step better, by digging back into 18th century history!
The more I read this exemplar of a scholastic article, the more my heart sank. It could only get worse, and sure enough, it did, for in the next section, he denigrates the Italian high command for being stagnant, careerist, stifling of criticism, monopolistic, and weighed down to a military theory “tied to anachronistic trench warfare” which is odd because in the preceding statement, he pointed out the doctrine of guerra de rapido corso or “war of rapid decision” was a doctrine the Italian military planners were attempting to implement. Never mind that the primary reason for the fall of France was precisely that the French and the English were expecting the same kind of warfare – static trench warfare (and even in the same area) – which led to their defeat in May 1940. Sica’s contradiction is only one of many to come in this poorly thought-out monograph. For example, he proceeds to scold and berate the Italian military, wailing about how corrupt and inefficient it was and how it functioned more through patronage than merit, as if these were problems only the Italian military faced. And yet, evidence for these accusations is sparse indeed. His paper lacks adequate sources to back up many of his claims. For example, he complains that Italian aircraft were poorly designed – “the airplanes proved unreliable.” He gets this gem of wisdom from another knuckle-headed historian, MacGregor Knox who Sica quoted referring to Italian planes which “were more deadly to their crews than to the enemy”. And yet, many authors have affirmed the quality of Italian fighter planes as being as good as or comparable to any the British could produce. Again, Sica does not provide much in the way of evidence or in depth analysis to back his claims.
His article then veers into weird directions, as when he quotes Ciano who overheard Mussolini discussing the reforestation of the Apennines in order to lower the average temperature in Italy to toughen up the Italians! It is not the absurdity of this statement but Sica’s use of it, that plunges his monograph into new depths of banality, this is apart from the fact that the Ciano diaries have been worked over by British Intelligence and therefore, compromised and unreliable.
He castigates the binary division scheme in 1938 as contributing to “the woeful unpreparedness of the Italian army” and yet gives no reasons how it contributed to its “woefulness”. Or when he does give reasons they are superficial and more descriptive than explanatory.
Sica peppers his disastrous article with unhelpful emotive words and phrases like “appalling”, “disastrous”, “woeful”, “absurd” “obviously”, “Mussolini’s tirades” and “harangues” “make matters worse”, “glaringly apparent” “flabbergasted” “massive unpredictability” “the Italian troops were heading towards certain doom”, “bewildered Italian troops”, “it is truly remarkable”, all colorful language that would better suit a courtroom lawyer trying desperately to win an argument than a balanced historian confident in his material. In fact, I suspect Sica is trying to extend his English vocabulary in an awkward, self-conscious way, to sound more “English” than the English. Again, I come back to my point that Sica’s analysis is so puerile, that what he has left to fall back on are expressions like these that highlight and achieve nothing except to undermine his arguments. I further suspect he is trying to impress a particular audience, perhaps to line up a job with some academy or college. Certainly no serious university would ever stoop to employ him with the triteness he has written here.
Sica goes into a harangue of the Italian military from top to bottom, accusing it of incompetence, corruption, cronyism and half a dozen other “sins” as if other armies did not suffer similar malaise and pitfalls. Indeed, so earnest is Sica in downgrading and downplaying the Italian military that it makes one wonder how it even succeeded in functioning at all, let alone the three years of combat ahead of it.
In a monograph of a few thousand words, this boy-wonder attempts to scrutinize the entire Italian military/political establishment starting from the 18th century. Even the horses used to pull the equipment and artillery up the narrow mountain roads and passes were the wrong ones because evidently, they came from southern Italy and were not used to colder conditions in the Alps! By extension, was it a grave mistake on the part of the Italian high command to send southern Italian soldiers to the Alps too? The argument is absurd. Even Cavour and Vittorio Emanuele II in 1860 come in for some criticism when he writes that they could not have foreseen that their decision to hand over Savoy and the County of Nice “would have such grave strategic consequences 80 years later” writes the boy-wonder with smug hindsight.
Examples of Sica’s habit of exuberant indulgence and needless hyperbole, are many. For example, he writes “forward units, cut off from their supply lines, were literally starving!” What! In just three days, the men were already starving to death? An example of his blatant bias is when he admits that in the southern sector of the fighting, Italian troops did “score some minor successes” but then needlessly qualifies it with “but they were hardly a promenade”. Oh how I wish I could have tied this boy-wonder naked to a mule and promenaded him through the mountain passes for mine-clearing duties with the Italian troops laughing behind!
Finally, towards the end of his excruciatingly boring and trite piece, Sica asks the predictable question: “Why did the Italian army fare so poorly in the battle of the Alps?” This is a loaded question because it has at its core, the assumption that the Italian Army did in fact, fare poorly. The question: “How did the Italians manage to achieve what they did in so little time?” would be a more positive and rewarding question that would allow more scope in response. But getting back to the boy-wonder’s “insightful” question, he responds thus:
Daunting terrains and climate. TRUE.
Blizzard and fog. TRUE
Lack of heavy tanks. QUESTIONABLE.
Again Sica doesn’t adequately explain why for example, the L3 light tanks were unsuitable for the terrain and the conditions. He just assumes they were by citing an example of one L3 tank hitting a landmine thus halting the column behind it. It therefore begs the question: Would a heavier tank been able to resist the impact of the mine? Sica provides no explanation. One tank ended up in a ditch, two became entangled in wire and two suffered engine failure. Does Sica, in all his military wisdom, really believe that heavier tanks would not have had their own problems climbing up the narrow and precarious mountain paths? But nothing is too trivial for Sica to criticize. For example, he criticizes the quality of the rifles for jamming up in the cold (as if German rifles in Russia did not); the type of uniform the soldiers wore which was a quality of wool that he claimed, easily wears out (what in 4 days!); that some soldiers lacked socks and even waterproof boots. However, soldiers in any army, make do with what they have. If a soldier lacked socks, he would find a way to remedy it quick enough. If another lacked waterproof boots, well there would be enough dead comrades lying around to remedy that little problem too. We must remember that Sica is making a case, pushing an argument, because his premise from the very first, is “Why did the Italian army fare so poorly?” So he isn’t interested in its achievements which he barely and almost grudgingly mentions, or evidence to the contrary, or how it managed in just a few days of fighting, to make the progress it did. No, Sica belongs to that species of historical-advocates intent on convincing his audience of the rightness of his case.
Further on he mentions that old favorite of such writers, the specious argument of the poor morale of the Italian soldier. Without providing a stitch of evidence for this, he rambles on about how a “peace mentality” reduced discipline among the ranks of the Regio Esercito. And then a real whopper: “the prospect of fighting their neighbors in a war that many Alpini considered of dubious merit, left Italian soldiers appalled.” Again – a statement written as fact with little to back it up. What he’s trying to establish is that because there existed cross-border familial and cultural connections, it was really heart-breaking and demoralizing for the Italian soldier to go and fight people they were practically related to. So, did 300,000 men all suddenly have relatives across the border and were therefore unwilling to fight? One hardly thinks so. More likely, the Italian soldier saw himself as a liberator, bringing the Italian border minorities back into the fold of a greater Italian homeland, much as the Germans saw themselves as “saving” the Sudeten Germans from Czech repression.
The final few paragraphs to this “appalling” analysis of the Battle of the Alps dribbles on with further denunciations of “appalling” and “disaster” from top to bottom. Sica is now winding up his argument, so the adjectives are coming out thick and fast. While acknowledging the difficulty of the mountainous terrain, the weather and the strong French fortifications, Sica can’t help himself by comparing what the Germans achieved in their blitzkrieg war in the north of France with the little the Italians achieved. He seems oblivious to the fact that mountain warfare does not allow blitzkrieg tactics, that even the Germans with all their heavy armor, would have found it tough going, and that while the Germans had space and time on their hands, the Italians had only three or at most, four days of fighting. But to this boy-wonder, terrain, time, fortifications, weather and tactics, largely go over his head. No this boy-wonder superficially and unfairly compares what the Germans achieved to what the Italians achieved and then harshly criticizes the Italians for not having achieved as much. The comparison is so childish and puerile, one has to wonder if Sica is really serious or just pulling our leg.
Finally, he ends his descant with a casual quote from an unnamed Italian veteran.
“The Italian army only entered the war gradually, like someone whose clothes became entangled in a machine tool so that eventually he is swallowed by it.”
I am really scratching my head why Sica saw fit to include this quote. Mussolini was champing at the bit to get Italy involved in a war. While the Germans were unsure what to do next after the fall of France, the Italians were busy fighting the British in North Africa and the the Mediterranean, the only real war that was happening for five months.
Emanuelle Sica, the boy-wonder, has a lot of growing up to do. If he ever hopes to land a professorship in a reputable university, he has to produce much better output than this. Still, what he has written is an excellent example of how NOT to write military articles.