From Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ time the war book has been with us as an ever-present literary companion to the massacres on the battlefield. I took Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 to Iraq with me in 2004 and found its humanity and honesty instantly compelling. Graham Greene considered Lewis ‘one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century’, and during the darker days in Iraq it was strangely comforting to realize that there is little new in conflict. From ‘friendly fire’ and war profiteers to prostitution and petty bureaucracy, it has all been seen before.
Much of war is tragedy and farce, and Lewis has the reporter’s eye to observe it in telling detail with prose that is by turns laconic, angry and arresting. Naples ’44 finds him appointed an intelligence officer in the Field Security Service, having escaped ‘the drudgery of delivering army-style, pay-attention-you-fuckers lectures’ and joined the invasion convoy bound for Salerno, attached to the headquarters staff of the American Fifth Army. General Clark, ‘the destroying angel of Southern Italy’, has reduced much of the region to scorched despair, though the smaller towns have escaped bombing: ‘The only visible damage to most villages had been the inevitable sack of the post office by the vanguard of the advancing troops, who seem to have been philatelists to a man.’
Bureaucracy is one of the lead villains in these pages. The mystified Lewis marvels at the ever-expanding ‘Black Book’ of suspects, teeming with same-surname families – ‘Espositos and Gennaros turn up by the hundred’ – and ‘poetic idiocies’ galore. Like all good intelligence officers, he gets dirt under his fingernails and forges relationships with an extraordinary cast of characters. These include comic cameos like Professor Placella who has a profitable and unusual line in surgery. ‘He boasts that his replacement hymen is much better than the origi
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