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Bush, Battle and Death in Rome

"Wherever the troops entered, they were cheered, applauded and showered with blossoms. A rain of roses fell on men, guns, tanks and jeeps." So wrote Mother Mary St. Luke, an American nun living in Rome when U.S. General Mark Clark's Fifth Army entered the Eternal City on June 4th sixty years ago.

She had begun a diary on the day the Germans blasted their way into Rome and she kept it until the Allies drove out "Hitler's Huns," as she called them. Her remarkably astute observations written for almost every one of the 270-day ordeal constitute a unique eyewitness record of timeless and increasing value. Indeed, with President Bush visiting Rome for the 60th anniversary of the liberation, Mother Mary's entries for that day of deliverance are a stark reminder of the war in Iraq (all the more so for the coincidence of her birth name, Jessica Lynch) and specifically what the Bush Administration served up as a World War II-style mission, the liberation of Baghdad. Sadly, however, what many Italians and Americans believe one can see more clearly from Rome than from Washington is the unworthiness of the heirs to the legacy of Mother Mary's "greatest generation."

Bush's trip was undertaken to advance the notion of a moral equivalence between the battle for Rome and the battle for Baghdad, but it succeeded only in dramatizing how far apart they are. True, both wars sought the capture of the enemy capital and both began on the ground with an invasion, but so much for the similarities. In the first instance, with its ill-fated landings in Salerno and Anzio, it was a war that failed almost daily yet ended in great success; while in Iraq we saw a war that succeeded spectacularly but ended in dismal failure. In 1944, the Army that had bombarded Rome more than fifty times during the Nazi occupation, was itself bombarded with all the flowers of spring when the GIs entered Rome. The Romans, greeting the liberators only days after a whole week of particularly intensive air raids, never blamed the Allies for the death and ruin caused by their state-of-the-art "precision bombing" (aimed at strategic targets but killing a documented 5,000 civilians as well).

The so-called "Open City" - designating Rome as a no-fly, demilitarized zone - was repeatedly invoked but never respected by the occupiers. It is hard to find a record of any ordinary Roman who did not believe that the bombings were ultimately the fault of Hitler's war and that the Allied cause was impeccably just. Moreover, as President Bush may have discovered in Rome, the people of this city - not only those whose memory can go back that far, but the generations who received those memories from the lips of their elders, remain as grateful today to "that America," though few drew the same present-day parallels as their distinguished visitor. Anyone making such a comparison using liberated Rome as the standard would no doubt find it a painful stretch not to conclude that when the Administration told us Americans that our troops would be greeted in Baghdad with a rain of roses, the policy makers had either grossly miscalculated or cunningly manipulated the meaning of the word liberation. — R.K.


Rome, June 4, 1944: Americans welcome here...

GI liberators and welcomers

...and NOW 

Bush Don't Come Home!                                            Photo: Janet Shapiro
Rome, June 4, 2004, Americans still welcome, but some more than others. One citizen in the first category has a message for her counterpart in the second category. "I am an American," says the red lettering in Italian (Sono Americana). This is followed by the famous unwelcome-person-of-the-moment-go-home exhortation. understood unfortunately in any language.  But for an American the slogan is not quite right. In a stroke of equally famous American know-how, the protester solves the dilemma with a biting but logical twist. By crossing out one word and adding two, her message, undoubtedly shared by many of her fellow Americans, now reads: "Bush DON'T COME home!"


"Rome, June 5 - The kraut was fleeing today as American 5th Army troops poured through the Italian capital..."

Above: From page 1 of the first Rome issue of Stars and Stripes.
Below: Same edition; an excerpt that still hums with the excitement of 60 years earlier.


(Stars and Stripes Staff Writer)

ROME, June 4—The mighty armored columns of the last Armored Division which all day had pressed forward along Highway 7 and smashed every delaying attempt by the Jerries was finally stopped in the streets of Rome by a jubilant-crazy populace.

Tanks that had weathered enemy artillery, Mark VIs and self-propelled guns were forced to halt on Via Appia for fear of endangering the lives of the civilians who swarmed about them, shouting, screaming, weeping, laughing-delirious with excitement.

It was 1930 hours. A woman shouted in English, we have been waiting all day. A soldier responded: "We've waited longer."

Within two blocks inside the city the first tank commanded by Lieutenant Henry Schoberth, Versailles, Kentucky, was just a mountain mass of human arms, legs and bodies. Children and old men-and even an old lady at least 65 years old-clambered aboard oblivious to the danger of grinding tank tracks. …

The inevitable bambini showed up demanding caramelli [sic]. Young girls kissed every soldier they could lay their hands on and one tiny blond succeeded in mounting the turret gun of a light tank.

Every thoroughfare was lined with cheering crowds. …

Read the Liberation Day Time Capsule: "Once Upon a Time in Liberated Rome" >>>

... and NOW

Scenes from a White House photo-opster's dream: 1) The visual pageantry of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome by “the greatest generation” of Americans and American President George Bush is there to salute them; 2) Bush calls on the pope and makes a first-ever presidential visit to the Ardeatine Caves, rendering homage to the victims of a brutal dictatorship. Surely, the photo-opster thinks – thinking what people might think – such a journey calls to mind the toppling of a tyrant of today and the liberation of Iraq. Need the opster say more?

It seemed a movable feast waiting to happen. And of course it did, but not as dreamt. As always, there were risks. For one thing, it was no secret that Bush would be greeted and hounded in Rome by thousands of protesters. But the White House media handlers worried not about that one. The president had mastered the old if-you-can’t-lick-‘em-join-‘em ploy: God bless protest, because it’s free speech and that’s democracy. It was a charm that never failed, but never say never. In Rome everything failed.

Even before Air Force One touched down at Rome’s Ciampino Airport, the “feast” was turning into a fiasco, though the passengers aboard the president’s plane remained unflappable. Did it matter that the European mainstream media, displaying a rare consensus – from Paris to Stockholm, Madrid to Moscow – shared Rome’s predictions of a bleak reception? It mattered not. And it mattered less that The New Yorker, The New York Times or the New York whatever had come out with like-minded forecasts – anything “New York” being more old Europe than old Europe itself.

The trouble was that some things were not pooh-poohable. The cancellation of a side-trip to Anzio, the coastal town just south of Rome where one of the WWII’s fiercest battles raged for months, could hardly be treated lightly. No reason would offset any semblance of slighting the memory of the more than 10,000 American soldiers who landed in the dead of winter in ‘44 and never returned – young men whose ever-young remains lay buried in the American cemetery nearby or unrecovered from the sea and sand. Perhaps it was the realization that this still-controversial invasion that had promptly bogged down on a tenuous beachhead could hardly serve as a symbol of liberation. Or, it may have been something else, but its replacement – the wreath-laying at the Ardeatine Caves – came with its own set of problems.

It was unthinkable that the first U.S. head of state to set foot in the caves – now one of Europe’s most moving war monuments – would receive less than an unconditional welcome from the people of Rome. "We are grateful to America,” a woman whose father was killed in the massacre told an Associated Press reporter on the eve of the president’s visit, but for her, 66-year-old Rosetta Stame, the Bush administration did not represent that America. "If President Bush comes here,” she said while standing on the grounds of the Ardeatine, “I am hopeful that due to the holiness of this place, that it will be the moment that he is illuminated."

By the time the president and a contingent of his 500-person entourage got to the caves, however – on the afternoon of the anniversary day – only the pall of debacle could be discerned among the Americans. The idea of illumination had blown a fuse that morning when Bush was received by Pope John Paul II and revealed one unannounced purpose of his journey. The Holy Father was asked to rally those American bishops reluctant to lend their support to the president’s election campaign. Who in the Bush White House could have foretold that the 84-year-old pontiff would brush aside the president's agenda and use the occasion for his own, namely an old-fashioned tongue-lashing. He chided the president for serious misconduct in pursuing peace as well as war.

According to one report, Bush, seated on the edge of his chair, “listened to the pope's words with eyebrows raised and an expression of frozen geniality on his face.” The president said nothing in reply, presenting his august critic with America’s highest decoration, the Medal of Freedom. Outside 200,000 protesters, some tussling with the riot squad, others hurling flaming bottles and overturning trash receptacles, but for the most part peaceful, waving the rainbow-colored peace flag, with a demeanor that probably would have countered Bush’s standard God-bless-protest pronouncement with a roaring pernacchia or its American cousin, the Bronx cheer, or more likely both.

As in Baghdad, the president's team had not done its homework. This is not the place to trace the origins of its short-sightedness, but it certainly was already apparent from day one of the Bush wars. Grown into a chronic defect, it worsened now by the grating media coverage of his trip. Rome-datelined stories of White House ineptness, picked up worldwide, had a ring of independence rarely achieved by the regulars among Washington’s journalists, who critical or not adhere to the tacit guidelines - some call it self-censorship - that come with accreditation.

Several members of the Rome-based foreign press corps, preparing for their Bush-in-Rome assignment, recalled or discovered a new source in their purview, a virtual neighbor: It was pure chance that coinciding with Bush’s visit was the imminent publication of the book that tells the story of what was being commemorated, The Battle for Rome, along with an updated edition of an earlier work, a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the Ardeatine Caves massacre, Death in Rome. This spooning of discrete interests, generating, by the way, the highest number of visitors to this site in TheBoot's brief history, has now been “institutionalized” as and Katz is now asking the askers for patience if he hasn’t yet replied. He will.

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