A Bell for . . . Talafar?

It is the fuel that keeps the search engines humming. It is fodder for loudmouthed if often unintelligible webjournalists thriving on the divisive. It is the foundation of many a rashly erected platform by means of which the invisible make a display of themselves. The so-called war on terror, I mean, and the time, the shape, and the lives it is taking in Iraq. My position becomes sufficiently clear in those words, as tenuous as it sometimes seems to myself. Experiencing the uncertainty, the turmoil and sorrow that was New York City during the days following the destruction of the World Trade Center, I was anxious to see prevented what then felt like an out and out war against the democratic West; but as a descendant of Nazi sympathizers who is convinced that putting an end to thralldom is a noble cause and conflicted about the use of military force to achieve this end, I could only work myself up to a restrained fervor, which soon gave way to bewilderment, anger, and frustration.

Presented as a success story of the US led invasion of Iraq, the town of Talafar is once again in the news this week, shown in the unfavorable light of exploding bombs and insurgent violence. It has (or ought to have) become obvious that the US and its allies (reluctant or otherwise) are failing in their professed mission against terror and tyranny not because they lack military expertise or international support but because they engaged in this operation with an insufficient awareness and understanding of the different and differing cultures in a region they presumed, hoped, or misrepresented to be a unified (or at any rate unifiable) nation.

I was reminded of all this, if any reminders were required, while watching the wartime parable-turned-Hollywood romance A Bell for Adano (1945), a movie depicting the occupation of an Italian village by American forces toward the close of the Second World War. I generally dislike and avoid war pictures; at least those that reduce history to well-staged action sequences interspersed with scenes of map-pointing generals exchanging remarks about strategies and objectives as if contemplating a game of checkers. A Bell is not that kind of movie.

Based on a 1944 Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller by John Hersey (a Time correspondent and former secretary to Sinclair Lewis), it tells of the struggle for peace, order and community in a battle-scarred town whose lack of pride, hope, and unity is symbolized by the missing bell in the town square, weaponized by Italian’s fascist regime. Realizing the significance of this communal centerpiece, a New York Italian major disregards military orders to find and install an adequate replacement.

On this day, 28 March, in 1944—well over a year before the movie version premiered in US cinemas—NBC radio, in cooperation with the Council on Books in Wartime, presented an adaptation of Hersey’s novel as part of a series titled Words at War. Henry King’s film would attempt to shape parts of Hersey’s narrative into the romance of a lost “Belle” from Adano by casting Gene Tierney as John Hodiak’s Italian love interest, considerably downplaying the ugly Americans his character is up against. The radio dramatization dispenses with such heartstringings-along to concentrate on the heart of the story: the failings of military strategy and the imperative of cultural sensitivity in the treatment of liberated civilians as exemplified by the response of one Italian-American to the challenges of ideological reorientation, his efforts to understand and assist his ancestral people after the removal of the enemy force that possessed, intimidated and estranged them.

On the radio, A Bell for Adano was announced as a story about “thoughtful Americans, and Americans not so thoughtful.” The very suggestion of America’s humanitarian blunders in an essentially propagandist series like Words at War renders this broadcast “Bell” altogether more compelling than those backlot scenes in which all-American he-fighters show the Axis what what is. The “what” here is “What to do with occupied territory?” once it appears to be under the control of the ostensible victor.

The war in Iraq has yet to deliver a bell ringing loudly enough to convince the world (or me, at any rate) that the freedom, stability, and opportunity it meant to bring about were worth all those local blasts and their global repercussions. Romancing a cracked one just won’t do.

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