Friendly Fire: Italy, America and the War in Iraq

March 1, 2005

On March 6, Italians witnessed what has become a ritual of increasing frequency at the Vittorio Emmanuele II memorial in Rome: honoring victims of the war in Iraq. The body of secret service agent Nicola Calipari, felled by an American bullet, lay in state from Sunday until Monday morning as one hundred thousand visitors filed past the bier of “Nicola the Just,” as the Italian press has dubbed him. Just a year and a half ago, the 19 Carabinieri killed by a suicide bomber in Nasiriyah, Iraq were honored in the same imposing neoclassical monument to Italy’s unification. At Calipari’s state funeral, the Prime Minister’s undersecretary of state read a eulogy worthy of an ancient Roman tribute: “Your death restored faith and country to Italy, just like those who fell at Nasiriyah.”

His death has also restored ambivalent sentiments about Italy’s close alliance with the United States, especially concerning the costs of war and American sensitivity towards its allies. In the first two years of the Iraq war, a newfound national pride at playing a part in the “war on terror” appeared to be winning out over Italy’s sizeable domestic pacifist bloc. Back in February 2003, it seemed that the collective spirit summoned by three million demonstrators in an anti-war rally—the largest demonstration in postwar history—might weaken the government’s resolve. But the relatively steady stream of bad news from Iraq had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the government’s position. The spirit of the anti-war rally was eclipsed half a year later in a cathartic moment of collective grief and patriotism following the largest single military loss in postwar history at Nasiriyah. Those deaths ended calls for an Italian withdrawal from Iraq and temporarily quieted disputes over the war: there was an enemy to be fought.

Italy’s loyalty to the transatlantic relationship has long paid out dividends in international legitimacy and in currency with the U.S. administration, especially following Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq last year. Senate president Marcello Pera underscored this point when he railed against “superficial pacifism” at home and denounced the Spanish government for “withdrawing its troops [from Iraq] when called to defend its own civilization and the lives of its citizens.” Berlusconi has constantly made supportive statements of the U.S.-led war, and has been rewarded with state visits to Washington—he was the second foreign leader, after Tony Blair, to be received after Bush’s reelection. Italy was also granted the helicopter contract for the presidential Marine One, as well as a promise to review its hopes for a seat on the UN Security Council. For Berlusconi and his government, Bush’s personal unpopularity in Italy is outweighed by the enduring prestige of the American presidency and residual pro-American feelings from the post-World War II era.

But the wounded pride palpable at the funerals of the 19 Carabinieri in November 2003 has now morphed into untempered grief and anger. Calipari’s death by American fire, which also wounded another Italian agent as well as the journalist Giuliana Sgrena—just 35 minutes after they had freed her from a month in captivity, and 700 meters from the Baghdad airport where an Italian military jet awaited the group—has bluntly driven home the tragedy of war and reinforced the impression that the United States is careless about the use of force and insensitive to its consequences.