“I Felt like a Tourist instead of a Soldier”: The Occupying Gaze—War and Tourism in Italy, 1943–1945
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“I Felt like a Tourist instead of a Soldier”:
The Occupying Gaze—War and Tourism in Italy, 1943–1945

On March 19, 1944, Lieutenant Benjamin McCartney was lead bombardier in a squadron of American airplanes attacking railroad yards in central Rome. McCartney had visited the city as a tourist before the war, and as his flightpath skirted the Vatican, familiar landmarks like the Coliseum and the “great white monument to Victor Emmanuel II” flashed beneath his crosshairs.1 With antiaircraft fire bursting around him, McCartney fed his pilot an exuberant running commentary on the historical buildings passing below. McCartney had trained hard for low-level precision attacks, but his tourist knowledge also came in useful. Approaching Florence on a later mission, he was already familiar with the layout of a city that looked “luminous beneath the darker hills.” Again, he lined up the bombers on a familiar landmark, this time picking out the gleaming San Giovanni Battista; approaching the target, his pilot exclaimed, tourist-like, “It’s beautiful, look how white it is!” As the bombs dropped, McCartney searched for familiar sites, but to his disappointment he was unable to pick out his prewar pension.

McCartney’s bombing missions wove war and tourism together particularly tightly, with military and touristic experiences intersecting and overlapping in unexpected ways. Highlighting the convergence of these seemingly antithetical gazes, a National Geographic article written by McCartney juxtaposed images of picturesque tourist sites and wartime devastation.2 McCartney’s experience of wartime tourism was unusually concentrated, but it was far from unique. In fact, all wartime service overseas contained touristic elements. On top of the tourism implicit in all breaks with normal routine that permit travel to distant locales and encounters with the exotic other, many GIs also participated in explicitly touristic visits to landscapes and urban spaces known to be sites of historical, cultural, or recreational significance.3 Since these visits were made by conscript soldiers whose travel plans were made for them, however, it might seem questionable—even perverse—to consider them tourism. Moreover, [End Page 593] while McCartney displayed touristic sensibilities during his bombing runs over Rome and Florence, he was also performing a particular kind of paid work, and that fact alone might exclude him from being a tourist.4 Perhaps, as Peter Schrijvers concludes, unrelenting exposure to the horrors of war meant that “American combat soldiers were never able to think of themselves as tourists.”5

It is striking, then, that American soldiers in Italy often did view themselves self-consciously as tourists.6 Sometimes, as Sergeant William Robinson admitted to his wife after a long day touring the baroque palace at Caserta, they actually felt more like tourists than soldiers.7 Many GIs had time to be tourists. Most time spent on active duty was not spent in combat: aircrews had breaks between missions, sailors enjoyed “liberty” in ports like Naples, and most soldiers—as many as four out of five—performed logistical and support operations on bases well behind the lines.8 Thousands of soldiers in Italy were assigned to the military government, where army civil affairs officers often enjoyed work schedules that resembled those in civilian life and allowed regular time off. And even combat infantrymen had periods of rest and recreation during which tourism became a possibility.

After dumping Benito Mussolini in July 1943, the new Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies in September, just as American and British troops began landing near Naples. At a stroke, Italy became a “co-belligerent,” a category denoting the beginning of a transition from defeated enemy to rehabilitated ally. As they advanced, Allied forces established military governments and a Control Commission that supervised Italian authorities at the national and local levels and took all major economic and political decisions.9 With an eye to postwar influence in Italy, and in contrast to London, Washington favored the rapid political liberalization and economic rehabilitation of the country. In this multidimensional political landscape, Allied soldiers found themselves welcomed, more or less warmly, as allies, or else tolerated, with various degrees of antipathy, as conquerors. American soldier-tourism unfolded within this fluid framework, and, as it did so...


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