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Independent scholar Thompson (Forging War) is familiar with a burgeoning Italian literature on the Great War's military aspects. He utilizes that material to construct and convey, better than any English-language account, the essence of three years of desperate struggle for the Isonzo River sector in northeastern Italy. Thompson distinguishes elegantly among the 12 battles for this nearly impassable ground, although the book is best understood as an extended essay on the causes, nature and purpose of Italy's involvement. Thompson presents Italy's war as a test of the vitalist spirit (best expressed in futurism) to demonstrate that the country was more than a middle-class illusion. In consequence, Thompson shows, strategic, diplomatic and political vacuums were too often filled with leaders' rhetoric and mythology. Too many generals, like Luigi Cadorna and Luigi Capello, were case studies in arrogant incompetence. In that environment, the less ordinary soldiers knew about causes and purposes, the better. When they failed in their mission, the draconian responses included summary execution. Prisoners of war were treated as cowards. The war, says Thompson, stands as Italy's first "collective national experience" and illustrates the poisonous nature of European nationalism. Photos, maps. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.