‘America,’ he said, ‘will lose the war. And Italy will win it.’
‘America is the strongest and the most prosperous nation on Earth,’ Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. ‘And the American fighting man is second to none.’
‘Exactly,’ agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. ‘Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that’s exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while your country is doing so poorly.’
Nately guffawed with surprise, then blushed apologetically for his impoliteness. ‘I am sorry i laughed at you,’ he said sincerely, and he continued in a tone of respectful condescension. ‘But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don’t call that doing very well, do you?’
‘But of course i do,’ exclaimed the old man cheerfully. ‘The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, i am quite certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.’
Nately could scarcely believe his years. He had never heard sucjh shocking blasphemies before, and he wondered with instinctive logic why G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. ‘America is not going to be destroyed!’ he shouted passionately.
‘Never?’ prodded the old man softly.
‘Well...’ Nately faltered.
The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. ‘Rome was destroyed. Greece was destroyed. Persia was destroyed. Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.’
Natley squirmed uncomfortably. ‘Well, forever is a long time, i guess.’
‘A million years?’ persisted the old man with keen, sadistic zest. ‘A half-million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you say with much certainty that America, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is highest in the world, will last as long as ... the frog?’
(Catch-22. Joseph Heller.)