"The Italian fighting man is probably second to all," says the cynical 107-year-old man in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Italy's armed forces have never been held in particularly high esteem, and now, thanks to the latest efforts of the country's indefatigable anti-corruption magistrates, one begins to understand why.
So busy are the troops inventing schemes to rip off the state, it seems, that they have no time to get into shape to fight.
Over the past week, magistrates across the country have uncovered thousands of cases of grossly inflated expenses claims, a system of bribery to relieve reluctant young men of their national service, and myriad kinds of corruption, forgery and embezzlement reaching right up the ladder to colonels and generals.
One has to admire the military for their ingenuity, at least. One group of officers in charge of procuring uniforms sub-contracted the job to China at a tenth of the going rate in Italy and pocketed the difference.
Another individual officer claimed back the cost of moving more than four tons of equipment and personal effects for a routine trip to a military base for which he took no more than a toothbrush and a change of clothes.
So far, the magistrates have placed around 5,000 military personnel under investigation. And, thanks to the remarkable willingness of suspects to spill the beans on their friends in exchange for lenient treatment in the courts, there could be much more to come.
"New developments are coming out daily. This is just the beginning," says the prosecutor Sergio Dini, initiator of the biggest single investigation, in Padua.
One favourite tactic has been to triple or quadruple the weight of personal effects of soldiers sent on foreign postings, and then share the profits with the moving company. The going rate for a bribe to avoid conscription, willingly accepted by some officers, is between 20m and 30m lire (pounds 8,000- pounds 12,000).
And then there are the individual cases, such as the admiral accused of abusing the full resources of the Venice arsenal to throw a wedding banquet for his daughter, or the curator of the military museum at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome who allegedly pocketed 1bn lire by faking bills for exhibitions that never took place, projects that never got off the ground and non-existent loans to other museums.
The magistrates estimate that 18bn lire (about pounds 6m) disappeared between 1988 and 1991 alone. The final figure is expected to run into tens of billions of lire. The revelations come as little surprise to the millions of Italian men who have served their mandatory 12-month stint in military service, but they are doing untold damage to the already shaky reputation of the armed forces.
The top brass was already highly embarrassed a few years ago, when it emerged that it had established a secret army called Gladio at the height of the Cold War to overthrow the Communists if they ever took power in Italy. Now it appears that the chief activity of Gladio officers was to meet in luxury hotels in holiday resorts at the expense of the taxpayer.Reuse content