The Christmas Truce
Tommy and Fritz showed us 101 years ago that we celebrate the Incarnation best when we honor the human nature that God assumed as we find it in every person on earth.
One of my favorite Christmas gifts as a kid was a record album with Christmas songs for kids. I played that vinyl LP on my little plastic turntable over and over and over again. I must have worn the grooves down to nothing (along with my parents’ patience).
My favorite song was “Snoopy’s Christmas” by The Royal Guardsmen. It was a bouncy tune about Snoopy going up on Christmas Eve in his Sopwith Camel biplane to hunt down his old nemesis, the Red Baron. But Snoopy’s wings iced up and the Baron forced him to land behind enemy lines. Snoopy thought for sure it was the end! But in the spirit of the season, the Red Baron instead offered him a cup of holiday cheer and wished him a Merry Christmas before flying off. The church bells ringing in a new Christmas Day had softened the Red Baron’s heart.
What I didn’t realize until many years later was that this song alludes to a real event in World War I—the “Christmas Truce” of 1914. There was a spontaneous ceasefire on both sides of a battlefield that stretched across 600 miles of trenches in France and Belgium. The truce was not called by the generals or the politicians, but by the men in the trenches. As Christmas Day approached, soldiers started celebrating informally, within earshot of the enemy.
In one place, a German soldier sang “Stille Nacht,” the carol we know as “Silent Night.” The British soldiers were entranced, and soon they sang it back in English. The soldiers came out of their trenches, they met in No-Man’s Land, they exchanged greetings and Christmas wishes. They traded cigarettes and souvenirs; they played games of soccer; they used the truce to bury their dead who had been stranded between the lines. In at least one place, a chaplain conducted a Christmas Mass where soldiers from both sides received communion alongside each other.
This friendly behavior continued until the high-ranking officers on both sides became aware of situation. They were furious with their soldiers, and with the officers who allowed this “fraternization with the enemy.” They considered these actions to be treason. Some of the British officers were court-martialed. Many of the German troops who participated were shipped off to the Russian Front. Chaplains who ministered to enemy soldiers were relieved of duty and sent home in disgrace. And as future Christmas Days approached during the course of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered by the generals, just in order to stave off any softening of the heart by the men in the trenches.
Why such a strong reaction from the top brass? Because they know that killing another human being is not something that comes easily to most people. There is something in most of us that makes it hard to pull the trigger, even when our own lives are in peril. On battlefields of the Civil War, it was found that many of the soldiers never fired their rifles even once, but just kept loading and reloading to give the appearance that they had fired. In his book On Killing, Dave Grossman reports that of the soldiers in combat in World War II, only 15-20% ever fired their weapons. After the Christmas Truce in World War I, some of the artillery units chose to fire at some spot where they knew there was nothing to hit, rather than take a chance of killing the friends they had made so briefly on December 25.
It was in response to these findings that the modern style of boot camp came into being. The harsh treatment was for the express purpose of breaking down a human being’s natural aversion to killing. The drill sergeant who screams in your face, belittles your ancestry, makes you do mindless tasks without end—he has the job of disassembling your instincts and refashioning you into a killing machine. Around the same time the Army stopped using paper bull’s-eyes for target practice and taught the recruits to fire at human-looking targets. For these reasons, firing rates went up to 90% in the Vietnam War—and along with it, the rates of post-traumatic stress among our soldiers, continuing to the present day.
To make a really great army, a really lethal fighting force, you have to do two things: you have to dehumanize the enemy in the minds of your troops, and you also have to, in some sense, dehumanize your own troops by acclimating them to kill their own species. What the Christmas Truce of World War I ruined was all the efforts of the propaganda machines of church and state to depict the other side as inferior types of humans, as innately evil. Once you heard the enemy soldier sing your favorite Christmas carol in his language, with tenderness and piety, with faith and love for God, it becomes a lot harder to point a weapon at him. Once you met him in No-Man’s Land and traded chocolates with him and showed him the picture of your sweetheart and he showed his photos, the hated Hun becomes just another one of the guys. And you don’t see the point any more of killing him. Killing the Kaiser, maybe—but not your new buddy Hans with the lovely tenor voice.
With every war, then, there is a desperate need for the saber-rattlers to convince the people of how awful the enemy is: how depraved, how cruel, how immoral, how sub-human. With every war, there is a need for the policy-makers to figure out how to turn off a little switch in the humanity of our soldiers.
The modern military has retired the brutal drill sergeant and found an even more effective training tool: video games. What could be more realistic, more lifelike, than shooting animated humans in a video battle-zone? What better way to desensitize normal people to the task of killing other normal people? It is no secret that “the armed forces took the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the specific technology used in video games.” (Corey Mead, War Play) And now those same games are for sale to any adolescent who has a taste for adventure but doesn’t want to leave the house.
What is the point of this sermon? Simply this: the child who was born in Bethlehem taught us to love our enemies. What the men in the trenches did during the Christmas Truce of World War I may have been treasonous, but they were obeying a higher law—the law of God, the law of love. They were right to show kindness and mercy to their enemies, and they were right to try it again in 1915, despite the impediments that the generals devised to fraternization of this sort.
What, after all, does fraternization mean, except to treat another person as a brother? And is this not exactly how Christ taught us to behave? Surely on Christmas Day, we cannot pretend to honor the Feast while we ignore the central message of the One whose birth we celebrate.
We have a duty as Christians— a duty that will perhaps become harder and harder to carry out in this society. We have a duty to resist the dehumanization of others, whether they be the enemies of our nation, or our own men and women in uniform.
Recently a group of US airmen who had been in the drone warfare program came forward to blow the whistle on the evils of that campaign by writing a letter to the President. Almost 90% of those they had killed were not military targets, but simply innocent bystanders (or in the dehumanizing Newspeak of the Pentagon, “collateral damage”). The drone operators had hardened their souls to the killing of children by referring to them as “fun-size terrorists” and saying that their mission was to “cut the grass before it gets too tall.” The end result, however, was that the drone operators themselves resorted to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain in their souls. Their levels of depression and PTSD match those of frontline soldiers. And in the Middle East, this policy of indiscriminate drone warfare is a huge recruiting tool for the enemies of our country. It is hardly making the world safer for democracy. The only ones who benefit from this program—as usual—are the men who sell the guns and bullets and killer aircraft.
(Oh, and by the way, for speaking up about the evils of drone warfare, these four former airmen—Michael Haas, Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, and Stephen Lewis—have had their bank accounts and credit cards frozen. And yet they have not been charged with any crime for communicating their concerns to their Commander in Chief. I guess it’s just a signal from on high that there should be no thought of repeating the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the year of our Lord 2015.)
We cannot truly celebrate God’s appearance in human flesh … we cannot truly celebrate Christmas … unless we honor and cherish that humanity that Christ assumed, wherever and in whomever we find it—American or Arab or Israeli, Muslim, Christian, or Jew. May the Prince of Peace, through His holy birth, inspire us to seek peace on earth and goodwill among our fellow humans in the year that is to come.
To you and yours, and to all our broken world, I wish a Blessed Christmas and a Happy and Holy New Year!
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