You may have seen an advertisement making the rounds on YouTube. It is an ad for British chocolate and is set in the trenches of World War I. It draws upon a true series of temporary truces where German and Allied soldiers laid down their arms, sang hymns, shared pictures, even played soccer together. These events are beautifully dramatized in the film Joyeux Noel.
There is, however, another side to these stories. I have dealt with more than a few warriors who are especially distressed because, for a time, they saw the enemy as a person. One man inventoried the belongings of a man he’d just killed and found a picture of this man with family. Another soldier recalls breaking into a house in search of an informant, spraying shattered glass over an infant and seeing the child’s mother react. Another encountered a family whose son had been killed by a patrol with the family’s father asking this soldier “Why? Why was my son killed?” I recall, too, reading of a bombardier of WWII who committed suicide because he could not live with the thought that the bombs he dropped on Dresden hit families, not enemies.
In essence, what I have learned from these veterans is that sustaining an attitude of war and justifying certain actions becomes unbearable when one makes the click and sees the enemy as a person. But I see also that this agony is the price these men and women pay because they want to be more than warriors. They want to get back to being family men and women, lovers, friends. To reclaim their own goodness, they have to wade through what war called them to do and find some way to forgive themselves for doing those things not to an enemy but to another person.
It should not be surprising that command of both sides of that Christmas truce condemned those soldiers as traitors and cowards. War can only be sustained when we define someone as The Enemy. Seeing them as people will affect the soldier’s ability to wage war.
It is easy to say that the solution to such turmoil is to end to all war and indeed I long for this. Yet Plato warned centuries ago that only the dead have seen the end of war. In my own case, much like Pete Seeger, I know I am not a pacifist. Were someone to attack my home and family, “You’d find me out on the firing line” just as Pete sang about himself.
Carl Jung noted that the human psyche has much paradox about it — that we can love and hate. That we can be warm and ruthless. That we can be warrior and poet. Jung suggests that mental health includes the ability to tolerate “a tension of opposites” within myself. The simple solution to this tension is to choose one or the other. To see the enemy as just that — an evil that must be destroyed — or to see everyone (I mean EVERYONE) as inherently good. I am unable to make such a choice and so I must tolerate the tension between my own inner warrior and inner poet while I wait for the world to redeem itself. Events such as the Christmas Truce give me hope that such redemption is possible.
Reflection: How do you experience this tension of opposites between warrior and poet within yourself?
Further Reading: There are a few books on the Christmas truce. The one I read is by Stanley Weintraub and is titled Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Truce
Further Viewing: Here is a link to the chocolate ad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM
I also highly recommend Joyeux Noel. Here is a memorable scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mpejMa-mJc