Once again this year my wife and I watched Joyeux Noel, a wonderful dramatization of what became known as the Christmas Truce. During World War I, men of all sides — German, French, and British — agreed to a truce on Christmas Eve. Amazingly, soldiers came out of the trenches and for too brief time were simply visitors sharing hymns, chocolate, and even a game of soccer. Sadly, they returned to their trenches, war resumed, and some of those men died.
It is a story that sounds too good to be true. Yet it did happen!
The many veterans I’ve come to know have helped me see that war becomes almost impossible when the soldier comes to see his/her Enemy as a person with a story, perhaps with a family. When a line is crossed and the Enemy becomes a person, the burden of war becomes almost intolerable. 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. Such memories often come to these veterans’ minds and hearts during this time of year that celebrates family.
And yet war goes on and this year as in too many years past, war separates families at Christmas. Ironically, as we prepare to celebrate a Christmas that keeps us separated from loved ones because of COVID, perhaps we can have some insight into what it was and is like to face Christmas with a loved one far away and possibly in danger.
Plato has said that only the dead have seen the end of war. Believe me, I am not a pacifist. I know that I would do whatever was necessary to defend loved ones. Yet war is something that is perhaps fostered not by those in the trenches but by the power brokers safely behind desks. So when we learn of men and women who are able to breach the gap and, even only for a moment, see the Enemy as a person, perhaps there is hope.
Here is a beautiful scene from Joyeux Noel. Music can indeed bring us together.
And here is a the song the Scots are singing in this scene. I share it in honor of all who are separated from family during this time, especially our military men and women.
For those who are capable of empathy, war becomes impossible to deal with emotionally and cognitively. I have also met with veterans and had friends who were veterans who struggled with this problem. One female vet told me that the US compensated those civilians who were harmed. They needed to register with the US. She cried as she told me about a child who “had all his shit blown out” and his mother brought the body to the US in hopes of compensation. I appreciate that you mentioned that those who sit behind desks send others into the jaws of death. What you did not discuss is the people who are not capable of empathy including, in my opinion, the psychologist James Elmer Mitchell who created the “enhanced interrogation techniques”. I know that the detainees are the enemy and they would probably kill us if they could. It is just that Viktor Frankl said, “No one is permitted to do evil, even if evil is done to him”.