Christmas at War

Christmas 2012 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo by a great #frontlinecivilian, F. Aponte.

Christmas + occasional rockets at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, 2012. Photo by a great #frontlinecivilian, F. Aponte.

I spent two Christmases in Afghanistan, one of them just home from Afghanistan, and two of them while I was on leave just before deploying to Afghanistan. This year, I’m happy for a quiet day of contemplation and a break from the pressures and expectations of this utmost of American holidays–a world away from the wars and conflicts that yet continue.

When I was deployed, it was fantastic to feel such love and support from friends, family, and strangers back home around Christmastime. We got tons of care packages full of candies, cookies, books, decorations, toiletries, even hats and scarves, and it was a genuine morale boost for everyone. Christmas is about feeling connected to others, and our fellow Americans generously reaching out to us like this made us feel like we weren’t forgotten, and it made being so disjointed from our families and communities during a holiday of togetherness all the more bearable.

But. The war didn’t stop. In 2012, for example, the local insurgents seemed to specialize in rocket or mortar strikes on holidays, and Christmas was no exception. We awoke before sunrise at Bagram Airfield to the booms of an attack, and everyone (including Santa) remained suited up in combat gear the full day. It could’ve been worse–as I recall, no one was injured at Bagram that Christmas. But it brought home the fact that troops deployed in forward areas had no break in ongoing threat or conflict. And this year, even as U.S. combat operations are almost at their official end–just a few days ago, two soldiers based at Fort Hood were killed by a roadside bomb near Bagram, and their families are no doubt feeling their loss particularly hard this Christmas.

Video dramatization of the 1914 Christmas Truce

Video dramatization of the 1914 Christmas Truce

Recently I was one of millions to watch a British grocery chain’s advertisement that dramatizes the famed Christmas truce that happened 100 years ago today on the front lines of World War I. (You, too, can view it HERE.) What’s gripping about the ad to me is the sentiment it captures so powerfully–that Christmas is a time when we want to step away from the conflicts of our day to recognize the essential humanity of others–and have our own recognized in return. (Maybe it’s just about right that it is a commercial advertisement that brings us this moving Christmas message.)

What the ad dramatizes is the true story of British and German troops (and elsewhere, French and German) taking a brief pause in the bloody, brutal sieges along the Western Front on Christmas Eve, 1914, to sing carols, exchange gifts, and play sports–a moment that recognizes what we can only appreciate these distant years later: that these Europeans had far more in common than the vast gulf of socio-political division and propaganda would have allowed them to believe at the time. It also highlights the very real and poignant tragedy that these young men would go on to obliterate one another in years more of the most brutal war the world had yet seen.

The Christmas Truce, as it came to be known, was not such a feel-good story at the time. As David James mentions in his excellent essay on Robert Graves’s account of his WWI service,

Even in 1914, the truce was obviously resented by the generals and politicians, who ensured there would not be a repeat of such non-warlike sentiment the next Easter or following Christmases, as well as by the Press in the involved countries, where no mention was made for at least a week after the event that hundreds of thousands laid down their arms to hobnob with the enemy. The press coverage also distorted and minimized the truce in order to make it seem more freakish and less peaceful than it actually was.

Truces are hard to imagine between intractable enemies. Try to imagine for a moment the Taliban and U.S. forces lay down arms to express Christmas greetings to one another (which isn’t in itself impossible–Islam recognizes the miracle of Christ’s birth). No, I really can’t imagine it, either–although I also know that many Americans and Brits a century ago would’ve found it equally difficult to imagine shaking hands with “bloody Huns.” But it does prompt the question: what does it mean to recognize the humanity of even the most vicious of enemies? And to look beyond our cultural, religious, and political biases to see the humanity of those who oppose us?

Although I never wish to diminish anyone’s Christmas joys or traditions, I personally find the hype and expense and demands of a typical American Christmas to be simply overwhelming. It seems like most of what we take as Christmas has little to do with actual Christian belief–it was an ancient Roman holiday, infused with European folk traditions, and updated here in the U.S. to represent general goodwill, family togetherness, and over-the-top commercialism. It’s true that many Americans don’t celebrate Christmas, but it’s nevertheless ubiquitous. Santa is as iconically American as Uncle Sam. And while there’s plenty of fun and excitement to be had in good ol’ American Santa-clad mayhem, it’s just not for me.

But Christmas nevertheless still does mean a lot to me. As both a Christian and a humanist, what moves me most about Christmas is this: that we celebrate a time when God came to live among us, born to parents displaced from their homeland, and forced to flee as refugees to a foreign land by a brutal dictator. It’s a truly profound story, and one that always gives me pause as I contemplate the conflicts that rage across our world today. There is much darkness, and it will likely continue despite our most sincere efforts to help. But I also believe that this holiday season–where many faith traditions also celebrate light and renewal–we can yet anticipate the hope of transformation, even resurrection.

What will it look like generations from now as humanity looks back on the conflicts of our day? Will they wish we did more to avert the violence? Will they wish that we’d done more to protect the innocent? Will they weep at the destruction we caused one another? It’s hard to imagine. But history and faith both show us that transformation and reconciliation do indeed happen. It’s just a matter of how difficult we make the path.

Earlier today in Afghanistan, British and German troops came together as allies to sing “Silent Night” in commemoration of the 1914 Christmas Truce. You can watch a video excerpt here.

Here’s to a Christmas of reflection, common humanity, and sincerest wishes for goodwill and peace to all humankind. And warm wishes of remembrance and recognition of our men and women serving overseas and the families grieving those lost in war. Here’s also to the hope of speeding an equitable and just process for peace and reconciliation. May we do all we can in the meantime to see the humanity of others, even those we feel are least deserving.

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