It was December 25, 1914 -- just a few months into World War I -- when young soldiers from Britain, Germany and France spontaneously declared a "Christmas truce" along two thirds of the Western Front. Legend has it that the "treasonous incident" began with the sound of German soldiers singing a Christmas hymn. When the Germans launched into "Silent Night," the British soldiers joined them, the song ringing out in two languages. Later, there was music, merriment, an exchange of gifts and even a soccer match as soldiers who had been shooting at each other hours earlier embraced one another.
Needless to say, these men were no longer good as soldiers and were quickly replaced. If you care to read more about the Christmas truce and read an interview with the last surviving veteran of the event, please visit my friend Fred Burks' website.
I first heard about the incident about seven years ago when I heard Robert Gass
sing a song called "Christmas in the Trenches" written by John McCutcheon (words below).
Click here to download the song. http://www.google.com/musicsearch?id=dCHziweiF1G
My name is Francis Toliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear,
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "'Tis 'Silent Night,'" says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright,
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land,
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well,
And in a flare lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war,
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
My name is Francis Toliver, in Liverpool I dwell,
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well,
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.
The "War to End All Wars" Didn't
The power of this song -- and the power of the event itself -- is trance-breaking. Some ninety years have passed since "the war to end all wars" and we find, lo and behold, that war has not ended war. In fact, we're staring one of those wars in the face right now, a war with a price tag of hundreds of thousands of lives and $351 billion ....
I'm not writing this as some moral screed or a desperate cry in the wilderness but as a call for awakening and participation. "War is a necessary evil." We've been hearing that since we were children, and collectively underneath all the ready platitudes we have resigned ourselves to war. Sigh. We don't really believe the world could be any different, otherwise those who shout and protest against war would be joyfully proclaiming and promoting the alternative. In a sense, the outcry against war is a "moral convenience." We can always say, "We protested." The real question is, can we say, "We turned it around and created something different?"
Just this week an interview with Francis Boyle
a professor of international law who drafted the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act passed by Congress in 1989 revealed that the Bush Administration is developing bio-terror weapons for offensive use. Now before we launch into a diatribe about that evil George Bush Administration, please stop and consider that none of this would be possible without the support of our legislators -- and the tacit support of you and I.
In fact, when the war drums are being beaten, it's very difficult to hear the quieter voices -- especially when they are "voluntarily" silenced by the media. Even the election results that were clearly a vote of no confidence for the occupation in Iraq, is being spun as "Americans are upset because we are losing." This, of course, sidesteps the real issue -- the legality and morality of a war designed not to keep the peace, but to keep the pieces.
The good news is, the "up-wising" that led to the electoral turnaround continues to grow. When Sen. Harry Reid (Dem.-NV), the incoming Senate Majority Leader said he would support increasing the number of troops in Iraq, the organized campaign by organizations like Code Pink
caused him to backtrack and modify his stance.
Time for Some Unconventional Wisdom for a Change
But this action is just the tip of the iceberg. What is needed is an awakening -- like the young soldiers had that Christmas in the trenches -- where we begin to question the "conventional wisdom" that war is inevitable, and the deeper unquestioned assumptions that might makes right and our evildoers are okay as long as they out-evildo the other guy's evildoers. We need to quietly yet firmly confront those who praise Jesus but worship Machiavelli, and call forth the moral authority in this country that has been dormant, disheartened and intimidated.
For now it is all of us who are in the trenches. The choice to make weaponry number one has resulted in everything and everyone else to get treated like "number two." For example, for what we've paid so far for the Iraq War, we could have provided health insurance for one year for over 200 million children. Do the math. Or, for that matter, the aftermath. What we have to show for warfare is weaponry (the ultimate "consumable" commodity) and it's "fruits" -- death, destruction, devastated lives, and residoodoo like land mines and depleted uranium.
War may be imposed from the top down, but it is held in place from the bottom up. When we allow the inevitability of war to go unchallenged, when we allow our government and toxic commentators to make an enemy out of a people (instead of focusing on eliminating destructive behavior on all sides), when we fail to stand against our country's own immoral actions, we are the enablers. And just as sure as abusers abuse power, so do enablers who fail to use theirs.
This next year -- and in the years to come -- we humans will be called upon to participate in dismantling a thought field that has been in place for 5,000 years, and regrow something healthy in its place. Yes, prayer and meditation are good, but those alone will not do it. We have been given bodies for a reason -- to stand, to walk, to speak, and to gather. We need to ask unasked questions and question unquestioned answers. We need to apply our "human intelligence," and coax it out of others. Most importantly, we need to address our own personal "bottom line." Do we really believe a more just and humane world is our destiny? And if so -- what are we prepared to do about it?