A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, to celebrate the site of the Christmas Truce during the First World War in 1914. (Photo: Redvers / Wikimedia)
As we celebrate Christmas 2010, 100,000 US troops languish in Afghanistan, and Bradley Manning sits in "maximum custody" in Quantico for the alleged crime of disclosing classified "secrets" about US foreign policy - "secrets" like the video of US troops killing two Reuters employees in Iraq, a video that the US military refused to release to Reuters.
It is a particular stain on our country to be at war during the Season of Peace, just as it is a particular stain on our country to be at war during the Olympics. "Peace on Earth" should stick in our throats a bit this holiday season, when our own government is bombing other people's countries, a practice which we have, so far, been unable to stop.
The idea that there is something especially offensive about prosecuting war during Christmas is longstanding. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for an official Christmas truce in the war in Europe, "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang."
The pope's call was rejected by the warring governments, and two words he used suggest a reason: "at least." The pope's remarks strongly suggested that he objected to the slaughter on the other 364 days as well. And so, the generals may have argued, it was a slippery slope. Allow the troops to have a Christmas holiday from killing each other and they might begin to get even funnier ideas. Next they'll be demanding Easter, then Yom Kippur and Eid al-Fitr. Soon you won't be able to have a war on any day of the year. So, there was no official truce.
However, in what was arguably one of the most morally compelling acts of spontaneous mass civil disobedience in recorded human history, German and British troops took matters into their own hands, negotiating their own Christmas cease-fires in their opposing trenches on the Western Front, exchanging Christmas carols and gifts and even playing soccer. The story is told in the 2005 movie, "Joyeux Noel" ("Merry Christmas"), which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 2006. It would be a significant advance in human civilization if this movie would take its rightful place alongside "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life" as standard Christmas fare.
It's particularly appropriate to reflect on this history now, as TV talking heads repeatedly pontificate without a shred of evidence that the WikiLeaks disclosures "threaten our national security," because in its time, as Stanley Weintraub reported in his 2001 book "Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914," not only was the Christmas truce considered a threat to "national security" in the warring countries; even the knowledge that it had taken place was initially suppressed. The New York Times finally broke the press blockade on December 31, 1914, after which the British press followed suit.
Doesn't it seem ridiculous today that news media initially tried to suppress reports about the Christmas truce of 1914, apparently in the belief that such information was a "threat to national security"?
Won't it seem ridiculous someday that people who knew better once claimed that WikiLeaks was a "threat to our national security," and were taken seriously?
How long do you suppose that will take to occur?
A belated Merry Christmas. Let there be peace on earth.