Christmas as goodwill hunting
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues.
At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers.
The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.
German lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
This is one account of the Christmas Truce of 1914 from history.com. The countries at war refused to agree on an official ceasefire, as suggested by Pope Benedict XV.
But on Christmas, the soldiers in the trenches observed their own unofficial truce. What an unbelievable scene it must have been, men who had keenly taken every advantage to kill the enemy, throwing caution to the wind for a day, believing that the spirit of Christmas will overcome. Soldiers on both sides emerged from the trenches and exchanged gestures of goodwill.
This unbelievable gesture, of course, did not stop World War I, which claimed 40 million casualties—20 million deaths and 20 million wounded, among the deadliest quarrels in human history.
In just one day, July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties during the Battle of the Somme. The Christmas truce of 1914 was the first and last known open display of chivalry in war.
But men of evil cannot pretend it did not happen. If you leave it pretty much to the soldiers who lay down their lives to make peace, it may happen much more often.
Two lessons the Christmas Truce of 1914 impressed on me: first, embed a Christmas (or equivalent goodwill-sharing experience) in the young, retrievable at some deep point of crisis when they are old and foolish. Second, in search of peace, go with those who shed blood. This is why the Duterte approach of going local with peace talks with the New People’s Army and other rebels resonates with me.
As to the first impression, the goodwill software must be uploaded onto the young. Throughout my elementary and high school in the 1960s, a few poignant poems written by wistful men and women who had experienced the horrible wars had insinuated themselves in the required literature of young kids like me, as if they were bearers of messages of human urgency. Luckily, with the competent assistance from an earlier version of the educational system, the message was only partly lost. I wonder if the same longing to understand puzzles of human history similarly grip the younger generation.
The internet has emerged in time to quench my nagging feeling about having missed snapshots of the real world past, as I now quickly retrieve half-understood events, outsourcing from other humans around the world the information, insights, ideas, inquiries and innovations that deepen understanding of lost and partial bit of the tapestry of human civilization.
As to the second impression, if there is anything that the Christmas Truce of 1914 tells us, there is more humanity at face-to-face level than at the state and diplomatic level. Ceasefires and peace agreements are best crafted at the local level, and not imposed exclusively by central authorities. In the current Philippine context, there should be a version of the peace between soldiers and NPA rebels that can be achieved outside of the ego-driven verbal skirmishes between Rodrigo Duterte and Jose Maria Sison.
Local rebels have peculiar grievances that need specific workable responses. They are often artificially locked into an organization that does not monolithically respond to all their needs. They have families they love and take pains to take care of. Many military leaders with extensive field experience know localized peace agreements are the way to go, and they are only now being able to educate their commanders in chief on the matter.
Once again, the Duterte administration and the NPA have separately announced a ceasefire. Yet, even before the ceasefire, the duplicity of war has prevailed—kill and maim as many of the enemy before the ceasefire takes effect. A ceasefire should be more of an opportunity to reflect, retrieve the dead, heal the wounded, balm the spirit. But the reality is, it is known only as an opportunity to spy on the enemy, load the rocket launchers and steel the will to kill.
The time to reach future combatants with the noble ideas of chivalry is when they are kids, believing in the magic and trappings of human goodwill, reinforced, in the case of Christians by the glow of Christmas trees and the soulful lilt of Christmas songs, and the unusual smiles and happiness even of dour-faced family members and relatives. Christmas must be a purposive platform for goodwill hunting.
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