En­dur­ing con­tem­pla­tions of peace, good will in a war zone

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - Local - BY PETER BERRES

Christ­mas 1968: My first away from home, my 10th month in Viet­nam. Like ev­ery sol­dier sep­a­rated from fam­ily, I felt an echo­ing empti­ness.

Even so, with less than 60 days till home, my in­no­cence gone and my hate redi­rected from the Viet­namese peo­ple to war it­self, I was in high spir­its. And I was hope­ful that the Christ­mas truce would hold, the Paris Peace talks would be­gin earnestly in Jan­uary.

Con­tem­plat­ing “peace on earth, good will to­ward men” in a war zone, I dis­cerned as­pects of Christ­mas which have en­riched these 50 in­ter­ven­ing years. Some things, it turns out, can be seen more clearly, felt more keenly, from 8,000 miles away.

Christ­mas dur­ing war is a unique mo­ment of com­mu­nity — prob­a­bly sol­diers’ sole emo­tion­ally shared ex­pe­ri­ence. Whether we be­lieved in the par­tic­u­lars of the Chris­tian story or not, we all res­onated with its mes­sage of hope and light be­yond the dark­ness. In that spirit, we shared food pack­ages from home and past Christ­mas sto­ries, shook our heads over the iron­i­cal ab­sur­di­ties of “peace on earth, good will to­ward men” in our sit­u­a­tion. It was rich.

In honor of the day, my unit’s usual fare of pow­dered eggs, canned pro­duce and mys­tery meat was en­hanced with tur­key and fresh fruit. A few beers (even warm ones) made for a good day in the ‘Nam. And then, we

chose si­lence over usual GI ban­ter.

The truce al­lowed tem­po­rary re­prieve from vig­i­lance, a chance to re­treat into our heads to mas­sage mem­o­ries of Christ­mases past, to imag­ine cur­rent cel­e­bra­tions, to won­der what we were miss­ing and how we were missed. And, com­mon to sol­diers his­tor­i­cally, we fan­ta­sized dra­matic home­com­ings, the em­brace of fam­ily.

Many of us chose pre­cious seclu­sion in bunk or la­trine. Any small spot of pri­vacy to read and re-read let­ters and cards. Over and again. Mes­mer­ized by the power of the hand-writ­ten word; thoughts and feel­ings leapt off pages. Smells, fin­ger­prints, smudges, the flow and shape of let­ters – all im­bued with mean­ing and pal­pa­ble emo­tion. Hand­writ­ten pages re­as­sured us of con­nec­tion, deep­en­ing our ap­pre­ci­a­tion for love and home.

That Christ­mas respite en­gen­dered a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: If we can call a truce to wor­ship the birth of our Prince of Peace, and the en­emy can agree, ab­sent same be­liefs, why can’t we just agree to a per­ma­nent truce? Why can’t we sim­ply de­clare the war over?

Fifty years later, that ques­tion was posed beau­ti­fully by the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky Opera’s out­stand­ing pre­sen­ta­tion of “Silent Night: The Christ­mas Truce of 1914.” That year, op­pos­ing World War I armies met in “no-man’s land” to share food, drink, car­ols and a soc­cer ball — all of their own im­promptu, self-sur­pris­ing vo­li­tion.

In en­su­ing years, truces were not nearly as wide­spread, in part, pro­hib­ited by high com­mands of both sides. Per­haps they feared that a truce, es­pe­cially in­volv­ing frat­er­niza­tion, might hu­man­ize the en­emy, rais­ing the ques­tion: Why not a per­ma­nent truce?

The long view of 50 years: Christ­mas 1968 was the tip­ping point for Amer­i­can sacri­fice in death and wounds, which slowly paced down­ward un­til with­drawal in 1973. The new strat­egy: Keep our own ca­su­al­ties low even with a cor­re­spond­ing ex­plo­sion in civil­ian deaths by bombing cities to rub­ble — in or­der to “save” them.

This strat­egy un­leashed Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s 1972 Christ­mas Bombing of Hanoi. At­tempt­ing to force con­ces­sions at the bar­gain­ing ta­ble by pul­ver­iz­ing civil­ians with 20,000 tons of bombs be­tween Dec.18 and 29, we took Christ­mas Day off. Weeks later, Nixon signed es­sen­tially the same treaty he’d re­jected be­fore bombing. The cost: around 1,600 civil­ian lives, and over 60 Amer­i­can KIA, MIA, POWs.

This Christ­mas sea­son, Congress is de­bat­ing, via highly con­tested res­o­lu­tions, whether to halt Amer­i­can com­plic­ity in the un­speak­able hu­man cri­sis in Ye­men, by in­vok­ing the 1973 War Pow­ers Act to cut ma­te­rial and fi­nan­cial sup­port for Saudi Ara­bia’s bombing cam­paign. As with Viet­nam, con­gres­sional fund­ing is the con­sti­tu­tional check most amend­able to demo­cratic de­mands.

My con­vic­tions from Viet­nam re­main. The “Silent Night” we covet at Christ­mas re­quires that the sounds of war are si­lenced. The in­ner peace we long for at Christ­mas is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with “peace on earth” and our per­sonal ef­forts to­ward that end. And for now, the Ye­men bombing res­o­lu­tions are an op­por­tu­nity for in­formed po­lit­i­cal ac­tion in the new year.

Our war in Viet­nam doesn’t war­rant sen­ti­men­tal­ity nor nos­tal­gia. But from the van­tage point of 50 years, this Christ­mas I count greater con­nec­tion and em­pa­thy, a bit more wis­dom and a love of let­ters as my most mem­o­rable gifts and bless­ings from Christ­mas 1968.

Peter Berres of Lex­ing­ton is a Viet­nam vet­eran and re­tired ed­u­ca­tor. This com­men­tary is part of a se­ries to com­mem­o­rate the 50th an­niver­sary of 1968, a year of na­tional change. Reach him at pe­ter­ber­[email protected]

JOHN OL­SON Stars and Stripes

In South Viet­nam in 1967, 9th In­fantry Di­vi­sion sol­diers re­lax next to an idle mor­tar with a sign an­nounc­ing a Christ­mas Day Truce.

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