Enduring contemplations of peace, good will in a war zone
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]
In South Vietnam in 1967, 9th Infantry Division soldiers relax next to an idle mortar with a sign announcing a Christmas Day Truce.