Can we, even for a brief time, put aside the fear that has made us a nation caught in endless war that has come home to us? Can we begin to look at our fellow citizens, not as “the other,” or “less than,” or “disposable?” Can we reduce our society’s militarization and culture of violence? Can we get beyond inflammatory rhetoric that paralyzes our government and poisons family gatherings? Can we stop our war at home, even for a short while?
During World War I, on and around Christmas Day 1914 along the Western Front, the sounds of exploding shells and rifle fire faded in several places in favor of gestures of good will between enemies. At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, groups of German soldiers emerged from their trenches, crossed no-man’s-land, and shouted “Merry Christmas” to the British soldiers. In a number of places, the men exchanged cigarettes and sang carols and songs. The film “Joyeux Noel” depicts this remarkable truce and calls it “a moment of humanity that changed everything.”
Can we have a moment of humanity that changes everything? How many of us have stopped watching the news because we can’t handle what we are seeing? In a season that is presumably devoted to peace, we have come to wonder if peace is possible in our country, with its culture of killing, bullying, sexual assault and torture. We know this is not who we are, but somehow it is us, and we don’t know how to handle it, or get ourselves out of it.
I’ve seen this before. Along with other members of Veterans for Peace who have served in war, I’ve seen what happens when fear takes over and we lose the better part of our humanity. We know what is possible when “the other” is cast as less than human. We know war, and it is here.
In the United States today, guns and mass shootings proliferate. Police departments are militarized. Violent video games have drugged our youth. The toxic residual of slavery and racism fuels us. We tout strength and dismiss the “lazy who feel entitled.” Entire groups of people are disposable. We pride ourselves on being a classless society, even as we watch our middle class evaporate and the American dream disappear. In a nation of immigrants, we attack new immigrants who seek what our forebears sought. We fail to support early-childhood initiatives, strip schools of funding, and question the right of all Americans to affordable health care. Endless war overseas has morphed into war at home where diminishing resources make us less than we should be and compromise our future.
President Dwight David Eisenhower said it best in 1953: “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. … We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. … it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
On Christmas Day 1914, if warring soldiers could halt their fighting and claim the peace of a common humanity, as Americans we need to do the same here at home. If we don’t create a moment of humanity that changes everything, we stand to lose our humanity forever.