Growing up, my father had a limited music library in his car. Before the advent of satellite radio and Spotify, he relied on a handful of albums that he could play over and over. The result was that, before turning six years old, I knew all the words to Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.” But one song stood out as the one that no one would sing along with, we would only listen: Garth Brook’s “Belleau Wood.”
The song, a fictional account of the Christmas Truce of 1914 from the eyes of an English soldier, brings about a sense of peace when it is played. In a beautiful summation of humanity, it instills in the listener a lesson of brotherhood and the unnecessity of conflict.
On the Western Front, in the beginning months of the war, a stalemate had begun, and the trenches were being dug. Over the next four years, an estimated thirteen million military casualties were incurred between both forces, with little ground gained. Heavy artillery and chemical warfare were leaned on to break the spirits and lines of the enemy. Single battles led to losses as high as seven hundred thousand. Disease, spread from thousands living in the trenches, claimed lives daily. It was not just one of the bloodiest and costly periods in all of human history, but also one of the most brutal and cruel.
But in those beginning stages of the war, there was a desire to bridge the gap between soldiers. Unofficial ceasefires were declared, and rules of engagement varied, including refraining from firing on soldiers retrieving their wounded and dead or when soldiers were resting after battle. Brief exchanges became common between enemy trenches, leading to visits and conversations, as well as trading cigarettes and food.
In the week leading up to Christmas Eve of 1914, these interactions between enemies increased, leading to a widespread ceasefire along the Western Front. What began as simple handshakes and an extended period to gather their dead led to joint burials and prayers, songs and shared meals, extended visits in enemy trenches, stories, gift exchanges, and even games. Many accounts from soldiers at the front recounted soccer matches breaking out in No-Man’s Land between German, English, and French troops.
The United States currently finds itself entrenched politically, with the left and the right dug in and only rising to take quick shots before ducking down again. Artillery is occasionally unleashed when the opportunity presents itself. The President has been impeached heading into the holidays, with a Senate trial looming in 2020. Social media has become a greater cesspool in which either side can vent on the other with a grand sense of impunity. Our status as human beings now depends on our political preferences.
Our current political strife, however, will never measure up to the reality of nearly twenty million men lined up in the most horrid of conditions with the singular task of slaughtering the stranger in the hole a few hundred meters away. The hatred and bitterness that the left holds for the right, that the right holds for the left, or that the whole spectrum holds for third party voters like myself, will never compare to an iota of such catastrophic moments in human history as the Western Front.
In that moment of history, we find the simplest act of humanity. We find recognition and understanding of the worth that our supposed enemies possess, just as we find them in ourselves. The soldiers along the Western Front saw themselves in the face of their enemies, living under the same conditions, with the same objectives, and with little reprieve. There was a common ancestry and history among them as Europeans and as people. They were separated by borders and languages, values and culture, religion and government. And yet, they were all men who longed for peace and ventured into one of the most inhospitable places on earth to find it.
In this holiday season, when tensions appear to be at their highest, we look around at our fellow countrymen. We look at our neighbors and communities and we still reach a little further to find compassion. The fighting that comes out of Washington and trickles down into our hearts and minds compels us to forget our compassion in favor of hate. But that is simply not who we are.
There is a line from Belleau Wood that continues to haunt me: “Then the Devil’s clock struck midnight and the skies lit up again. And the battlefield, where heaven stood, was blown to hell again.” One may think that the Christmas Truce was ordered by the leadership and failed to be repeated because of the intensity of the war. In reality, it was those in the field that sought such peace. When word reached each army’s leadership, express orders against any such fraternization were issued. The faint measure of peace in hell was lost until millions were dead and the war ended.
And so it goes for the United States. This war of politics, as close it feels to many of us, is being fought in Washington, not in our homes. Much like the soldiers on the Western Front, we fight because we are compelled to by our leaders. But we are capable of so much more. For this holiday season, let us reach not just for a temporary truce, but for our humanity. Let us find our compassion in defiance of our leaders. If they wish to fight, let them do so. Let our humanity and compassion exceed beyond our current minds. Peace is all around us, if we are just willing to look for it.
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