Christmas in the Trenches

December 15, 2020

By Doug Rawlings
Tom Sturtevant Chapter 1, Auburn Maine

For years our peace action group up here in Maine would gather at our house for a Solstice Celebration. If I kept my act together long enough, I'd search out and play my record album with John McCutcheon's rendition of "Christmas in the Trenches" on it. A beautiful, haunting song that springs out of a real event during World War I when soldiers from both sides stepped out of their trenches into No Man's Land for a moment of peace and joy and camaraderie. You know, like what Christmas is supposed to be like. Of course this was war. They were under orders to kill these other guys whom they probably had more in common with than with their commanding officers. They knew that. That's why they slid out of their roles as killers to celebrate what they shared as human beings. A soccer game. A song sung in two languages together. If just for a moment. Of course this moment was relatively short lived, and soon, as McCutcheon sings, "they went back to the business of war." But they were changed. They knew they were killing other sons and brothers and fathers and uncles. And for what? And for whom?

This story and this song resonate with many of us who have been sent off to war. No matter what war and no matter what role we played when in uniform, we all know that we were supposed to have been a part of something bigger — like ending war for all time or for defending Democracy or for (fill in the blank). But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, it's you against another you. Shooting into a mirror. Of course basic training and the bayonet drill (Kill! Kill! Kill! Have No Mercy! Kill!) are supposed to kick that silly "civilian" slop out of you so that you can become an effective killing machine. Stop thinking. Stop caring. Just do your thing, survive, and get back home.

Trouble is that if you're lucky enough to get back to the world, "home" is no longer what it was before. Well, maybe it was, but you certainly were not able to engage with it like you had before the war. Sure, you'd play another role now as serious citizen, loving partner, loving parent, loving grandparent. But, seriously, how long will that last? You know something has been torn out of you and shoved down your throat. You know what you are capable of doing to another human being.

The identity crisis that's become your life after war is so poignantly caught up in the tale that McCutcheon spins out for us that you know deep in your soul these "lads from Kent and Liverpool" are not quaint artifacts of the past. They are us. Repeated over and over again. From one generation to the next. And when our usefulness as "assets" of war has run its course, then we are tucked away and trotted out once a year in the eleventh month to be thanked for our service. Service to what? Service to whom? Dangerous questions to ask.

But ask them we must. And we must ask them remembering those "brave lads" who transcended the obedience demanded of them on that fateful night when war was frozen in time. Imagine the courage it took to walk into the jaws of death out of a pure love for mankind. We must muster up the same courage and love and say "No" to the war mongers who have carved our world up and put us into their trenches, pitting us against our brothers and sisters to satisfy their greed. Let's sing "Silent Night" together in every language of this planet. Let's bury our nuclear weapons, our drones, our manufactured hatred for the "other" and embrace our common bond as human beings. Then we can turn this planet from the "No Man's Land" that it has become into a fertile and nurturing mother for all to embrace and be embraced by. Then "home" will be restored for all of us, and we can get back to finding our true identities as lovers not warriors.