On Christmas Eve 1914, German and British soldiers crept out of their trenches, played soccer together, exchanged gifts of food, and joined in singing carols. Alarmed, commanders on both sides warned of the crime of “fraternizing with the enemy” and the war ground on for an additional four years, not only killing millions but setting the stage for the next world war two decades later.
From the safe perspective of a new century, those soldiers who tried to reach out peacefully to one another seem sane and realistic, while hindsight shows their generals to have suffered from a kind of mental illness based in rigid over-adherence to abstractions like flag, country and total victory.
A hundred years later it seems we would prefer to sentimentalize the story of Christmas in the trenches rather than using it as a measure of our own mental health. In the way we think about war, most of us suffer equally from group schizophrenia, made infinitely more dangerous by the presence of nuclear weapons combined with antique delusions of victory.
Progressives like to excoriate the obvious war lovers among us, politicians who are lost without enemies to blame or pundits who traffic in crude polarizing stereotypes. But we need to acknowledge the beam in our own eye even as we point out the mote in theirs. Tragically, those who try too hard to make sense of the insanity of war can slip into participation in war. Commentators, even liberal ones, wanting to appear sensible and realistic by displaying their comprehensive knowledge of all the parties in complex fights such as the one grinding on right now in Syria and Iraq, drift away from the essential truth that the civil war there is just as senseless as the trench warfare between the British and the Germans a hundred years ago. Calmly accepting least bad options, we choose from a safe distance whom to bomb and to whom to sell weapons, only fanning the flames of chaos.
Mentally healthy discourse about any war on the planet requires a context based in values both spelled out and lived out by pillars of sanity like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders knew that killing solves nothing and that the spirit of vengeance initiates a cycle that leads only to further killing.
“Realists” will reply that the idealism of Jesus and friends is all very well but when we are pushed we must shove back. This fundamental assumption, apparently impossible to refute and always referring back to the uber-case of Hitler, becomes more questionable when looking at the insane karma of America’s response to 9-11-01. Our leaders unleashed a stream of squid-ink that tried to blur Saddam with al-Qaeda when most of the perpetrators were inconveniently Saudi and none Iraqi. Much of the ensuing chaos in Iraq and Syria, along with our horrific descent into the insanity of torture, flowed out of this initial, still unpunished lie.
The light of history reveals that wars often exhibit a causation that implicates all parties—as we know from examining how the Hitler phenomenon was a direct result of the allied powers failing to exhibit a spirit of magnanimity toward a defeated Germany when World War 1 ended in 1918. The Marshall plan demonstrated allied determination not to repeat the same mistake in 1945, and the result was a stability in Europe that endures to this day.
There are practical reasons we set aside holidays to honor Jesus and King, because we know these men taught the only possible way beyond the plague of war—an understanding that we are one human family. Those long ago soldiers in the trenches had the courage to awaken from the insanity of “my country right or wrong” and tried to connect spontaneously with each other on the heart level. If journalists and interpreters could remain with the values context that asserts that all killing is insane, that arms sales that exacerbate such killing are universally shameful, that war is always the failure of all parties to conflict to avoid slipping into the insanity of enemy stereotyping, perhaps a new climate would be created—a positive form of global warming.
Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.