Some random observations at Christmas, 2006
The end of an old year and the coming of a new one is an appropriate time for reflection. As 2006 comes to a close, here are some of mine – in no particular order.
This Christmas season, with so many of our fighting men and women serving overseas in harm’s way, let us stop and contemplate what it really means to be away from home at this special time of year – and to give thanks for our blessings. Home and hearth may convey the traditional and rather idyllic image of families gathered together to celebrate a joyous holiday season, but the reality is that for thousands of American servicemen and women there will be nothing joyous about Christmas 2006. Most are serving in Iraq, on the mean streets of Baghdad and Mosul, and Tall Afar, in Anbar Province and dozens of other forgettable places.
Iraq and Afghanistan are now two of the world’s most hostile places, where the harsh conditions play second fiddle only to the threat of the sudden ambush utilizing the newest weapons of war in the 21st century, the IED and the suicide bomber.
With the daily rash of news emanating from Iraq it is all too easy to overlook Afghanistan, an untamed land where even trees refuse to grow, a place ruled for centuries by warlords answerable to no one. There, another nearly forgotten but nevertheless deadly war is taking place. A multinational military force faces the daunting mission of protecting the innocent and of hunting down terrorists in a land so barren and unforgiving that no outside nation has ever truly conquered it. The British were never more than unwelcome interlopers in this remote corner of their one-time Empire, and the Russians paid a terrible price in blood for their years of occupation, ultimately withdrawing their forces in defeat and humiliation.
Wars are rarely fought in convenient places or under ideal conditions, whether on the rocky slopes of the Gallipoli peninsula or the primitive trenches of the Western Front during World War I, or the dreadful conditions of the island jungle war in the Pacific during World War II. Or the hellish conditions of the truly forgotten war in Italy where the terrain and winter weather were so severe that the best-known general was not a real person; it was “General Mud,” a place where names like the Rapido, Anzio and Monte Cassino are remembered as monuments to futility. Or of the winter of 1944-45 that was notable for the extreme cold conditions fit for neither man nor beast, perhaps the worst Europe experienced in a half-century. The Battle of the Bulge was as much about the weather as it was about resisting Hitler’s last-ditch German offensive. Not long after the last guns of World War II were silent the Korean War set new standards for fighting in conditions where the freezing winters were as deadly as the enemy. Christmas in Korea was celebrated not with good will but behind a rifle or machine-gun. Finally, let us not forget those who have spent Christmas in POW camps in God-forsaken stalags or the Hanoi Hilton.
(From left) Sgt. Alison Bates, Sgt. LeAnne Jackson and Spc. Veronica Flores
sing a Christmas melody for Soldiers at Camp Liberty, Iraq, Dec. 23.
The singing group, "Minority Report," is part of the 1st Cavalry Division Band.
Photo by Pfc. William Hatton. This photo appeared on www.army.mil.
This season calls to mind that sometimes not even the deadliest of wars can stop a celebration of Christmas. Easily the best known example occurred in 1914 when unofficial cease-fires took place on the Western Front and German and British soldiers left their trenches to meet in No Man’s Land to gather and bury their dead – and to exchange small presents and drink together. What these soldiers understood was that there was no good reason for the slaughter that was only beginning and in the ensuing four years would consume the youth of both nations in the mud of Flanders, the trenches of the Somme, and at Verdun where as many as 800,000 soldiers of both sides died in a senseless siege that militarily achieved nothing. Nearly a century has passed since the start of the so-called Great War and to my mind it remains the most monumentally stupid conflict ever waged in the history of mankind.
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There is no disputing that today’s military are the best equipped and trained in our history. Advances in weapons and technology provide them with the tools of war undreamed of even a decade ago. Air power advocates have been advancing the notion during and since World War II that air power alone can win wars. If only it were true. Yet, folks who ought to know better have been seduced by such ideas and they have not served us well. What has not changed is the need for boots on the ground. We have yet to heed the warnings of civilian and military leaders, past and present, that we are asking too much of our military with too little in the way of human assets (see Ralph Peters’ Crisis Watch column, “Quantitative Incompetence” in the January 2007 Armchair General magazine). It calls to mind the old saying that never seems out vogue: penny-wise and pound-foolish. That debate is ongoing but the deep personnel cuts made in recent years have, I believe, long since returned to haunt us. It is also a subject worthy of a future piece.
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Speaking of our military, reporter Bob Woodward made this observation in the December 25 issue of Time: “As a country we owe them everything,” but like many of us, Woodward is deeply troubled by the sense that with the Christmas season, “there is a sense that we’re not at war.”
And so, as we celebrate another holiday season, let us take a brief moment to give thanks for the contributions and sacrifice of this and earlier generations of Americans who answered calls to duty: the men of Washington’s Revolutionary Army, who fought under dreadful conditions; the many thousands who fought in a Civil War against their own countrymen; the veterans of the absurdly named “police action” in Korea, and the veterans of Vietnam who fought an unpopular war and were vilified by an unsympathetic nation.
President Dwight Eisenhower spoke for us all in 1964 when he made a poignant return to Normandy to honor those who did not make it home. Sitting on a stone wall at the American military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, Eisenhower said: “These men came here – British and our allies, and Americans – to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom … Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these . . . but these young boys . . . were cut off in their prime . . . I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned . . . we must find some way . . . to gain an eternal peace for this world.”*
Were Ike alive today he would be dismayed but hardly surprised that the world of a new century is still a very dangerous and unstable place. Although history tells us it is unlikely, nevertheless, if there is a single goal for humanity it is to continue striving to fulfill Ike’s heartfelt appeal for peace. We owe this to both generations past who fought for this ideal, and those yet to come.
* Eisenhower’s words are from the 1964 documentary "CBS Reports: D-Day plus 20-years", narrated by Walter Cronkite.