Tom (Yusha) Sager
The Misfit Mathematician

tom (at)

Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007
A story of ‘Christmas in the

"Twas Christmas in the trenches,
where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were still,
no Christmas song was sung."

This may be the most extraordinary war story you will ever hear - and a most extraordinary story of peace, too. Most of you have probably heard it before. But it bears repeating. And indeed, every year at this time, it is told once again.

It was Christmas Day, 1914. Entente and German troops faced each other along a 500-mile line stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland. Nobody called a truce. Peace just broke out - simultaneously - at many places along the front - and spread - until much of the 500-mile front was at peace.

"The next they sang was 'Stille Nacht,'
''Tis "Silent Night",' says I.
And in two tongues
one song filled up that sky."

It began with Christmas decorations, candles placed on trees, then troops singing carols to each other, then singing together, exchanging little gifts, photos, stories, burying the war dead together, and playing soccer in No Man's Land between the trenches.

"But the question haunted every heart
that lived that wondrous night,
'Whose family have
I fixed within my sights?'"

In some places the truce lasted into January. In others through Christmas night, in others there was no truce at all. But the war continued and dragged on for four long years. The high command on both sides took a dim view of the Christmas truce. Every Christmas Eve thereafter they called for artillery fire, trying to prevent another Christmas outbreak of peace. Still, it happened, but never again on the scale of Christmas, 1914.

Eventually the war ended, but like every war:

"[T]he ones who call the shots
won't be among the dead and lame;
And on each end of the rifle
we're the same."

The First World War was the quintessential symmetric war. The sides were so evenly matched that only after four years of stalemate did one side finally gain the upper hand. When the soldier facing you across 30 yards of No Man's Land has the same rifle and the same mustard gas you have, it is hard not to hold him in respect as an equal.

Here is another story of War and Christmas time. This was an asymmetric war. One side had — everything. The other had — nothing.

On Christmas night, 1890, a ragged band of 350 Lakotas, with wagons full of women and children made their way through heavy snow and bitter cold toward Pine Ridge. They heard singing in the distance: "Silent night, holy night."

Soon they came to a log church. A woman knocked and the door opened. It looked so warm and inviting inside. Mothers with hungry whimpering babies climbed down from the wagons. Suddenly a man raised his fist and shouted, "Get out of here! You are not welcome!"

Four days later this ragged band of Lakotas was surrounded and annihilated by the U.S. 7th Cavalry in what came to be known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some 300 Lakotas died that day, either from gunfire or hypothermia.

In the long run, nobody wins a war. War is like alcohol, cocaine, or gambling. It's addictive. You fight and you fight and you fight again — but in the end, even if you win, you lose.

The roots of Vietnam and Iraq lie deep within three centuries of "Indian" Wars. The roots of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib lie deep within Jim Crow and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

So this Christmas say a prayer for the victims of war — all of them: the civilian and the soldier; the Black, the White, and the Amerind; the Muslim, the Jew, the Shamanist, and the Christian; the Iraqi, the Afghan, the Palestinian, and the Israeli. Now is the time to break the addiction. Let peace break out!

The title and quotes are from John McCutcheon's song, Christmas in the Trenches . The story of Christmas, 1890 is adapted from an account by the Wounded Knee District School Foundation. Have a merry Christmas. I'll be back next week.

(Tom Sager is a retired university professor. His column appears weekly in the Rolla Daily News.)