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Veterans Call to Commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914
By Ben Chitty
On behalf of the Veterans Peace Council of Metro New York, I write to invite you to sign our Veterans Call to Commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Many plans are being made to observe the centennial of World War I, the "Great War," the "war to end all wars." We hope the Christmas Truce of 1914 — this extraordinary event when soldiers themselves decided to stop fighting at least for a moment — will not be overlooked and disregarded, any more than the lesson so many Great War veterans brought home, that their cause had not been worth the slaughter.
The spirit of the Christmas Truce permeates our work in many ways. The troops themselves ceased fire, sometimes in direct defiance of their officers. Realizing their common humanity, soldiers stepped into no-man's land and fraternized with their enemies. Many things we do today look a lot like this: disobeying unjust orders, reconciling with former foes, stepping in between adversaries to keep the peace, cleaning up from war's devastation. Our campaigns make demands on military and political establishments, from recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress and "Vets4Vets" counseling, to treatment and compensation for Agent Orange and radiation exposure, to upgrades for discharges motivated by racism, to ending the live fire exercises at Vieques in Puerto Rico. Many veterans have walked point in struggles for peace and social justice: Confederate veteran Albert Parsons; Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti veteran Smedley Butler; WWI veteran Walter Waters; WWII veterans Hector Garcia, Medgar Evers and Moe Fishman; Vietnam veterans Jack McCloskey, Pedro Pietri and David Cline. The "Right to Heal" initiative recognizes that the Iraq War is not over for civilians and soldiers who still struggle with trauma and injury, and who still suffer the effects of environmental poisoning by munitions and burn pits. Meanwhile generals and admirals, diplomats and politicians, all retire with full pensions to join corporate boards and Washington lobbying firms.
That truce of Christmas 1914 was never intended to be permanent. Hostilities resumed, and there were few repetitions until almost the end of the war when thousands of soldiers refused to continue fighting. By the end of the war, more than 10 million soldiers had died, and another 6 million went missing, presumed dead. Military and civilian casualties totaled over 37 million. The "war to end war" turned out to be only the first world war, ushering in a century of new wars, hot and cold, local and global, colonial and imperial, all conducted with the latest modern (and profitable) machinery of death. Revolts swept Russia into civil war and Germany into savage repression and the groundwork for fascism. The British and French divvied up the Ottoman Empire, making colonial boundaries which still fester in the Middle East.
The United States came late to the war, "to make the world safe for democracy." Victory was followed by mass deportations, the finale of the government's repression of the anti-war movement. African American veterans came home expecting respect for their service, and were greeted with race riots and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan. At least ten black veterans were lynched, some still in uniform. On the first anniversary of Armistice Day, American Legionnaires marched on the union hall of the Industrial Workers of the World in Centralia, Washington. Three Legionnaires were killed, and in the aftermath timberworker Wesley Everett, an American Expeditionary Force veteran and IWW member, was castrated and strung up, then riddled with bullets. In 1932, 17,000 American veterans, along with thousands of family members and supporters, marched on Washington to petition Congress for early payment of a promised bonus, only to be dispersed by fixed bayonets and tear gas.
The Great War's true history belongs to the soldiers who fought it and the families who waited for their return. In their name, we can reclaim some of that history by commemorating the Christmas Truce of 1914 with a new determination to lay down arms, reconcile with enemies, reconstruct and rebuild after war's devastation. We can press politicians to convert the war economy, clean up military toxins, and take care of veterans. We can educate young people about war and militarism. We can celebrate with festivals and ceremonies. We can seize this moment to spark our imaginations to develop projects and activities that engage hundreds, thousands, millions of people in the hard work of peace.
Sign the Call at www.veteranspeacecouncil.org.
Ben Chitty is a shellback Navy veteran of two deployments to Vietnam, and a long-time member of VVAW.