The centennial of the start of World War I has placed this usually overlooked conflict back in the public eye. The famed Christmas Truce of 1914 - the first winter of the war, has brought additional attention.
The story is told elsewhere in greater detail, but the basic facts are that the armies on the Western Front in 1914 still considered themselves Christian in character and, on Christmas Eve, it seemed appropriate for them to stop shooting one another. (The Eastern Front armies had less in common, in part because the Russians still used the Old Style calendar so their Christmas was not observed on the same day as that of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians).
So it was that the enemies set aside their weapons and sang carols and even exchanged gifts. It was hailed as a miracle then and ever since - a forlorn episode of humanity and faith in an otherwise grim and pitiless conflict. Yet there is more to it than that.
For one thing, it was winter. This seems self-evident but one must remember that the armies of the time overwhelmingly relied on draft animals to move just about everything - food, ammunition, reinforcements, weapons - they all needed horses or oxen to provide the muscle to get them where they needed to go.
Draft animals need a lot of food and in winter this is not easy to find. Railroads enabled huge quantites of fodder to be shipped up to the front to keep the herds healthy but expecting them to move anywhere without grazing was out of the question. Plus, its cold and wet, so the troops would get sick and the roads were impassable. It was a good time to take a break.
For this reason, armies traditionally scaled back their activities in winter. They even had a term for it: winter quarters. Historically a screen of scouts would cover the the enemy to see if they did anything while the rest of the army retired into temporary huts (if in the field) or took over local houses and inns. An attack on troops in winter quarters could be devastating (as we demonstrated at Trenton and Princeton). So much for the "Christmas Truce" of 1776!
At any rate, the armies of 1914 were cold, short of supplies and their ranks were depleted. They had been fighting since August and all of their peacetime stocks of ammunition, weapons and replacements were gone. The bulk of the next year would be spent in fully mobilizing their economies for industrial war and the fruits of this would be seen in the unimaginable slaughter of 1916.
Of course all of that was in the future. The armies of 1914 therefore had reason to hope that the war might end short of total annihilation. Remember that at this time, the war was also less savage. Most of the features that define World War I in popular memory did not yet exist. No one had used poison gas, heavy artillery bombardments were rare (most armies had light field guns that were criticaly short of ammunition), hand grenades were being improvised from empty tin cans and even combat helmets had not yet been introduced on a wide scale.
The trenches of the time were shallow and the barbed wire entanglements not very deep. The armies dug in because that had nowhere else to go and the later elaborate systems that feature in so many movies and stories had not yet been dug.
I mention all of this because it is critical to understanding human nature - the one constant in history.
It was still possible in December of 1914 to imagine a war bound by civilized rules. As the conflict deepened, those rules were cast aside. The "Vials of Wrath" so memorably described by Winston Churchill would be filled to overflowing in the years that followed and the line between soldier and civilian almost completely erased.
This is what war does. We should know better by now, but human folly is infinite. Even as we watch atrocity after atrocity around the world, we still mutter about "human rights violations" and "international law," as if a bunch of police officers will descend from the heaven and issue citations to the Taliban and Islamic State.
The people of 1914 thought the same but by 1918 they knew better.
It is worth pointing out that though the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, the victorious Allies kept the blockade intact on Germany and the Central Powers until the signing of the formal peace the following year. Though America and perhaps Britain and France have forgotten, the Germans could not ignore that even after the firing stopped and their armies withdrew from France and Belgium, their people were still left starving. Food imports were resumed only after urgent appeals came from the armies of occupation that the swarms of beggar women and children outside the game gates were demoralizing their men.
Thus if we speak of a Christmas Miracle in 1914, what can we make of the Christmas Cruelty of 1918?
The lesson should be clear, as it was articulated more than a century ago by William T. Sherman: "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it."
It is a far more inhumane and callous thing to have a war waged on the margins, a war kept from the public eye where the price is hidden and the suffering is denied than to have one front and center. Scores of people are dying every day and yet we in the West obsess over whether men should keep their legs together on the subway. (No, really.)
Both Churchill and Sherman have since been recast as "warmongers" thirsty for innocent blood, but the truth was that both men understood that in our fallen world, it was sometimes necessary for the side of right to use force to vanquish evil - and that when that time came, the force should be overwhelming. Half-measures only extended the suffering.
It is unquestionably true that the United States has within its power the ability to inflict massive and likely fatal damage upon its enemies at minimal loss to itself, but we lack the will or the vision to do so. And as a result, suffereing is increased. Right now, they are mostly brown people who live far away and we can scroll past them but that will not go on forever.
When it changes, how many will ask why we did nothing sooner?