The Day That Paused a War

The infamous Christmas truce of 1914 was the first thing I ever knew about World War I. I don’t know if I learned of it in school or merely conversation; but I was six or seven years old and even at that age the story deeply moved me. I remember my mother told me how on one cold Christmas Day, the trenches went quiet and the sweet sound of carols replaced the cracks of gunfire. Hundreds of men from both sides left their positions to meet in No Man’s Land, and as they exchanged gifts and talked to one another, they spent Christmas in peace and brotherhood; as humans are meant to do.

I always thought it was strange that, in the middle of a war, they would stop fighting and talk to each other. But as I grew older and thought about it more, I realized that it did make sense. This Christmas truce, although short-lived, was earnest and beautiful and not a fluke. Yes, these men were enemies, or at least their respective states were. But, whether because of a recognition of brotherhood, discontentment at their lot, or a yearning for peace, Englishmen, Germans, Austrians, Frenchmen, and Russians laid down their guns and took up gifts and footballs instead.

Christmas Truce

German and British troops mingle in No Man’s Land in December 1914. Image from Imperial War Museum, #HU35801. Attributed to Drummond

Now, at 20 years old and having learned much more about the world and this subject in particular, I believe that the Christmas truce of WWI demonstrates something intrinsic to the human soul. Although the truce was only a spark- extinguished after a few days by a blanket of artillery shells and mustard gas- that spark came from the compassion and unity that humans can feel and propagate. I don’t believe that the truce was entirely spontaneous or irrational. The soldiers involved had been in those hellish trenches for awhile by December, and had seen and dealt much killing. They must have been getting weary, and perhaps some wondered why they were really there in the first place. So when the sacred day of Christmas came along, with all its symbols of love, harmony, and peace, they were ready to be done with war- even for only a few hours.

1914 has now been gone for a century, and the Christmas truce could easily be viewed as a quaint, chivalrous ritual from an era long since dead. But human nature doesn’t change, and since the truce stemmed from its participants’ compassion and humanity, I believe the spirit of December 25, 1914 can still live today. One facet of human nature, unfortunately, is war. We have waged war on each other for thousands of years, and we aren’t slowing down. But equally, we humans possess understanding and goodwill. We also possess the responsibility to choose which part of our nature we will live by.

Today in 2014, there are countless conflicts and disagreements in every corner of the globe. There are the obvious ones, such as the conflict between Hamas and Israel and the trouble between Russia and the West. There are also smaller ones, like border disputes which sometimes come to blows between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Argentina’s ire at Britain regarding the Falkland Islands. Sometimes countries just don’t like one another, and sometimes that’s for good reason. But every single human lives in the world, not just a country, and we’re all more similar than it might be convenient to admit.

I do believe that some wars are both just and necessary- but only when one or both sides are unwilling to concede anything and is bent on causing destruction and injustice on the other. World War II would be a good example; after all, Hitler was never going to give up his conquest for an Aryan empire until it was realized, and he was unwilling to negotiate in any way. Had the Allies not taken up arms, then Europe and perhaps more of the world would have been completely devoid of not only certain races, but of freedom itself. That said, I’m not sure all of today’s conflicts meet these criteria. Maybe, if we could remember the spirit of the Christmas truce one hundred years ago, some disagreements and even deaths could be averted.

Even in a world that grows increasingly complex and cynical every day, I don’t think I’m naive; only hopeful. The human race has proved many times throughout history what it is capable of, both good and bad. Someday I hope for a world where peace and unity prevail, rather than the animosity and suspicion which we currently cling to all too often. And I do believe we can realize that world, even if it may seem as distant as the Christmas truce of 1914. We, as citizens of the world and members of one human race, need to decide what we really want to pursue. We can either continue punishing one another and growing farther and farther apart, or try to realize that we are all human and we all make mistakes. A discussion of human nature might seem simplistic when related to international affairs, but remember that a mere human runs every country, corporation, and organization in the world.

Christmas Truce Reenactors

Descendants of Great War soldiers reenact the momentous Christmas truce in the 21st century. Image from flickr via Wikimedia Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/sets/72157607059019882/detail/. Attributed to Alan Cleaver

Sometimes there is no bargaining with a person or a state. There comes a time when it is too late to avert war. And all parties involved need to make a commitment in order to create any kind of harmony, lasting or otherwise. It would have been a very different story from the fields of Belgium if one side had taken the other’s laxness as an opportunity to gain some ground. But in 1914, both sides acknowledged their similarities and stepped out to celebrate them. Why don’t we do the same today?

Of course, Christmas is the optimal time to share this story. But kindness, compassion, and harmony can and should be spread any day of the year! Perhaps something like Christmas is necessary to remind us that we don’t have to remain shackled to the detrimental suspicions and attitudes of previous generations. 1914’s Christmas truce was a long time ago, but we can use it even today to influence our outlook and actions. The world is changing, so let’s make it a change for the best.

Christmas Truce Memorial

A memorial to the Christmas truce. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Redvers

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To be Read Before We Create Our End

I am personally deeply troubled at the current state of affairs in the Ukraine. But I am not only troubled by Russia’s unfortunate incursion into Crimea- the seemingly inescapable repercussions are distressing as well.

First of all, I will outline my view of this situation. Russia does not want war. Its actions are based on the strong Russian identity, which exists for ethnic Russians across national borders, and on historical precedent. Until 1954, Crimea was a part of Russia and there are over one million Russians living there today. Conversely, the Ukraine has not historically appreciated being associated with Russia- in World War II, numbers of Ukrainians welcomed and sided with the invading Wehrmacht- and much of the country, as evidenced in the recent protests, is pro-EU and anti-Russia.

Map of Crimea

Map of Crimea: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Soerfm.

What is unfortunate, of course, is that Russia has reacted to the protests with such eager inhibition- although I can understand its reasoning for doing so. Crimea has such a large population of ethnic Russians that Russia does not want to risk alienating or endangering its people. As soon as the protests turned violent, Russia decided that it needed to act in order to ‘save’ its people from violence and instability. My hope is that Russia will not inadvertently cause more unrest by going further into the Ukraine’s territory.

Graph of Crimean Demographics

Graph of Demographics in Crimea: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Soerfm.

But I do not believe that Russia is solely to blame for this incursion. In all things, I believe Russia acts under the assumption that it is alone. It cannot count the West as an ally, since we here in the West have done nothing but belittle and criticize Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. I came across an article by Angus Roxburgh today which raises some valid and thought-provoking points about the West’s involvement in this situation. You can read this article here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/10695204/Paranoia-leads-Vladimir-Putin-to-the-point-of-no-return.html.

Such an article brings up this question: What has the West, or for that matter, anyone, done to encourage global peace and cooperation after the dissolution of the Soviet state? It is sometimes said that humanity learned its lesson after the horrors of World War II, but have we? Can we honestly say, after a long look in the mirror, that we are doing a good job in the pursuit of peace and cooperation?

I believe that we are failing. World leaders have legitimate concerns in looking after their own countries, but in this age of globalization, with the Internet and the United Nations and wireless communication, countries now have a duty to the world as a whole as well. And yet world leaders still seem more concerned with their own agendas and their country’s power and prestige rather than the real concern of global peace.

And can we say that the Cold War is truly over? I’m not so sure that we can- the Cold War that purportedly lasted from 1947-1991 was defined by espionage, lack of communication, and proxy wars. The West and Russia still spy on each other today. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov still boycott the odd meeting and call each other’s actions ‘unacceptable’ and ‘irresponsible’. And each respective country has its own set of allies and interests which conflict with the other’s. Instead of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Vietnam against America and the West, we have now Russia arming al-Assad in Syria and Western powers supporting the rebels. How is the conflict in Syria anything but another proxy war?

Syrian Soldier with PKM

Photo of Syrian soldier with Russian-made PKM machine gun: from Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Elizabeth Arrott.

Additionally, NATO still remains a force in the world; a force which threatens Russia’s sense of security thanks to plans like the one to build a missile shield in Europe. We should not be at all surprised that Russia is reluctant to listen to Western ideas, or to comply with Western demands. Why should Russia do anything for us when we have never done anything for them?

I am not trying in this post to assign blame to any one party, because the blame belongs to all. Fifty years of suspicion and bad blood cannot be erased, but it can be learned from. My worry is that no one is bothering to learn from it. There comes a time when we humans must wake up and take things seriously- forget our pride and our greed and our selfishness, and ask what we can give to make things better. Now is surely that time, time to stop insisting on the faults of other nations and instead to commit to remedying our own.

I’m sure that world leaders would have many excuses that would discount my pleas. They have their own security to worry about, of course, and there are some actions which cannot be ignored. True, but giving of yourself and reconciling would mean you would have one less enemy to worry about. And although there is true evil in the world, Russia is not it. Nor is the West. Both may be self-serving and pigheaded, but they do not embody evil.

And consider, for a moment, the consequences if world powers do not make some sort of radical attempt at understanding and helping one another. The next century will be built on layer upon layer of suspicion, doubt, and animosity- a foundation which will only serve to hurt its builders in the face of growing threats like terrorism and extremism. Do we really want another fifty years of a Cold War? Perhaps we actually enjoyed the Cold War and its five decades of ‘Red Terror’, senseless conflicts, and nuclear proliferation- after all, no one seems to be making much of an effort to avert its continuation. How long will it take before we see a real war, given the way events have been escalating in recent months, with Syria, Ukraine, and differences in philosophy between Russia and the West?

Checkpoint Charlie Standoff 1961

Photo of 1961 Checkpoint Charlie standoff: from http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com/bcphotox.htm. Attributed to unknown author.

I will not be surprised if some people disagree with or discount my estimation of this situation. But I do not believe I am misguided. Although my knowledge comes only from one university course in International Studies and regular online and literary research, it is clear that the current methods being used in international affairs are not working and perhaps we should try a more sympathetic approach. Instead of demonizing everyone who disagrees with us, why can’t we try to understand their position and see what type of unilateral effort we can muster to change the situation?

Again, I view all the current conflicts as extremely unfortunate yet entirely avoidable. For whatever reasons, we have not taken the opportunities that may have allowed us to coexist with better cooperation and understanding. I do believe there is still time and hope (and no immediately impending apocalypse), but we cannot ignore the fact that things will continue to get worse if we do not make them better. I can’t even pretend that this post will make any kind of measurable difference, but public sentiment is a powerful thing and I hope that my post may influence that sentiment and promote awareness.

Why don’t we try to do some good in the world, instead of always antagonizing the easy targets? So many of today’s problems are wholly of our own making; if not intentionally encouraged, then egged on by our own selfishness and inadvertent sense of superiority. Surely we don’t want to be mired in the depths of a cruel and fierce war in twenty years, fighting someone who could have been a friend, and looking back at all the opportunities we shunned and wishing we had not been quite so proud and stupid.

 

Russia is Not America’s Enemy

It bothers me to know that the majority of American citizens views Russia as an unfriendly nation. But according to a recently conducted Gallup poll, 60% of American adults view Russia in an unfavourable light. In my opinion, this is deeply unfortunate and also a very negative influence in international affairs.

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union was difficult for many Russians to accept, but it also presented the rest of the world with a brilliant opportunity. Gone was the old, hard-line Soviet leadership with its isolationist principles and its distaste for all things Western. The elimination of such a government ended (in theory) the Cold War, and afforded the chance for all nations to forge new, positive relationships with Russia and the former Soviet states.

Regrettably, however, this chance does not seem to have been acknowledged or acted upon by the West. Russia and the West do, in many areas, have very different values, and between them there is a history of suspicion, rivalry, and bad blood. But simply being angry, holding onto old stereotypes, and refusing to move forward together is never going to create a positive result. Differences in opinion can never be solved with silence. Dialogue and respectful discussion is crucial if we ever wish to move past this uncertain state of post-Cold War hostility.

As I have acknowledged, there are numerous differences in opinion between Russia and (as an example) the majority of the United States. Russia tends to be much more conservative, whereas America is a champion of progression and civil rights in the world. In the modern world there are generally certain attitudes which are held by a majority, but opposition to these attitudes is not inherently wrong or evil. I believe that the world as a whole, as well as every individual living in it, needs to accept that there will always be someone who thinks differently than they do. What matters is that we do not try to force our opinions inconsiderately on others, and that we ensure that our own opinions are stated with thoughtfulness and precision.

The Cold War superpowers of Russia and America do, however, occupy common ground- a fact that perhaps we should consider more often. Both nations are combating terrorist powers and organizations which draw their inspiration from the same extremist principles, and as a result, both can work together to make the world a better place for all.

I feel that Russia has always been the beneficiary of some unfair stereotypes and attitudes, encouraged, for example, by many a Hollywood movie. I wish that the West would see Russia’s many intricacies and strengths, instead of viewing it as an oppressive and backwards nation headed by a man who seems authoritarian and cruel.

Every society in history, and most likely every society to come, has its own innumerable problems- that is the mark of humanity. Corruption, individualism to a detrimental extreme, disregard for others- these are all problems which we will probably face for as long as we inhabit the earth. But what matters is that, instead of harping on others’ problems, we actually address them with understanding and work through them together. No one likes to be preached to nor to be ignored, and it might do the leaders of every nation good to remember it.

In closing, I lament the current state of distrust that not only America, but also the collective West, has for Russia. I also lament the fact that no country seems to be making an exceptional effort to fix this distressing problem. But I still have hope, and I believe that although Cold War attitudes may prevail in the 21st century, the chance that 1991 provided also exists still. Furthermore, international cooperation is not solely up to the leaders of nations. It begins with every individual, and we all have the power and the ability to see things in a different light, or to look at an issue with careful contemplation rather than immediate judgement.

We should all realize that our opinions and choices will never be the same as those of other people, but that this doesn’t mean that we cannot all coexist and enjoy productive and smooth relationships. We are all human. We all fail. We all inhabit this world together, and we should never allow our differences to open too great a void between us.

REFERENCES

(2014, February 13). Americans’ Opinions of Russia, Putin Hit 20-Year Low- Poll. Retrieved from http://en.ria.ru/world/20140214/187519318/Americans-Opinions-of-Russia-Putin-Hit-20-Year-Low-Poll.html

Swift, A. (2014, February 13). Americans’ Views of Russia, Putin Are Worst in Years. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/167402/americans-views-russia-putin-worst-years.aspx