Tag Archives: War

The 1914 Christmas Truce

December 24, 1914

Memorial for the 1914 Christmas Truce in Flanders, Belgium, where soldiers may have played soccer.

Memorial for the Truce in Flanders, Belgium, where soldiers may have played soccer.

“About five o’clock on Christmas Eve the Germans started lighting up Christmas trees in their trenches. We took no notice of them until they began to sing. Then we began to cheer them and to talk to one another as we are only about 80 yards apart.” -Rifleman C. Ernest Furneaux, British Rifle Brigade, January 4, 1915.

Along the Western Front in France and Belgium, soldiers waited in their trenches on Christmas Eve. British troops enjoyed puddings and cigarettes from home. Across the fields, sometimes only yards apart, German troops decorated small Christmas trees with candles. Both sides had started singing carols, and could hear their sworn enemies singing familiar tunes. French and British soldiers peered out of their trenches and saw hundreds of lights across the fields when curiosity took hold of them. Despite the language barriers and the months-long war, soldiers crawled out of their trenches, walked into the open air, traded gifts, and sang together. Some even played soccer, with a reported German victory of 3-2. They drank, sang, and celebrated Christmas on the battlefield. Later, many soldiers wrote about these events in letters to their friends and families.

“At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches, on which was written Happy Christmas, and then leaving their trenches unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting ‘comrades!’ No one fired.” -Unknown Belgian soldier, January 4, 1915.

The Great War began in August, 1914, and was expected to end before Christmas. By December, it was clear the war would drag on. Soldiers found themselves in appalling conditions. Sanitation was poor, food was scarce, and enemy gunfire was frequent. So, far away from home, threatened with death and disease, cold, hungry, and probably confused, many German, French, and British soldiers decided to stop fighting.

“The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.’ It was a very moving moment, hated and embittered enemies singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.” -Josef Wendl, German soldier, January 1915.

In some places, the Truce lasted until Christmas morning. In others, it lasted until New Year’s Day. Soldiers shared whatever food and drink they had, took the opportunity to bury their own dead, and befriended the men they were expected to kill. Some even joined together in a Christmas Mass on the battlefield. Suddenly, the Germans were no longer monsters trying to dismantle civilization; suddenly the French and British were not the greatest threat Europe had ever known.

“Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet. Then with more formal salutes we turned and made our way back to our respective ruts.” -Unknown British soldier, January 15, 1915.

The ceasefire was spontaneous, informal, and technically illegal. Soldiers were forbidden from fraternizing with the enemy, which was relatively easy when trenches were so close, and such interactions sparked sympathy. Though common then, such fraternization is rare today.

In contemporary wars, it is easier to dehumanize the enemy because there are broader cultural differences. American troops during the Korean and Vietnam wars were told they alone prevented the spread of communism, and those Americans who celebrate Christmas now find it difficult to share that holiday with the mostly Sunni Muslim communities of Iraq and Afghanistan. Propaganda dehumanized communists as the negation of American values and contemporary media frequently call Muslim societies the antithesis of western culture.

“Further, they agreed that if by any mischance a single shot were fired, it was not to be taken as an act of war, and an apology would be accepted; also that firing would not be opened without due warning on both sides.” -Unknown Irish soldier, January 2, 1915.

But dehumanization is only a process of denial. No matter how well we deny it, everybody in the crosshairs is a human being. They all have families; they are all lost and confused and angry and shaken. It’s easy to deny the humanity of an Iraqi or a Korean whose language and culture we do not understand. But just like all Americans, they work like us; they make music like us; they bleed and yearn and gasp for one last breath like us.

The trenches were hell on Earth. Nevertheless, people chose to celebrate Christmas in hell. They chose to recognize their mutual humanity and stop their mechanized slaughter. We can learn from the Truce that peace is actually quite simple. All we have to do is realize that, no matter who we’re fighting, all we really want is good food, good music, and good company. If we all stopped listening to the propaganda and acknowledged how much we long for home, maybe we can stop the nonsensical industry of warfare. It may sound preposterous, but the letters prove that such an act, however brief, has a historical precedence. Who’s to say it can’t happen again?

Joyeux Noël.

Schöne Weihnachten.

Happy Christmas.

Elections the World Over: Afghanistan

I secretly love world politics. This year, there are numerous important elections either underway or wrapping up. Because I believe history insurmountably influences the present, I always research a nation’s political history during election seasons so I know how past events influence current events in those countries. Studying world politics gives me an unusual thrill and gives me a chance to see history unfolding and revealing only deeper layers of history. That’s why I study it with such excitement.

AFGHANISTANAfghanistan and Bordering Countries

Yesterday, the chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission announced that because no candidate received 51 percent of the vote, there will be a second round of voting in June. The first round had a tremendous turnout, with approximately seven million voters despite threats and minor attacks from the Taliban.

Abdullah Abdullah

Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah

The two remaining candidates have participated extensively in Afghan and world politics. Abdullah Abdullah is the frontrunner with 45 percent of the vote; he is a medical doctor and was a close friend and adviser to an Afghan military leader and national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought against both the Soviets and the Taliban until his assassination on September 9, 2001 (now a national holiday in Afghanistan).

Ashraf Ghani

Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani

Abdullah’s opponent, Ashraf Ghani, received 32 percent of the vote; he was a member of the World Bank, a candidate for the United Nations, and has spent significant time abroad. Both are ethnic Pashtuns, though Abdullah claims to be of both Pashtun and Tajik background; both worked under the Karzai administration, and both claim to sign a security agreement with the U.S. that Karzai refuses to sign.

This year’s election is deeply entrenched in history, and nearly every factor is relevant to the future of the country. Backtrack a century to 1901. The Durrani Empire, an ethnically Pashtun dynasty, has strong centralized control over the country. Dubbed the “graveyard of empires” after Imperial Russian, British, and Mughal forces fail to fully control, occupy, or colonize the region, Afghanistan at the beginning of the twentieth century is under a strong and stable regime. One hundred years later, a weak Taliban government is defeated by U.S.-led NATO forces accompanied by the Northern Alliance, which has just suffered the loss of its most important leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Between 1901 and 2004, Afghanistan has not witnessed a peaceful transition of power; this may appear turbulent, but political turbulence only began for the average Afghan citizen in 1973. Previous transitions of power had only been changes in leadership. Though some changes had been violent, nothing was different to the average Afghan until ideologically driven regimes took power.

In 1973, Daud Khan forcibly removed his cousin, Zahir Shah, from power, and declared Afghanistan to be a Republic, even though he was still royalty. Although allied with socialist parties, the communist party (PDPA) seized power in 1978, thus ending centuries of dynastic Durrani rule. The following year, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev invaded and occupied Afghanistan after the PDPA failed to maintain a stable grip on the country, and would remain until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. As a result of the war, an estimated one million Afghans were dead and another three million were displaced in bordering countries such as Pakistan and Iran. Soviet rule was heavy-handed; many Afghans were imprisoned and maltreated or tortured for opposing the regime.

Soviet authority in Afghanistan reached only so far as resistance grew.

Soviet authority in Afghanistan reached only so far amid resistance.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, motivated by Cold War politics, funded mujahideen Islamists to expel the Soviets, but when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and withdrew, the mujahideen fought one another for control. The country that had resisted full occupation and foreign rule for centuries found itself in a bloody civil war between extremist factions that could only maintain control of small portions of the country.  In 1996, the Taliban took complete control of the capital, Kabul, and had control of most of the country until 2001. The Northern Alliance would maintain resistance in the mountains, where the Taliban maintains resistance today.

Taliban rule ended when the U.S. and NATO, allied with the Northern Alliance, invaded Afghanistan and appointed Hamid Karzai interim president. When foreign forces again tried to intervene in Afghanistan, the situation was historically unique. No longer was there a centralized government but instead a fragmented country under the flimsy rule of the Taliban who set up shop in Kabul. As a result of the Soviet war and U.S./Saudi-funded mujahideen civil war and authority, Afghanistan was a crisscrossing web of power relationships among local warlords and tribal leaders, resistance fighters, and the Taliban. After the Taliban was ousted, such relationships remained, and remain today as elections move into a second round of voting.

Ethnicity and nationalism are different in Afghanistan than in Europe. The European nation-state is largely based on a shared language, culture, religious tradition, and supposed ethnic traits unique to only Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, and other nationalities. As a result of this conflation, fascism in Europe in the 1930s was based upon ethnic and national grounds. Afghanistan is as diverse as Europe, but is one unified country. There are many languages, tribes, and clans who identify themselves as separate from all the others. Despite this diversity and tribal pride, Afghanistan is unified as a single political and cultural entity. It is comprised of layers of loyalty. Members of a clan are first loyal to the clan, then to their tribe, then their region, then their religion (in Afghanistan the options are Sunni or Shi’i), and lastly to their nation. Ethnicity is not tied to nationalism. Pashtuns, who have held power since the eighteenth century, do not advocate a Pashtun-only country, The Durrani family was Pashtun; the Taliban was Pashtun; the current president and both candidates have Pashtun origin.

Hamid Karzai in December, 2001, before he is selected to lead Afghanistan.

Karzai in December, 2001, before he is selected to lead Afghanistan, while the fight against the Taliban winds down.

When the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan, these issues were critical. One Pashtun clan, the Popalzai, went to the clan leader, a quiet and uncharismatic man named Hamid Karzai. His family traced its roots to the original founders of the Durrani dynasty, and Karzai himself was well-educated. When the Taliban assassinated his father, he inherited Popalzai leadership. In 2001, he returned to Afghanistan, reportedly riding in unarmed on a motorbike with three others, despite the fact that he was the next target for another assassination. He was a Pashtun who organized resistance against the Taliban at a moment when the Pashtun claim to rule was crippled by vicious yet weak leadership. Karzai was later selected by a committee in Bonn, Germany, to be a temporary leader.

A photo from the 2013 Loya Jirga.

A photo from the 2013 Loya Jirga.

Karzai called together a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to vote on his leadership. This assembly brought together various local leaders from across Afghanistan, including warlords, though the term was and is inaccurate. Karzai would later use the Loya Jirga frequently to allow Afghans to decide on important national matters. These assemblies are relatively informal, because local leadership is subject to change and is based historical qualification, charisma, perceived and in some cases actual wisdom, ethnic and tribal leadership, and religious leadership. Recent Loya Jirgas have had many educated figures, and have had more women involved. These assemblies are an example of de facto leadership. They can be messy and disorganized, resulting in much criticism from western media who call Afghanistan backward, corrupt, and inefficient. To many Afghans, after three decades of foreign intervention, warfare, and brutality, a messy leadership comprised of people with integrity, but more importantly comprised solely of Afghans, is far more important than transparency and vendettas. Loyalty rests in whom you once fought; Abdullah and Ghani opposed the Taliban and the Soviets, and their Pashtun background connects them to a collectively glorified stable monarchy. Karzai and the U.S. often disagree; when the U.S. is viewed as one more country interfering with a people it does not understand, a people who function on their own terms and have done so until the world began intervening, this disagreement is understandable. After all, a baker is not asked to fix a clock.

Before 1973, the relationship between state and citizen in Afghanistan had been a conventional social contract: those in charge did what was necessary to keep the population safe, and the population acknowledged the sovereignty of the ruling elite. With socialists, communists, and the Taliban came ideologically driven rule, and the imposition of those ideologies onto the population. When Afghans opposed such imposition, the state relied on totalitarian tactics.

Late last year, Karzai again called together a Loya Jirga. Local leaders, military commanders, tribal lords, and de facto governors came together to discuss a security agreement with the U.S. Last month, seven million Afghans decided that they should have an authentic sovereignty over their own country; they have been fighting for such sovereignty for decades. Where Russian tanks once plowed across roads, where drones now circle overhead, Afghanistan waits for a second opportunity to select a leader from only a smaller pool of those who have earned their merit through genuinely Afghan actions, by fighting for its independence, freedom, and peace.

That’s how we got here. That’s how we went from a stable monarchy to an unstable democracy. Afghans turned out to vote, in some respects, as a protest against all the entities that have tried to control or direct their country, including the U.S. What is most important in this election is what the future will look like, either an Afghanistan for and by Afghans or a country divided up between stronger countries and parties, torn ideologically and politically. After three decades of atrocities, people such as Ghani and Abdullah seem well-equipped to steer the state away from internal disintegration. The real questions is whether or not the U.S. will let those men take the helm.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.