I was suddenly reminded yesterday of the Christmas Truce.
If you are not aware of it, this occurred on Christmas of 1914 between the trenches in France. World War One was four months old by then and the armies, by that time, were exhausted, incapable of mounting any serious offensive actions. As Christmas Eve came in, entirely spontaneously all along the front, groups of soldiers started to fraternize in No Man’s Land. It was especially marked in the areas were British and German troops faced off, but even in many areas where French and German troops held the line, this happened.
It was, of course, all every much in defiance of orders and many officers on both sides deplored it, but it was so widespread that no action could seriously be taken against the soldiers. Essentially, they called a one day walk out on the war and enjoyed themselves immensely: exchanging souvenirs, food and drink and even, according to some stories, engaging in some soccer matches.
The following year there was some repeats of this but very much rarer: the high commands of all armies decreed raids and artillery barrages for Christmas, 1915 just in order to prevent a repeat. By 1916, the bitterness of the war had sunk so deep that no one on either side was in any mood for a truce.
It was, in retrospect, one of the last acts of decency in the world.
The War was a mistake. A huge miscalculation by the German military class which, while brilliant, was entirely focused on strictly military affairs and simply did not have the corporate ability to consider anything else. They had seen their chance in July of 1914 – with Britain on the verge of Civil War, revolutionary ferment again rising in Russia – to smash France and reassert German dominance of the Continent. They guessed wrong. They should have made peace as soon as possible after the failure to destroy France. But they felt they couldn’t. Meanwhile, the French certainly didn’t feel like making peace while German soldiers occupied parts of France and that held true for Britain, as well. But the cause of the war – a stupid German attempt to simply be strong and show it – was not enough to sustain a major war effort for long. Nor was it sufficient in France and Britain to merely make the war about getting the Germans out of France and Belgium.
And so the lies crept in. Both sides started accusing the other of being monsters. And while Germany was ever in the van, both sides started to behave as monsters. Step by step every rule of war was tossed aside in a desperate attempt to find some expedient which would give a decisive advantage. At the end of it all, as Churchill pointed out, the scientific, Christian States of Europe had only denied themselves torture and cannibalism as tools of warfare, and these of doubtful utility. And it was merely to sustain a war which was a mistake and which should have been composed as swiftly as possible once it was clear (say, by late 1915) that neither side could win quick and cheap enough to make the effort worthwhile. That, once again from Churchill, that in that war victory could only be bought so dearly as to be indistinguishable from defeat.
There was one more chance at human decency – the Marquis of Lansdowne, a senior British politician, circulated a letter in early 1917 arguing that peace must be made on the basis of the pre-war status quo before Civilization was wrecked. He became despised by all sides. And so the grind went on until sheer exhaustion hit the Germans harder than the allies and they quit.
I think that what happened in World War One provided the foundation of our current Age of Lies. Government got into the habit of deceiving the people, and itself. Lies became routine. It began to be asserted that certain things couldn’t be told to the public. They put high minded phrases around their justifications but the reality was that they didn’t want to admit things like 20,000 dead British soldiers on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Release that, and the British people might have decided that giving peace a chance had merit. Hide it and you could lie that things were moving along splendidly. This habit of lies and deception even worked into popular culture. You might recall the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the Dr Floyd character is apologizing to the assembled scientists about the cover story of a plague to hide the fact that evidence of alien intelligence had been found – and then further goes on to say that they had to find a way to release that information in a manner which wouldn’t alarm the public. As a kid when I watched that, it made immediate sense that the government had to lie and carefully dole out information. But now that I’m older and (we hope) a little wiser, I can see it: the only people who gain advantage from lying and hiding facts are con artists. People who are trying to get what they shouldn’t have.
Think about it: sure in the Civil War Lincoln and his people would try to play certain things close to the vest and try to put the brightest face on failure…but when the Battle of Cold Harbor cost 13,000 Union lives for no advantage, there was no way to hide that – the casualty lists were published within days and the newspapers were calling it the hideous failure it was from the get-go. In today’s world, can you imagine that sort of openness? Of course not. They’d hide it. Call it a victory. Call anyone who questioned it a traitor. And then they’d do the same thing again and again…the thing about Cold Harbor is that it was Grant’s only serious mistake of the war and he never repeated it. Because it was out there right away and he and his officers couldn’t deny it. They could only do better going forward. Because it was a time of truth and they were truthful men.
This is not a time of truth, nor of truthful men. We live by lies. We are enslaved to them. Grumpily for those of us who see the con, joyfully for those still enthralled to the lies. But all of us live by them. Ever said “Happy Holidays”? You participated in the lies of our times – in this case, that anyone would be doing anything special the last week of December absent the birth of Jesus. And if there ever was a Jew pissed off that we didn’t mark Hanukkah or a Muslim who felt slighted by our lack of Ramadan greetings…then they were the few jerks which always show up in any community. No decent non-Christian person ever had the slightest complaint about “Merry Christmas”. It is on and on like that. It is drilled into our brains. It keeps people justifying the lies because we need the lies to live. After all, if we told the truth about things, then some people would be upset about it! If you look at some of the people writing about what the FBI did with Twitter or the way Ukraine corruption has been swept under the rug, you can see it – they are essentially saying that these are noble lies in a good cause.
But there are no noble lies. There are just lies. And we do have to break free of them. We have to stop being slaves.