At this 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, Camillo Mac Bica remembers the Hootch program, which brought together Soviet and US Cold Warriors and concludes it is not the truce or the occurrence at the Hootch, but war that is the aberration, a violation of human nature.
Christmas in the trenches: The Western Front, 1914
This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce. A unique event in the annals of war, when soldiers of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” enduring the horrors of trench warfare along the infamous 600-mile Western Front, made a conscious decision to stop the insanity, put down their weapons and said no to war.
As former enemies realized their respective government’s deception of dehumanizing the enemy, some soldiers on both sides refused to resume the insanity and the slaughter of those with whom they had become friends.
Amazingly, some say miraculously, despite the knowledge that fraternization with the enemy was regarded by military leaders as treason, a crime punishable by summary execution, many soldiers, recognizing the humanity of the other and their shared sacrifice, cautiously and hesitantly emerged from their opposing trenches to meet and exchange holiday greetings and souvenirs with those who just hours before had been their enemies.
In a letter to his family, Rifleman, C.H. Brazier, Queens Westministers of Bishops Stortford, described the encounter.
You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas eve, the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us “cigarettes,” “pudding,” “a happy Christmas,” and “English – means good,” so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went toward the German trenches. Halfway they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day, if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back, I went out with some more of our fellows, and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played “God Save the King” on a mouth organ.” (Published in The Hertfordshire Mercury, Saturday January 9, 1915).
In some areas of the Western Front the ceasefire was brief, in others it lasted a few days, or longer. According to a report filed by the Manchester Guardian’s Paris correspondent, dated January 6, 1915, as former enemies realized their respective government’s deception of dehumanizing the enemy, some soldiers on both sides refused to resume the insanity and the slaughter of those with whom they had become friends.
“The sequel (to the truce) was more interesting than the event itself. The French and German soldiers who had thus fraternised subsequently refused to fire on one another and had to be removed from the trenches and replaced by other men.”
Leaders on both sides recognized such fraternization as a threat to their ability to wage war. As a result, any future holiday ceasefires by war-weary soldiers – one attempted just the following year – were quashed by officer’s threats of disciplinary action and never repeated.
Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center 1980s
The “HOOTCH” (1) Program was a peer support therapeutic community of about 50 or so veterans, founded and run by veterans within the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, during the late 1970s and ’80s. It proved a unique and effective treatment modality, during a time when, other than a heavy regimen of psychotropic medication, mainly thorazine (chlorpromazine), little help was available for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and moral injury. As one of its founding members, I coordinated the HOOTCH Program from its onset for about 8 years, during which time we enjoyed great success in assisting veterans to negotiate the long and perilous journey home and to achieve some degree of normalcy in lives devastated by war.
Early one December day in the mid 1980s, the exact year escapes me (probably the consequence of a thorazine-induced memory loss), I received a call from Peter Mahoney, who was, I believe, acting as liaison for a contingent of Soviet veterans who had fought in their Vietnam, the Afghanistan war. Not unlike the veterans of our program, the Soviets were suffering from the inevitable consequences of war, PTSD and moral injury. Having heard the success we were enjoying in the HOOTCH Program, a group of about 15 Soviet veterans and their therapists hoped to visit the Brooklyn VA, observe our program and eventually to implement what they learned in the Soviet Union to better assist their veterans to heal.
I found the idea of such a visit fascinating and therapeutically valuable. Warriors and cold war enemies meeting face to face, not on the battlefield but in a conference room, not to kill and to maim each other, but to discuss their experiences and perspectives on healing. When I presented the idea to the veterans in the HOOTCH community, many, perhaps even a majority, did not share my enthusiasm, nor did they see the value of such a meeting.
“These people ARE my enemies,” one veteran responded (I thought his use of the present tense indicative of his state of mind), “and I don’t forget or forgive easily.” Another veteran, call him Hank, was enraged that I would even consider inviting into our HOOTCH area, our “safe place,” enemy soldiers who had fought for a nation that had supported and supplied weapons to those who injured and killed his comrades in Vietnam.
Some others were just indifferent and uninterested. Despite the rather unenthusiastic reception for the idea, and not at all certain if any of the approximate 50 veterans who participated with any regularity in the program would even show up, I made a purely utilitarian decision that the potential good consequences of such a meeting outweighed the bad (including Hank’s threat of bodily harm should I continue on with this “treachery”).
“Some of our veterans were rather hesitant and skeptical about meeting with soldiers of a nation that had supplied weapons to those who maimed and killed our comrades in Vietnam. Did any of you have similar feelings and apprehensions about meeting with us?”
At the scheduled day and time, the Soviet veterans, accompanied by two therapists and a translator, arrived at the HOOTCH conference room. I was relieved to see a number of American veterans (about 10 to 12 at first) cautiously and tentatively milling around a nearby hallway. Though I had intentionally set up the room so as not to separate “us from them,” a dynamic I knew to be alienating, it inevitably ended up that way, the Soviets on one side of the room, the Americans who eventually overcame their trepidations, on the other.
In the center, between the two groups, sat the interpreter, the two therapists (who spoke English fairly well), and me. The atmosphere was tense and the silence palpable. As I prepared to welcome our guests, to my surprise, the door opens and in walked Hank, dressed in jungle fatigues, his jacket adorned with his military medals and a 7th Cavalry patch, the unit he served with in Vietnam. Passing unnecessarily close to where I was sitting, Hank glared at me rather menacingly as he made his way to the safety of the “American sector.”
Not having prepared anything, I began by saying what immediately came to mind as I watched Hank’s entrance. “Some of our veterans were rather hesitant and skeptical about meeting with soldiers of a nation that had supplied weapons to those who maimed and killed our comrades in Vietnam. Did any of you have similar feelings and apprehensions about meeting with us?”
As the interpreter translated my question, I noticed one Soviet veteran near the back of their area reaching down as if to adjust his pant leg or sock. For a moment there was silence. As I began to squirm a bit, wondering whether I had violated some international protocol by asking an inappropriate question, the veteran who had been bending over now managed, with some difficulty, to stand up and raise a below the knee prosthetic leg into the air.
“Americanskiy landmine,” he announced in broken English as he gazed squarely into my eyes. He said nothing more. He didn’t need to. In an instant it became clear to all present that we were all equally victims, and that we shared a bond, a brotherhood of the warrior that transcended ethnic differences and national affiliation.
The tension in the room dissipated and questions, experiences and observations began to flow back and forth, slowly at first, then increasing in frequency and enthusiasm, so much so that frustration grew with the inability of the interpreter, now aided by the therapists, to keep up with the dialogue. At some point, an American veteran got up and migrated to the Soviet sector and began a conversation on his own, utilizing an improvised sign language. Other’s quickly followed suit.
To my amazement, I noticed that Hank was now sitting next to the Soviet veteran who had removed his prosthetic leg, happily conversing in what I took to be Polish, a language they both very minimally spoke and understood. The meeting went on for a number of hours, much longer than had been anticipated, during which veterans traded various pins and medals as well as contact information to keep in touch in the future.
At the behest of the HOOTCH veterans and with the assistance of VA clinicians, doctors and administrators, some of the Soviet veterans, including Hank’s new friend, were fitted for new prosthetics replacing the rather outdated devices they had been given in the Soviet Union. HOOTCH members raised money to defray some of the expenses.
Not long afterwards, Hank stopped me in the hallway to discuss his impressions of the interaction he had with his new comrade. Like Rifleman C.H. Brazier, during the Christmas Truce of World War I, Hank mentioned that he enjoyed the meeting and found the Soviet veterans to be very nice guys, no different from us. As you can imagine, this meeting between former enemies was truly an enlightening and therapeutic experience for all involved. My only regret was that we hadn’t recorded it on video.
Some have warned against romanticizing those rare occasions when soldiers refuse to fight. What occurred at Christmas on the Western Front, they conjecture, was an aberration, a brief and meaningless lull in the hostilities, a consequence perhaps, of mass hysteria and combat exhaustion induced by a contagion of seasonal good will or as a remnant of an outdated chivalric-code-inspired camaraderie between enemies in war.
Others would similarly explain the incident at the HOOTCH as a consequence of PTSD and Moral Injury – the collective delusion of psychologically, emotionally, and ethically impaired veterans seeking understanding and forgiveness for their behavior in war.
In a study of soldiers who had experienced combat during World War II, Army General and Historian S.L.A. Marshall, found that only 15-20 percent of soldiers, even those under threat, fired their weapons at the enemy.(2)
Marshall concluded from these rather surprising findings that human beings possessed a natural aversion to killing members of their own species, that humans are not natural-born killers, and that warriors have to be trained and conditioned to kill. While some have questioned Marshall’s methodology in conducting this study and hence, the veracity of his conclusions, I find no reason to doubt the credibility and importance of Marshall’s study.
As the Army’s chief of military history, Marshall must be presumed competent, and he certainly had no anti-war agenda or reason to fabricate his findings or his conclusions. Nor do I accept the attempts by war-ists and corporatists, those who profit from war and from the suffering and death of warriors, to diminish, explain away, the importance of the spontaneous fraternizations that occurred at the Western Front and at the HOOTCH, both of which, in my view, provide ample evidence for Marshall’s conclusion, not only of a natural aversion to kill but, I would add, of a human capacity to love and to treat others with kindness and respect.
The frequency, with which wars occur, does not, in my view, establish war as “natural.” Rather it speaks to the depravity and the effectiveness of the war-ist agenda of governments and the sophistication of the conditioning techniques they employ to create enemies and warriors who hate and kill. Consequently, it is not the Christmas Truce or the occurrence at the HOOTCH, but war that is the aberration, a violation of human nature.
Consequently, I remain hopeful, encouraged by the fact that, despite the horror, brutality and insanity of trench warfare on the Western Front, soldiers refused to kill; that when the veterans of the HOOTCH Program and of the Afghanistan war met face to face, they realized the deception, rejected the mythology, and recognized that those whom they were told and conditioned to hate and to kill are, in the words of Paul Baumer, the protagonist in Eric Maria Remarque’s seminal novel All Quiet on the Western Front, “poor sods just like me.”
I remain hopeful, therefore, that as soldiers recognize the deception and our shared humanity and victimization, like the soldiers at the Western Front, they will lay down their weapons and just say no to war.
1. A “hootch” was a term used in Vietnam to denote a “safe place,” some sort of enclosure usually in a base camp or firebase, where soldier/marines could relax, write letters, listen to music, etc., and recover somewhat from the stresses of the war.
2. S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass., 1947.