Veteran's Viewpoint

Dec 9, 2013

This is Dan Gallagher with Veteran’s Viewpoint.

‘Black Friday’ interrupted our giving of thanks, and the long lines of auto and human traffic on a consumers’ feeding frenzy in the early evening of that holiday made a mockery of what is supposed be a time of gratitude for all that we already have.  Marketers manipulate America’s social habits in order to put the black--black ink on an accountant’s ledger, that is--into a misnamed Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Then comes ’Small Business Saturday’, ’Cyber Monday’, and the other marketing gimmicks, the goal of which is to fill the already-rich pockets of America’s money changers.

But November remains to me a month of recognition and gratitude--recognition of our veterans’ service and sacrifice, and gratitude for that; and for the land that has given us, from its earliest days of European discovery, a blessed nation that guarantees democracy for its people; a country striving to be worthy of the blood that has been shed in its name.

Much of our history is covered in glory but, frankly, there are plenty of elements of America history that are shy of glory; that, in fact, are downright inglorious.

It has been no small task carving out this nation, but overall, the effort has been successful, something worthy of our thanks.

That gratitude was expressed on Thanksgiving Day and at the Missoula Veterans Day ceremony.

On November 22nd we observed one of the sadder, more inglorious events of American history:  The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

This young president, who made us believe in ourselves and gave us hope that peace was possible, was also a decorated veteran of war who continued serving his country all the way to a Dallas, Texas street on a tragic day fifty years ago.      And now November transitions into December and, for me, December is primarily about the season of Christmas.  And when I’m in my ’veteran’s mode’ and I think of Christmas, my thoughts lead me to the Christmas I spent in war, and other historical Christmas stories that involve soldiers.

My Christmas in Vietnam was almost surrealistic.  I was on patrol in the Central Highlands’ jungle that day, wearing a field pack and heavy steel helmet in 90 degree weather, wondering whether it was snowing in Montana.  Then, as we walked through the bush, sound could be heard from above.  But there was nothing Divine about the source of the sound, it was a ’Birddog’ spotter plane flying low, playing Christmas music over a scratchy loudspeaker system.  We were hearing “Silent Night” and “Winter Wonderland” as we stepped carefully to avoid trip wires and punji stakes, looking upward, not expecting to see angelic messengers, but to check the tree line for snipers and booby traps.  It was bizarre.

I guess that the ’brass’ thought this would cheer us up, but all it did was remind us how far from home and our old reality we really were.

The historical soldier has seen all sorts of  Christmas drama, including the Colonial soldiers of 1777-78 at Valley Forge who sat in a frigid camp wondering if the cause they had committed to might already be lost.  They froze to death, they bled to death, and they suffered lasting wounds. 

In a Red Skelton skit televised in 1968, a Colonial soldier wrote home to his mother to say that he was “ready for death, as long as death don’t expect too much.”  But they endured and prevailed and gave us a country.

In 1864, just prior to Christmas, President Abraham Lincoln received a telegram from his commander in Georgia saying “I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.”  The note came from General William Tecumseh Sherman, who believed that using whatever tactic was necessary to win the war in order to stop the killing was the most humane goal a military commander should have.  He accomplished his goal.

At Christmas-time 1944, American GIs were surrounded at Bastogne by Hitler’s Wehrmacht, the German commander demanding their surrender.  General McAuliffe responded “Nuts” to the surrender demand, Patton’s tanks lifted the siege, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In Korea in 1950, the American Army and Marines were being pushed from the frozen Chosin Reservoir near the Yalu River to the coast of North Korea by hordes of Chinese soldiers.  The GIs suffered but they, too, endured.

And now young Americans in uniform are in a war in still another part of the world as Christmas day approaches in Afghanistan.  The day dedicated to ‘peace on earth‘ will arrive, but the longed-for peace will not be there for them--just one more example of the cost of war that is paid by our soldiers. 

There is a song--“Christmas, 1915“--that talks of a Christmas truce during World War I between two small units, one British and one German--enemies in that war.

As the Brits hear a young German soldier singing “Silent Night” in his native tongue, they move toward the melody that is so familiar.  For several hours, a ‘soldiers’ truce’ prevails as these young enemies share wine and song and story.  And then, as dawn arrives, the fighting between them resumes and the German who sang so clearly is killed by one of the British soldiers who had found comfort in his music the night before.

How tragic, how ironic, but this is what war is about--killing people who might otherwise be friends--and this is the sort of burden that soldier/veterans carry with them through life.

The answer:  Well, maybe let’s just stop having wars!

Merry Christmas, everybody.

This is Dan Gallagher with Veteran’s Viewpoint.