My eyes almost burned with tears as I read the story. My cousin, John R. Jones, had written me an e-mail in which he recounted an episode of Christmas, 1966.
On that Christmas Eve, he was on what he describes as an ambush/intelligence-gathering mission. He and his companion were positioned so that they could see both the village and nearby river.
A few minutes after midnight, he noticed a sampan pull up to the riverbank and three of the enemy disembark carrying what appeared to be dolls and other items. John conveyed that as the Viet Cong entered what would have been the kill zone he gave the signal not to fire because, as he tells it now, "I just did not have the heart to kill someone bearing gifts on Christmas."
The next morning, John's instincts were proven accurate; they noticed some of the children in the village playing with dolls and other toys.
My dad, almost every Christmas, told of a similar experience that took place in a cold foxhole in Germany. The year was 1944, and Americans were too busy pushing into German territory to be concerned about Christmas. Then, one night as they all sat knee-deep in snow-filled holes, one of the young replacements on the line started quietly singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Sitting crouched in his foxhole, the young soldier gave a short impromptu concert for his buddies using that song.
Every year Dad retold how, as battle-weary men listened, that adolescent voice cut through the starlit night. Dad recalled how it brought the sound of sobbing up and down the battle line as men, who might never return home, remembered family dinners and the opening of presents. Men at war longed for the tranquility of a quiet holiday spent with family.
Throughout the ages, the classification of men who respect the true meaning of this season the most are warriors or soldiers. The quiet, starlit nights of the holiday season give men who have witnessed the annihilation and horror of the battlefield a chance to reflect on what this season represents. Moreover, in the end, they find some means of celebrating the night.
From the war-torn fields of Georgia during the winter of 1864, to the smoke drifting over no man's land during World War I, to dust-covered roads of Iraq, the sighing of soldiers seeking the eternal promise of peace remains the same. Always, the soldier holds in his heart a hope everlasting - a vision of a peaceful world devoid of human suffering.
The night sky over a quiet battlefield seems to awaken a fundamental wish in all men. Men at war are lowered to spiritual paupers wishing for the joy of peace, and eternal hope is born again. Perhaps, on some subliminal level, they know that the same stars that now shine on us, the same moon that lights our way at night, illuminated the path of three kings who were humbled by the birth of a child. As he holds his weapon and stares into the vastness of space, perhaps the soldier shares with all men through the ages a desire for fulfillment of that promise given human form on that most Holy Night. Those who serve are like the shepherds of old, gazing into the heavens and awaiting good tidings.
As my cousin, John, wrote in his e-mail: "I have noticed every Christmas Eve since just how bright the sky is and how silent it gets on Christmas Eve and my mind always goes back to that night. It was truly a silent night and will be forever engraved in my memory!"
Michael Novak, contributing editor of National Review Online, wrote in "A Lincolnian Christmas": "Contemplating the sacrifices that so many hundreds of thousands had made to keep the Union whole, Lincoln did not believe that the God who gave us liberty when he gave us life, could in the end disregard the sacrifices of so many. That is how Lincoln held on in 1864; as did Washington before him in the darkest days of winter 1777."
Perhaps those prayers referred to are what we should all participate in for Christmas, 2007.
This Christmas, as in all Yuletides of America at war, let us make a special prayer that all those serving in harm's way shall return to us safely, knowing that, as promised on the first Christmas, there shall one day be, "Peace on Earth, and good will toward all men."
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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