Sunday, December 23, 2007

Home By Christmas, and Other War Myths

Anyone who is even a casual student of military history has hardly to hear the words before letting a laugh escape. "Home by Christmas" simply cannot be taken seriously by anyone who knows their stuff. Why, you ask? Because it's an all-too-common promise, and one that, judging at least by the wars I've studied, has rarely if ever been fulfilled.

George Washington believed, in June of 1775, before the now-famous Declaration of Independence had even been signed, that he and his troops would be 'home by Christmas', even in the fall-though admittedly, it was before he had fully taken charge of the Continental Army and knew what he might have to expect. One can imagine he tried to share this optimism with his soldiers-but the very belief in a short war hurt morale by the time winter had actually come, with desertion rampant. (The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2007.)

When the Civil War first broke out, proud sons showing off their new Confederate Army uniforms were only too happy to tell their mothers, "We'll be home by Christmas", as did young men in blue kissing their wives and girlfriends goodbye and heading for the Union camps. After all, Lincoln and Davis had both told each of their sides that the war would take only a few months. Each mobilized only enough troops to last until summer. Both sides, encouraged by their leadership, thought that their fighting spirit and ideals would be enough to get the job done. Instead, they would be plunged into terrible fighting, brother against brother, for inch after painful inch. They would learn deprivation and starvation, while war profiteers on both sides rejoiced, often sending moldy food and uniforms already decrepit in their boxes.

In 1914, in Flanders, troops who had been told by the British government that "our boys will be home by Christmas", only to find themselves fighting protracted trench warfare , improvised the well-known "Christmas Truce", where the two sides simply stopped shooting at each other for days. The leadership on both sides had already rejected the idea of a truce, proposed by the Pope, as 'impossible'. But the soldiers, tired of a war begun by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, had other ideas. German and British soldiers alike joined in No-Man's-Land to play games, exchange gifts, and shoot at the stars when their hysterical generals forced them to shoot at something. They tended to their dead, and dreamed of a time when they would, in fact, be home for Christmas. That day would be, despite optimistic promises, four bloody years in coming.

Though no one in Europe would be foolish enough to say it, Americans in World War II also thought that they would be home by Christmas-at least the second one, if not the first. Delaying years into getting involved in the second Great War, once Pearl Harbor was attacked, soldiers, sailors and marines all believed that their might alone, the grand United States entering the field, would rescue our allies and have everyone. Not in the mere 18 days after Pearl Harbor, of course, but surely by the next year. Again, after the landing at Normandy, it was believed that the war would be over by Christmas. No such luck, again-World War II took an atomic bomb to bring V-J day about (Victory in Japan). Meanwhile, the other side sent taunting leaflets about the false promises, bringing sorrow rather than family and joy each Christmas, reminding the GIs that they were, in fact, still enduring hardship rather than being home.

And the Korean War, too often forgotten by the people of today. General MacArthur promised in November of 1950 "tell the troops that when we get to the Yalu River they can all go home. You will be home by Christmas" as he started the "Home for Christmas" offensive. Of course, the Yalu offensive had just started, when November 25 proved him wrong-Chinese troops attacked the Eighth army and X Corps at Chosin. It was only to get worse-for anyone who is unaware of this fact, the Korean War was never actually won. In fact, the Korean War is still not over-an armistice was declared, but no peace. That is why we still maintain American soldiers at the demilitarized zone, pointing weapons back at the North Koreans. Currently, we maintain a force of-erring on the low side-roughly 26,000 soldiers in Korea. Our current President says he would like to turn Iraq into a situation similar to Korea, which is truly frightening when you consider that number. That is a large-scale permanent commitment, and means that roughly 1/5-1/6 of the forces currently in Iraq would be likely to still remain. It is over fifty years later, and we still maintain that the South Korean military is not strong enough to oppose them unaided. How long must it then be for Iraq? Will our children and our children's children still see money, resources, and fine military personnel sucked away into that place of eternal turmoil?

Let's look at Vietnam now, during which war was said, ""It's silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and be home by Christmas" (Ronald Reagan, interview in the Fresno Bee, 10 October 1965) Instead, Vietnam, too, was a long, bloody war, a war in which civilians could as easily be the enemy, a war in which most soldiers did not live through their tours and entire platoons could be decimated by a single engagement. It was said to be waged to prevent the "Domino Effect", and the Gulf of Tonkin incident ensured that a revenge-hungry public would be eager to send their boys. And indeed, the American people cheerfully sent their sons, husbands, and brothers to that war-but when the casualty figures began to rise, realized what it was they had given their authority to and withdrew it. Would the American people have knowingly given their approval to a protracted and difficult war? We'll never know-they were never offered the opportunity to decide with clear eyes.

Does anyone remember Kosovo? We were originally promised that the troops in Bosnia would be gone by Christmas 1995. What year is it? Does anyone remember? Can anyone tell me: Are the troops all gone? Can anyone say "Camp Bondsteel"? It surfaced briefly in the news, there's at least a chance for people to remember it. That's right, it is now 12 years after the Christmas troops were promised to be all gone. It still hasn't happened yet, and I'm not sure it ever will.

In May 2003, just two short months after the Iraqi conflict began, George W. Bush stood in front of an aircraft carrier and declared "Mission Accomplished". Of course the troops would be home by Christmas. How could they not? Photographs and video of the Iraqis tearing down Saddam Hussein's statue were shown all over the world. Hopes were high among an ill-educated populace that the soldiers would return soon, after heroically defeating an oppressive regime. Few if any knew of the complicated internal politics that the United States would soon wade into-and few had any idea of the severe violence about to erupt.

"Home by Christmas", and other promises of a short war, do more harm than they help. They, and other similar expressions by leadership, are used to excite the troops and citizens. Citizens are eager to send their loved ones off to a war which will be over quickly, the soldiers returning covered with glory. Were the citizens of the United States told that they were about to enter into a war, a war which might take years, with little or nothing to show for it, they might think twice. They might even question their leadership. But the promise of a short war makes them believe they are resisting foolishly-after all, little or no danger or hardship will actually erupt.

The American people were promised a short war. They were promised a war in which the United States soldiers, by virtue of their outstanding training, and superior weapons-power, would accomplish their goals and be home shortly afterwards. They were promised a war that could not, would not, take place. Instead, American soldiers are ill-trained and ill-equipped for this prolonged war-and serving two or three combat tours apiece, only 5,700 of them are promised to be "Home By Christmas".

We can only hope that they will learn from this expensive, and costly, mistake.

And for fellow troops currently serving far away from home who are not permitted the luxury of leave to be with your family-God bless you all, may your Christmas be as easy as it may, and may you soon return.


Claire said...

Good post, and very interesting historical connections! You know as a citizen I find it disheartening that American citizens have become so accustomed to having information on major events "pre-digested" for them -- via the media or the government, etc. -- that we don't look cock-eyed at statements that are blatantly erroneous from the git-go. This happens in a lot of arenas.

For example, I have heard people say that a small handful of recruiters use less than honest statements to enlist young men (I have no personal experience, but you hear about it here and there mainly in the media... so I can't say how often it happens). I heard in one story that the enlistee was told he would not be deployed so he joined under that belief. Anyone who would believe a statement like that is not a thinker. Those making statements have an ethical and moral obligation (and legal in some cases) to state the truth, but the consumer has the responsibility to educate him/herself and make informed decisions. If a recruiter would have said that to my son or my husband they both would have laughed in his face and asked if he could guarantee them their own bridge while he was at it!

We revel in our rights and freedoms so much that we have forgotten all about the responsibilities and obligations that go with them.

I look forward to reading more on your blog. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the war and I tend to shy away from those who oppose it because it often comes across as troop-bashing and anti-military. It is nice to hear a voice who can object the war while upholding a true respect and regard for his fellow soldiers. You do a good job balancing the two (and I certainly have seen nothing that should cause anyone to question your patriotism or your service) Thank you!

Army Sergeant said...

Thanks, Claire! I, too, often feel that the polarizing nature of most of the discussions about the war is very off-putting. It's not all black-and-white, and a lot of times all the voices shouting make it hard to remember that. I think that both sides really have a lot more nuanced viewpoints than the loudest voices necessarily would have everyone believe.

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rmartinez said...

there is a very old novel written by a man i met only once. He was a Korean war veteran, and one of the Chosin Few. He wrote a novel called "We'll be Home for Christmas." Searching for the now out-of-print novel brought me to your site and enlightened me to a facet of his story about the war that i never saw before. things never go according to plan do they? I'm in the Army now, stationed overseas. But my time is ending, and i hope i make home in time for Christmas. great post, i enjoyed it.