by Doug Bradley
A few nights ago I was sitting in the dark of a theater, watching and listening as 10 talented actors reenacted the extraordinary Christmas Truce of 1914 when German and British soldiers laid down their arms to celebrate the holiday by trading carols, sharing food and drink, playing soccer, and burying the dead…and all I could do was shed tears. Tears for the godforsaken World War that would be renewed immediately after the truce, for the millions upon millions of lives lost, for all the horror and destruction, for all the wars waged since that “war to end all wars.”
And then I thought about my one Christmas at war, in Vietnam, in 1971.
And I choked up some more.
It wasn’t that my Vietnam Christmas experience compared in any way to that of World War I soldiers assembling in “No Man’s Land” in 1914 or to the three Christmases my World War II dad spent overseas or what many of today’s combatants are suffering across our bellicose world. No, it was more that the 1971 Christmas at war was mine, that I was terribly homesick, and I worried mightily that the world would never come to its senses.
Regrettably it hasn’t.
But what I learned from my Christmas in Vietnam and realized again listening to the actors as they pitch-perfectly sang their way through “All is Calm” (the play about the Christmas truce of 1914) is how truly precious life is. Just how vital comradery and friendship are. And how war can make our hearts our hearts turn cold and cruel…
* * *
I was 23 years of age, old by Vietnam standards, when I spent my first Christmas far away from home. I sure as heck didn’t expect to share it with Bob Hope, Johnny Bench, Lola Falana, the Gold Diggers, Miss Universe, and 30,000 screaming GIs. But there I was in a war, in Vietnam, a lonely soldier far away from home on America’s holiday of holidays.
And to top it off, I had to “work,” if you could really call it that, since as a U. S. Army information specialist, I was sent by my office to “cover” the Bob Hope Christmas Show being held on my base at Long Binh, 15 miles northeast of Saigon.
I figured it would be crowded. I knew there’d be guys going out of their minds when the Golddiggers and Lola Falana shook their booties. I expected there to be groaning one-liners between Johnny Bench and Bob Hope. I anticipated there’d be praise and vainglory for a cause and a mission I’d already stopped believing.
I just didn’t expect to cry.
Even though I was stationed at Long Binh Post, the largest Army base in Vietnam at the time, I’d never seen a crowd like this. The Long Binh amphitheater was filled with more than 30,000 hot, horny, and homesick GIs. They came by boat and jeep and truck and helicopter. They ran, walked, limped, wheeled or were carried into the arena. They were there to celebrate Christmas.
My parents were huge Bob Hope fans, which was probably why I didn’t share their admiration since I’d decided it was their generation that had sent us to Vietnam in the first place. Plus, I wanted the war to end, I didn’t want any of us left over here to be killed, and I didn’t want anybody slapping us on the back and telling us we were doing a good job. I wanted me and every other GI to “get out of this place.” And I didn’t want a lot of Army propaganda and pro-Nixon speechifying and waving of the flag by Bob fucking Hope.
But when I saw the faces of my fellow soldiers with scars and bandages, or without arms and legs, light up at the sight of Bob Hope and Johnny Bench and the girls, I changed my mind. Hope and his fellow entertainers brought smiles to the faces of these guys and helped them forget their troubles — and forget where they were — if only for a couple of hours.
It was loud and raucous and noisy. Hoots and hollers and whistles and jeers. But when Miss Universe broke into “Silent Night” you could hear a pin drop. Pure silence, except for that lone, quivering voice…and then thousands of quiet voices joined in. “All was calm” if only for those very few moments.
* * *
I was reminded of the poignancy of that scene when I witnessed All is Calm the other night. The Western Front, Christmas. 1914. Out of the violence comes silence, then a song. A German solider steps into “No Man’s Land” singing “Stille Nacht.” Allied and German soldiers laid down their arms and sang their respective versions of “Silent Night.” Peace had come at last, reminding me of the November 1914 remark by Winston Churchill: “What would happen I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike?”
Maybe an end to war? Who knows, because it never happened again after Christmas 1914.
I didn’t hug a North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldier on Christmas 1971. But I hugged the guys I was standing next to. And we all joined arms and shed tears when we sang “Silent Night.”
I relived that moment watching All is Calm. It made me sorry that I’d been mad at Bob Hope the day I saw him a Long Binh. And it made me hope like hell that every one of those 30,000 guys there with me that Christmas day in 1971 got home safe.
And it makes me wish we all could sing “Silent Night” at home this Christmas, with our families, out of harm’s way, sleeping in heavenly peace.