Remembering the ‘Christmas Truce’

That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.
~ Pope Benedict XV

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Veterans Day 2018

The only sound at the gravesite was the uncontrolled sobbing of this boy’s father. As they never had before, my eyes filled with tears. That was the day I stopped doubting Dorothy. That was the day I became sure that she was right all along.
~ Dan Jackson

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’71: The Best Violent Movie You’ve Never Seen


We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.
~ C.S. Lewis

The whole purpose of this post is to prompt you to watch ’71 (2015), because I’m guessing you’ve never seen it. Heck, I’ll wager you’ve never even heard of it.

That’s no surprise, because it was a flash in the pan when it came out a few years ago. I don’t remember it ever showing up at the theaters around here, and, even if it had, I would’ve given it a pass. To begin with, the title itself is a marketing disaster. “1971?” I asked myself when I saw it come up in the Redbox queue last year. “What, a movie about hippies?” I was standing outside our Walgreens, on the prowl for a flick to watch with my teenage son. Since nothing else was even remotely appealing, I read the description of ’71 and decided to give it a shot.

It turned out to be a riveting experience – for both of us. Directed by Yann Demange, ’71 is the story of a young, naïve British recruit, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), whose regiment is assigned to provide security in Belfast during The Troubles. After a disastrous confrontation with rioting Irish nationalists and IRA sympathizers, the soldier gets separated from his unit and is effectively abandoned in a staunchly Catholic district. Forced to fend for himself, Hook relies on his wits and the good will of those he encounters to survive a night in enemy territory and make his way back to safety.

’71 is a whirlwind from beginning to end – we were rapt throughout: the action is constant; the violence (rarely gratuitous), abundant; the characters, three-dimensional and sympathetic – even the bad guys (mostly). In addition, the exquisite soundtrack by David Holmes, shifting between calm guitar and rumbling drums, subtly propels the action forward – very reminiscent of the pulsating Tangerine Dream soundtrack in Sorcerer (1977).

And while the story is hard to follow, there are plenty enough threads to keep you engaged. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on most the time – who’s on which side, who are the good guys, who are the bad – but there’s underlying urgency and pounding action that pins you down and demands your attention, beyond even the thrilling survival narrative of Private Hook. The urgency stems in large part from the confusion. In fact, I’d say the confusion is practically a lead character unto itself, and it’s introduced at the very beginning of the film.

As Hook and his comrades are called to attention, a commanding officer announces that they won’t be deployed to Germany as planned. “Because of the deteriorating security situation in Belfast, your regiment is now being deployed there on an emergency basis…. I take it you all know where Belfast is? Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom. Here. You are not leaving this country.” The disturbing reality of the Irish civil war was that the combatants not only professed the same creedal faith, but also the same nationality and/or heritage. It was worse than World War I, where Christians fought Christians across the trenches – French Catholics and Anglican Brits against Christian Germans of all stripes. The unraveling of the WWI Christmas Truce depicted in the film Joyeaux Noël (2005) was painful enough to watch, but not nearly as painful as seeing Irish Christians rip each other apart in ’71.

It’s also painful to watch the film’s depiction of how young Irishmen were conditioned and seduced into killing. Without giving away too much, one character in particular is a case study in homicidal inducement. He resists, despite all the encouragement from his elders to give way and get over the hump of the first kill. He hesitates, he stalls, a sign that he hasn’t completely lost touch with that inner voice telling him that murder is always, always wrong. At that point, it’s hard to tell how much of his reluctance to shoot is rooted in his Christian upbringing, no matter how nominal, and how much of it is some fundamental instinct against taking another human being’s life.

That there is such an instinct is unquestionable. “The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.” So writes West Point professor Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995). Grossman details the normalizing process that modern military machines utilize to suppress that resistance in men and women, and optimize both their willingness to kill and their efficiency in doing so. ’71 is practically a cinematic adaptation of Grossman’s Kübler-Ross-like stages of how we accustom ourselves to human slaughter. “The basic response stages to killing in combat are concern about killing, the actual kill, exhilaration, remorse, and rationalization and acceptance.” Prodding future combatants toward that rationalization and acceptance seems to be standard operating procedure for all kinds of armed organizations. Conscience, it seems, and morality have no place.

At the conclusion of the film, I shuddered and looked over at my son. He’s turning 18 next year, and will have to cope with signing up for the draft and all that entails. Maybe it was unnecessary, but I felt compelled to apologize to him for a world in which violence has become the default response to so many problems. In addition, I made a mental note to call my friend Shawn at Catholic Peace Fellowship to get him connected with Cris – to set up a meeting for the two of them to discuss what it means to sign on the dotted line with Selective Service.

Also, I decided to write this post to urge people to watch this underrated and neglected film – and watch it with your teens, especially your sons. As bleak as it is, ’71 contains a powerful undercurrent of confidence in our essential humaneness. “It is there,” Grossman insists, “it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just may be hope for mankind after all.”

Syria and My Boys

It’s appalling to me, appalling to me, that we spend two or three or four weeks debating whether to create a whole new category of war called humanitarian war, rather than dealing with our own problems and trying to solve them.
 ~ Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla.

Syria is suffering. The situation is dire; the stakes, high; the consequences of our choices, maybe catastrophic, maybe not. Who knows?

We get updates, analysis, and speculation around the clock, and from folks far more knowledgeable than me, so none of that here. Instead, I’m writing as a dad—specifically, a dad of sons. It’s my boys that got me thinking about Syria, and now I’m scared, sad, and angry.Syria-Civil-War

First, the scare. My 18-year-old recently sent in his Selective Service card, so he’s all signed up for the draft. I know that a draft is about as unlikely as a spontaneous peace in the Levant, but I still got spooked when he dropped that card in the mail slot.

The Pentagon routinely insists that they prefer an all-volunteer armed forces and that they don’t want conscripts, but Selective Service is still in business, and the laws compelling 18-year-old males to enroll are still in force.

Consequently, there must be some consideration in Washington that a draft may be necessary someday—that we’ll get embroiled in so many conflicts that there simply won’t be enough volunteers to fill the gaps.

The President promises us that there will be no “boots on the ground” in Syria, but once we drop the bombs, everything’s up for grabs. I’m scared because it looks like we’re going to get locked into yet another war at a time when young men (and women, for that matter) are in shorter and shorter supply. Could another war or two exhaust our stock of volunteers? Is a draft possible?

Even if a draft is only a remote possibility, I want our country to stay out of the way of other people’s wars as much as possible. That’s not isolationism; that’s just a dad talking. What’s happening in Syria is horrendous, but it’s happening in Syria. I grieve for Syria, and I pray for Syria. Nevertheless, I would not want my own son to have to kill and risk being killed on behalf of Syria. That’s just the plain truth.

Then there’s sadness. My 13-year-old is a football fanatic and a dedicated student of the game. And when I say student, I don’t just mean stats and records and scores. He’s really a student of play-calling and game-planning—a self-taught tactician, and an astute observer of strategy. He loves to play on the field, but he also loves to play in theory, and he’s never more animated than when trying to explain to me why some quarterback or coach did what he did.

His passion for tactics and strategy makes me think he could excel in the study of military science. That, along with his disciplined character and respect for authority, might incline him to pursue a future in the armed forces. But I would never encourage him to enlist—not now anyway.

The men and women rising to the political top these days—the decision-makers, both Republican and Democrat, who send our troops to war—show an appalling lack of judgment regarding the use of  military force. I don’t trust any of them to make prudent, lawful decisions about when to put our sons and daughters in harm’s way. The politicians have got an abysmal track record, and I’ve strongly urged my children to avoid enlisting in any capacity.

Finally, the anger. My nine-year-old son is an eager third-grader who loves to read, ride his bike, and hang out with his friends. He also has Down syndrome, which makes him a statistical survivor. About 90% of babies with Down’s are aborted in this country. It might even be higher than that. It certainly is higher than that in parts of Europe.

The chemical attacks and indiscriminate slaughter taking place in Syria is rightfully condemned. It’s awful and sickening. It has to stop. The same could be said for the attacks on the unborn and the slaughter of innocents that legally takes place in our own communities every day. Then there’s euthanasia and mercy killing. Then there’s capital punishment. All human life is sacred. Killing is always a tragedy. Our outrage and sorrow extends to every occasion when human life is intentionally targeted and cut short.

popeBut returning violence for violence only perpetuates the madness. There must be another way. There must be.

This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!
~ Pope Francis


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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