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December 28, 2013

On the Go: Humanize war to work toward peace

The Daily Star

---- — Amid the terrors of World War I, a beautiful, and little known, thing happened. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, German and British troops sang holiday carols to each other across no man’s land. 

At dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches unarmed and crossed toward the British troops calling out “Merry Christmas.” 

The men from both sides shook hands and exchanged presents. There was even a good-natured soccer game played. 

This Christmas Truce came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe. It was never repeated. Future attempts at holiday cease fires were squandered by threats of punishment. 

The issue that resulted from this temporary truce was the humanizing of the enemy. It’s a lot harder to kill someone when you’ve shook his hand, seen a photograph of young children and sang songs with him. It’s a lot harder to kill someone when you see him as a person. When you acknowledge his past, his present, and decide whether to grant him a future. 

Modern day warfare goes to great lengths to dehumanize war. This is as wrong as war itself. If we put the faces back into war maybe someday the world could know peace.

The easiest and most common way to distance the reality of war is to dodge the truth. To do this we use our arsenal of euphemisms: enhanced interrogation, collateral damage, international dispute, casualties, costs, losses, enemies. Why don’t we call torture what it is? Or mention the innocent deaths as anything more than a bummer? 

I believe humans are born moral creatures. There are, however, plenty of immoral humans; but such behavior is the result of trauma, whether intentional or not. 

We use euphemisms to appease our conscience. We lie to ourselves. Sometimes the lie is easier to buy than to try and comprehend something that goes against human nature and decency. It’s when these truths are spoken that feathers get ruffled and issues are addressed. Let us speak the truth.

Another way we cloud reality is with glitz. We give out pencils and lanyards. Use catchy commercials that promise you hero status. Nab the troubled ones or poor ones and promise them a better life. Hinge it all on the future we’re gambling with. 

We’ll mask guilt with pride and terrorism with honor. Ignore PTSD and growing violence. Cheer when it’s over and bear it again. We’ve made this bed; now we, and our children, have to lay in it. I hope we can endure this night and wake up in the morning’s light.

It’s the power of names and faces that force us to humanize. Personification is cringe-worthy in warfare. As soon as people begin to view missions as murder, the army would lose steam. Healthy people wouldn’t support killing a fellow human, but give out army wristbands at parades and people’ll wear them with pride. Your place of birth doesn’t give you the right to kill another human anymore than it gives another human the right to kill you.

Perfection may be unattainable and no one has all the answers. But the lack of a better solution is not justification. Our species has enough problems without us pitting against each other and slaughtering one another. I’m not anti-U.S. or against our allies. I’m loyal to the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. Who fights for them? I pledge my allegiance to the earth and all the living things who call her home.

Katherine Ahearn is a junior at Unatego Junior-Senior High School. ‘Teen Talk’ columns can be found at