A Christmas over there, and the pain back here
By Bruce Kluger
millennium, and it's never been easier
to catch the holiday spirit. Through
Internet technology alone, we can
swap season's greetings without licking
a stamp; buy armloads of presents
without leaving the house; and even
log onto a flash-animated snow globe,
just to shake things up.
Then again, there's something
uniquely moving about the way that
Christmas has, over the centuries,
transcended religion and ritual. For
children, it has come to mean the
ups, it signifies time away from the office and the perfect excuse to break out the
good dishes and host a family feast. And, amazingly, throughout it all, this festive
holiday has managed to survive the ceaseless infiltration of modern invention.
the predictable prattle over some alleged "war on Christmas."
But for most of us, the holiday remains a time of family, a time of reflection, and a
time of love.
Which is why, this Christmas, my thoughts keep returning to the 184,000 American
soldiers currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, honoring our nation with their
service while fighting wars whose consequences have nothing and everything to do
with the humanity at the heart of the holiday.
It is easy to say "let us remember our troops" during the Christmas season, but how
many of us really understand the painful nobility of this sacrifice? Who among us
can actually put ourselves in the dusty boots of these men and women, and
imagine what it must be like to spend this most beloved of holidays away from those
who give our spirits their greatest nourishment, our lives their greatest purpose?
In Baghdad, it is hardly Christmasy. Temperatures are mild, sand swirls instead of
snow, and the closest our soldiers can get to the serene sounds of church bells
and caroling is the enchanting call to prayer from the local mosques—and even
that is all too often disrupted by the thunder of gunfire and roadside bombs.
In the best of worlds, it would be comforting to believe that Christmas could inspire
a fleeting moment of peace, even in a war zone. But we do not live in the best of
worlds; and for those on active duty in the Middle East, the business of battle knows
"There are times when I don't care what 'significant day' it is back home," writes one
soldier who calls himself Frontline Fobbit on his blog site, This War and Me. "We do
not celebrate the holidays here. We can't head down the road singing Jingle Bells
while we are looking for bombs and bad guys. We can't say, 'Hey, it's Christmas,
let's not get attacked today!' "
Equally heartbreaking—and incomprehensible—is the wrenching vacuum that war
inflicts on families on the home front, especially at this time of year. Here, our
soldiers' loved ones are expected to dutifully carry on the joyful toil of the holidays,
and somehow build a warm hearth around the deep hole that has been left in their
As someone who frequently writes about family, it remains beyond my vocabulary,
let alone grasp, to imagine the soul-deep ache of gathering around the Christmas
table and spying the empty chair that has been left for a daddy or a daughter, a
brother or a mother, a son or a sister, who will not be coming home this year.
Military spouses often refer to themselves as "the silent ranks." In truth, they are
the definition of courage.
The most thrilling Christmas Eve of my lifetime occurred 39 years ago tonight, when
Apollo 8 astronauts broadcast footage of the Earth from lunar orbit, as they read
aloud from the book of Genesis and bid the world Christmas tidings. The exquisite
image of our planet, floating peacefully against the blackness of space, was a first
for mankind, and it was breathtaking.
In a way, our armed forces and their families give us a glimpse at another faraway
world this Christmas, one that is admittedly more terrestrial but no less beyond our
reach. Therefore, the best we can do is offer our soldiers overseas—in Iraq, in
Afghanistan, on all points of the globe—the same words spoken by astronaut Frank
Borman at the conclusion of that memorable Apollo broadcast.
"Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on
the good Earth."
(Click here to see USA Today's online version.)