brucekluger.com

    USA Today, December 24, 2007

    A Christmas over there, and the pain back here

    By Bruce Kluger


    Seven Christmases into the new
    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
    dizzying bliss of candy canes, snow storms and colorfully wrapped gifts; for grown-
    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.

    Sure, the season invites a lot of clatter, from deck-the-halling Pepsi commercials to
    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
    no holiday.

    "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
    lives.

    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."


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