Ishmael – An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

In 1989 Ted Turner created a fellowship to be awarded to a work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. The winner, chosen from 2500 entries worldwide, was a work of startling clarity and depth: Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, a Socratic journey that explores the most challenging problem humankind has ever faced: How to save the world from ourselves.

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To the Next Generation of Artists

(A timely message from two favourite and respected artists, aimed at an artist audience, but relevant for everyone)

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Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have been friends for over forty years. In the pursuit of their art, they’ve shattered boundaries previously believed unbreakable, they’ve revolutionized the concept of innovation, and have chosen to make the endeavor of living compassionately and courageously the center of their lives.

From their early days composing and playing together with Miles Davis in Davis’ Second Great Quintet, to branching out and flourishing in their individual endeavors, Wayne and Herbie’s contributions to the world of music have been nothing short of extraordinary. Together, they’ve won a combined total of twenty-five Grammys. Despite their countless accolades, they’ll both insist that their greatest achievements lie in their roles as husbands, fathers, and humans of this earth.

After the recent rash of tragedies around the globe in the past year from Paris to San Bernardino, we had the opportunity to ask Wayne and Herbie how the next generation of artists can respond. Below is an open letter with their thoughts.

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To the Next Generation of Artists,

We find ourselves in turbulent and unpredictable times.

From the horror at the Bataclan, to the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino, we live in a time of great confusion and pain. As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.

While it’s true that the issues facing the world are complex, the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you. You don’t have to be living in a third world country or working for an NGO to make a difference. Each of us has a unique mission. We are all pieces in a giant, fluid puzzle, where the smallest of actions by one puzzle piece profoundly affects each of the others. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.

We’d like to be clear that while this letter is written with an artistic audience in mind, these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.

FIRST, AWAKEN TO YOUR HUMANITY

We are not alone. We do not exist alone and we cannot create alone. What this world needs is a humanistic awakening of the desire to raise one’s life condition to a place where our actions are rooted in altruism and compassion. You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet. Music is but a drop in the ocean of life.

EMBRACE AND CONQUER THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED

The world needs new pathways. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers. Whether through the exploration of new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies or unexpected collaborations, processes and experiences, we encourage you to dispel repetition in all of its negative forms and consequences. Strive to create new actions both musically and with the pathway of your life. Never conform.

WELCOME THE UNKNOWN

The unknown necessitates a moment-to-moment improvisation or creative process that is unparalleled in potential and fulfillment. There is no dress rehearsal for life because life, itself, is the real rehearsal. Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.

UNDERSTAND THE TRUE NATURE OF OBSTACLES

We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon. In life there are unlimited opportunities. The words, “success” and “failure”, themselves, are nothing more than labels. Every moment is an opportunity. You, as a human being, have no limits; therefore infinite possibilities exist in any circumstance.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO INTERACT WITH THOSE WHO ARE DIFFERENT FROM YOU

The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We can work to create an open and continuous plane where all types of people can exchange ideas, resources, thoughtfulness and kindness. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts. The more we interact, the more we will come to realize that our humanity transcends all differences.

STRIVE TO CREATE AGENDA-FREE DIALOGUE

Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool. It is time for the music world to produce sound stories that ignite dialogue about the mystery of us. When we say the mystery of us, we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all. Yes, you are enough. Yes, you matter. Yes, you should keep going.

BE WARY OF EGO

Arrogance can develop within artists, either from artists who believe that their status makes them more important, or those whose association with a creative field entitles them to some sort of superiority. Beware of ego; creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.

WORK TOWARDS A BUSINESS WITHOUT BORDERS

The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones. We’re speaking directly to a system that’s in place, a system that conditions consumers to purchase only the products that are dictated to be deemed marketable, a system where money is only the means to an end. The music business is a fraction of the business of life. Living with creative integrity can bring forth benefits never imagined.

APPRECIATE THE GENERATION THAT WALKED BEFORE YOU

Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom. They have weathered storms and endured the same heartbreaks; let their struggles be the light that shines the way in the darkness. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes. Instead, take what they’ve done and catapult you towards building a progressively better world for the progeny to come.

LASTLY, WE HOPE THAT YOU LIVE IN A STATE OF CONSTANT WONDER

As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away. Look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut or a pilot. Imagine exploring the pyramids or Machu Picchu. Imagine flying like a bird or crashing through a wall like Superman. Imagine running with dinosaurs or swimming like mer-creatures. All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.

How does any of this lend to the creation of a peaceful society you ask? It begins with a cause. Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.

Technology & the Other War

Address by Daniel Quinn at Student Pugwash “Technologies of Peace” Conference, Carnegie Mellon University, 1997

I’m not going to talk long here, because it’s been my experience that people who’ve read my books always come loaded with questions that are always much more relevant to them than anything I could dream up to say in advance.

Four years ago one of the organizers of the Minnesota Social Investment Forum called to ask if I would come address their annual meeting. This was in fact one of the very first invitations I’d ever received to speak, and I must say that it puzzled me a lot. Why would a bunch of investors–social or otherwise–think I had something to say to them? I know nothing whatever about investing, have never written a single word about investing.

The following year I received an invitation to address a sort of executive committee made up of representatives from every department of a regional hospital system centered in Albuquerque New Mexico–each of whom had read my work. Needless to say, I was even more puzzled. I’m a regular mine of information about investing–compared to what I know about hospitals and health care.

Last winter I was contacted by someone connected with The Woodlands Group, an informal gathering of human resource professionals and organizational development specialists who have been meeting four times a year for something like twenty years. Each meeting has as its focus a book that has a unique contribution to make to them and their work. The focus of this spring’s meeting was going to be on two books of mine, Ishmael and The Story of B. The question for me was, would I care to come and interact with them for the three days of their meeting? I have only the vaguest idea what human resource professionals and organizational development specialists actually DO, but of course I said yes.

And then of course there was the invitation to address this group here, meeting to consider something called “Technologies of Peace.” I’m very far from being an expert on the subject of social investment, health care, human resources, organizational development, OR technology–but there I was and here I am. Why? Not “Why am I here?” but rather “Why was I invited?”

I’ll share this answer with you because I think it may in fact be more important and more useful to you than anything I have to say on the subject of technology. If you were to ask all those people WHY they invited me to speak on subjects I’m apparently unqualified to address, I think you’d work hard to get a single, coherent explanation out of them. But here it is. The characteristic of my work that appeals to all these different points of view is this: I follow a strange rule that can be applied usefully to any subject whatever, whether it’s social investment, health care, human resources, or the technologies of peace. Here it is: IF THEY GIVE YOU LINED PAPER, WRITE SIDEWAYS.

We are perpetually being presented with lined paper on which we are expected to write our thoughts, our lives, and indeed our futures. Nicholas Copernicus received a full sheaf of lined paper at the end of the fifteenth century, and some of those lines represented the physical arrangement of the universe as it was understood at that time. It was perfectly possible for him to be a respected astronomer so long as he did his work within the lines of the Ptolemaic system. But because he eventually saw that he had to write sideways against those lines, he knew that his most important work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), could not be published until after his death. Albert Einstein similarly received a full set of lined paper as a young man, but his was a different sort of age. When he turned the paper sideways and began to work out his theory of relativity, this was very quickly recognized as an important contribution. Darwin, Freud, and Marx are other well known examples of people who took the lined paper they were given and turned it sideways to do important work that changed the world.

Let me give you an example of some of the lines found on the paper you’ve received so far–you, I–everyone who grows up in this culture. “Because we have a growing population, we must finds ways to increase food production. Increasing food production is essential and undoubtedly beneficial work.” These are the lines on the paper we’ve been given. But when I turn the paper sideways and write, “Food production is the fuel of our population explosion, and the more we increase it, the more fuel we supply that explosion,” everyone goes crazy. I’m not writing inside the lines!

The paper we receive provides lines not only for single opinions in our culture but for opposing opinions as well. For example, there’s a set of lines for writing in favor of capital punishment and a set of lines for writing in opposition to capital punishment, and we’re all familiar with them. When writing in favor, you say, “Some crimes deserve this ultimate punishment, and it acts as a deterrent.” When writing in opposition, you say, “No crime deserves this ultimate punishment, and it DOESN’T act as a deterrent.” You can use either set–but only an original thinker turns the paper sideways and says, “Punishment isn’t a value for me, and deterrence can never be demonstrated in any definitive way. So where do we go from here?”

There is a set of lines for writing in favor of abortion and a set of lines for writing in opposition to abortion, and if you turn that paper sideways and write the wrong way against those lines, you’d better do it anonymously–or move to the moon. There is even a set of lines for writing in favor of technology and a set of lines for writing in opposition to technology. Here is someone writing within the lines in opposition to it: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.” The media has elevated the author of these commonplace ideas to the level of a genius, because a madman is always more interesting if he’s a genius. He is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who seems to have imagined that he was saying something terribly original in his ponderous diatribe, called “Industrial Society and its Future.”

You might be surprised to know how many people go along with the line of thinking taken by the Unabomber–or perhaps you wouldn’t, I have no way of knowing. Some heavy lines have grown up in recent decades around the concept of “natural.” Natural foods are good foods, foods that come to us, as it were, directly from nature, without the addition of artificial colors or preservatives. This notion has been extended in all sorts of directions. Clothes made from “natural” fibers contribute to a more “natural” lifestyle. Shampoos made from “natural” ingredients are presumably better for your hair than shampoos made from ingredients synthesized in a laboratory. Thinking along these lines has produced, by a kind of sympathetic magic, the notion that everything manmade is unnatural, and therefore unhealthy and quite possibly evil. If something comes to us from bees or sheep or flowers, it’s natural and okay, but if it comes to us from humans it’s unnatural and noxious. Humanity has gradually come to be perceived as ITSELF unnatural–as somehow no longer belonging to nature. When a beaver fells a tree, this is a “natural” event. When a man fells a tree, this is an unnatural event–perverted, unholy.

Technology, in this context–to use Kaczynski’s words–has made life unfulfilling, has subjected human beings to indignities, has led to widespread psychological and physical suffering, and has inflicted severe damage on the “natural” world–the natural world being that world where humans don’t belong at all.

Writing across these heavily drawn lines has been hard work. Those of you who have read Ishmael or any of my other books know that it’s been my particular business to re-imagine the life story of our species as a member of the general community of life on this planet–not as the ruler or steward of that community or as the most important member of that community or as the single culminating high point that the universe has been straining to reach for the past fifteen billion years or so.

When humanity is scaled down to the size of the rest of the community, distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural” become very hazy indeed. For example, why exactly is the trail system of a white-tailed deer “natural” but an expressway system “unnatural”? Why is a bird’s nest “natural” but this building we’re in here “unnatural”?
An easy answer might be that the bird builds from “natural” materials and we don’t. But then you might ask why wire, cotton, string, paper, fiberglass, and even cement are often found in birds’ nests. Someone in Texas recently found a raven’s nest constructed entirely of barbed wire. Workers in an office building in California once found a canyon wren’s nest built entirely of office supplies–things like pins, thumbtacks, paper clips, rubber bands, and so on–not a shred of so-called natural materials.

The ancestors of birds didn’t fly–and neither did ours. The creatures we call birds eventually FOUND a way to fly–as did we. It’s not easy to explain why this transition was “natural” for birds but NOT natural for us. If we conceptually restore humanity to its place in the community of life, it becomes a little difficult to figure out how ANYTHING we do is “unnatural.” In fact (I suggest), this distinction between natural and unnatural that we hear so often made–especially in reference to technology–is as little reality-based as the distinction between approved and unapproved recreational drugs.

Speakers at event like these always receive lined paper at the outset. This isn’t meant in any sense as a criticism. The theme of any event (as stated in its title) is specifically INTENDED to provide lines. I recently gave a keynote address at the annual convention of the North American Association for Environmental Education, and the theme of this meeting was “Weaving Connections: Cultures and Environments.” Now these were hazy lines indeed, so faint that, for all practical purposes, they could be ignored. The result was, I didn’t have to turn the paper sideways, I just talked about what was currently on my mind, and this is basically what they wanted me to do anyway.

The theme of THIS event, “Technologies of Peace,” presents a different sort of challenge entirely. There are some clear lines drawn here, and I’d like to spend a few minutes examining them.

What is understood instantly is: Technologies of peace–versus technologies of war. It’s not, for example, technologies of peace versus technologies of commerce or technologies of peace versus technologies of communications. The dichotomy to be focused on is the one between peace and war.

For any culturally literate Westerner, a foundation piece of wisdom found in the bible will spring to mind on the subject of technologies of war versus technologies of peace. Here it is, from the second chapter of Isaiah:

  • The Lord shall judge between the nations,
  • and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
  • they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
  • and their spears into pruning hooks;
  • nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  • neither shall they learn war any more. 

     

This is a great and famous image of people turning from war to peace–unless you happen to be in the habit of following my rule. If you turn this lined paper sideways, what you see in this business of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years. 

The plowshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally they followed it westward into the New World.

The first great addition to the “technologies of peace” in the New World may have been the cotton gin, but the second was the more important. This was the John Deere plow, called “the plow that won the West.” Everyone in nineteenth century America understood the military reference in this nickname. Guns and swords didn’t win us the West, though we had to have them to drive off the Indians. It took a plow to win us the West–a plow that could penetrate the intransigent, never-before cultivated soil of the Great Plains.

I bring all this up because it’s important that you not be deceived into thinking that any technology we don’t use as a weapon against each other is automatically a technology for peace. There are not two kinds of technology in this domain, there are three. There are technologies for peace, technologies we use to conquer each other, and technologies we use to conquer the world–technologies for what I’ve called “the other war.”

Technologies for the Other War need special attention, because I’m afraid most people WILL take them to be technologies of peace, and that’s a very hazardous mistake. This is because, oddly enough, the wars we wage against other species are actually no less dangerous TO US than the wars we wage against each other.

Two examples will show you why this is so. Two examples will be sufficient, because there are basically two kinds of species we go to war against: Those species we can easily destroy right down to the last member and those species we cannot easily destroy down to the last member. I’m afraid that many of our current crop of “technologies for peace” are devoted to these wars.

It’s relatively easy for us to destroy large, slow-breeding species like elephants, giraffes, gorillas, bison, wolves, coyotes, passenger pigeons, Siberian tigers, whales, California condors, and so on. Some of these are already extinct, and probably most of the ones I’ve named will become extinct during your lifetime. These large, slow-breeding species are not, for the most part, being killed off directly by technology. They’re being obliterated by our population explosion–which receives essential support from technologies that are perceived in our culture to be technologies not just of peace but of godliness itself. A famous recent example is the well-known “Green Revolution,” a technology that made it possible for us to grow our population from three billion to six billion in just 35 years. The sacred work continues, of course, in every school of agriculture in the world, where every researcher is diligently working to give us the tools that will enable us to grow our population from 6 billion to 12 billion in ANOTHER 35 years.

Upwards of two hundred species–mostly of the large, slow-breeding variety–are becoming extinct here every day because more and more of the earth’s carrying capacity is systematically being converted into HUMAN carrying capacity. These species are being burnt out, starved out, and squeezed out of existence–thanks to technologies that most people, I’m afraid, think of as technologies of peace. I hope it will not be too long before the technologies that support our population explosion begin to be perceived as no less hazardous to the future of life on this planet than the endless production of radioactive wastes.

We’re very like people living on the top floor of a high rise who every day set off two or three explosions in the lower floors of the building, weakening and even demolishing walls. Still–so far–the building stands, and the top floor where we live continues to sit on top. But if we continue to set off two or three explosions a day in the lower floors, then eventually and inevitably, one of these explosions is going to create a critical weakness–a weakness that combines dynamically with all the other weaknesses to bring the building crashing down.

We can say, “Yes, it’s true that we drive a couple hundred species to extinction every day, but there are tens of millions–hundreds of millions–between us and catastrophe.” We can SAY this, but the sheer number is no guarantee, because like the random bombers in the high rise, there’s no way of telling which extinction will be the one that suddenly combines dynamically with thousands of others to bring the whole structure down.

This brings me to the other kind of species we’re are war with–the small, rapidly-breeding species. Species of this type become our enemies for one of three reasons: they invade our fields and eat our food, they invade our houses and make us nervous, or they invade our bodies and make us ill. These are all pretty obvious. The first type are all the various insects and funguses that feed on our crops. The second type are creatures like cockroaches, fleas, and termites. The third type are bacteria and viruses.

The technological strategy we’ve pursued in our dealings with these small, fast-breeding creatures has been remarkably obtuse. Very simply, all too often we’ve acted as though we could make these creatures extinct down to the very last member, the way we might do with elephants or pandas. All too often we’ve acted as though the more we killed, the closer we came to making them extinct. But of course this constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of biological realities.

What we’ve done in actual fact is make ourselves the chief agent of natural selection in these enemy species. Our insecticide hasn’t killed off every last member of the targeted species in a given field. It’s killed off the 80% that are most susceptible to the deadly effect of the insecticide, leaving alive as breeding stock for the next generation the 20% that was less susceptible. Generation after generation, we are in effect PRODUCING a population of insects more and more resistant to our insecticides. If we WANTED to produce such insects, this would be exactly the way to go about it!

In the same way, I’m afraid, we’re systematically developing household pests that are more and more resistant to the insecticides we use against them.

The misguidedness of our technological strategy toward the small and fast-breeding is even more evident–and more disturbing!–when it comes to human disease organisms. In areas of the world where antibiotics are used more freely and are often available without prescription, resistant “super-bugs” are turning up with alarming frequency. Bacteria resistant to penicillin have emerged in Africa. In France and Britain, Enterococcus, a bacterium that causes blood infections, became resistant to vancomycin in the late 1980s. Atlanta hospitals recently came across a deadly staph germ that is only one step away from becoming completely immune to what is now the last-resort antibiotic against it. A strain of plague has appeared in Madagascar that is immune to standard antibiotics.

It must be kept in mind that this is nothing remotely like “nature fighting back.” This is merely nature operating exactly the way we know it operates, the way it has been operating here for some three and a half billion years. As I say, if we WANTED to produce a bacterium resistant to an antibiotic, this is exactly how we would proceed. We would kill off as many as we could from a population of bacteria and let the survivors produce a next generation. Then we’d kill off as many of that generation as we could and then let the survivors produce a next generation. And so on. Eventually, sure enough, we would produce a generation that was totally impervious to our antibiotic–and that’s what we’re doing globally.

Not that I’m trying to alarm you. [Kidding.] I’d better end here by saying that I’m definitely FOR technologies of peace. At the same time, we’d better be aware that SOME technologies of peace are actually more hazardous than ANY technology of war.

 

The Christmas Truce

The following letter, traditionally reposted nearer to the day, was last year reposted earlier in response to the travesty of a supermarket, J Sainsbury PLC, cashing in on the occasion and using it in recent a marketing campaign. As No Glory In War say in their article 1914: When a Perfectly Good War Was Ruined by a Game of Football, ‘It would have been a great source of comfort for millions who died in foreign fields to know their noble sacrifice would still be honoured a century later, in an advert for a shop.’

________

 

by Aaron Shephard

Christmas Day, 1914

My dear sister Janet,

It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts—yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!

As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.

But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a sniper’s bullet.

And the rain—it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come mud—a good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get out—just like in that American story of the tar baby!

Through all this, we couldn’t help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire—yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.

Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.

Just yesterday morning—Christmas Eve Day—we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.

During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.

I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, “Come and see! See what the Germans are doing!” I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.

I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.

“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”

And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.

And then we heard their voices raised in song.

Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .

This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon.

When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in.

The first Nowell, the angel did say . . . .

In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum . . . .

Then we replied.

O come all ye faithful . . . .

But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.

Adeste fideles . . . .

British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.

“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no shoot.”

There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.”

To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land. One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”

I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others did the same—but our captain called out, “Hold your fire.” Then he climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German cigar in his mouth!

“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he announced. “But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you, stay alert.”

Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!

Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled—British khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.

Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew English. I asked one of them why that was.

“Because many have worked in England!” he said. “Before all this, I was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!”

“Perhaps you did!” I said, laughing.

He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl.”

He laughed at that. Then he asked if I’d send her a postcard he’d give me later, and I promised I would.

Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely, I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would like that very much and gave me his family’s address.

Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts—our cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners, and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt—a fine souvenir to show when I get home.

Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said, “Well, you believe your newspapers and we’ll believe ours.”

Clearly they are lied to—yet after meeting these men, I wonder how truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the “savage barbarians” we’ve read so much about. They are men with homes and families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?

As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for—I am not lying to you—“Auld Lang Syne.” Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.

I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched my arm. “My God,” he said, “why cannot we have peace and all go home?”

I told him gently, “That you must ask your emperor.”

He looked at me then, searchingly. “Perhaps, my friend. But also we must ask our hearts.”

And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending of enemies?

For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and never could we shirk that duty.

Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of reprisals? Would not all war end at once?

All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.

Your loving brother,
Tom

About the Story

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has been called by Arthur Conan Doyle “one human episode amid all the atrocities.” It is certainly one of the most remarkable incidents of World War I and perhaps of all military history. Inspiring both popular songs and theater, it has endured as an almost archetypal image of peace.

Starting in some places on Christmas Eve and in others on Christmas Day, the truce covered as much as two-thirds of the British-German front, with French and Belgians involved as well. Thousands of soldiers took part. In most places it lasted at least through Boxing Day (December 26), and in some through mid-January. Perhaps most remarkably, it grew out of no single initiative but sprang up in each place spontaneously and independently.

Unofficial and spotty as the truce was, there have been those convinced it never happened—that the whole thing was made up. Others have believed it happened but that the news was suppressed. Neither is true. Though little was printed in Germany, the truce made headlines for weeks in British newspapers, with published letters and photos from soldiers at the front. In a single issue, the latest rumor of German atrocities might share space with a photo of British and German soldiers crowded together, their caps and helmets exchanged, smiling for the camera.

Historians, on the other hand, have shown less interest in an unofficial outbreak of peace. There has been only one comprehensive study of the incident: Christmas Truce, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Secker & Warburg, London, 1984—a companion volume to the authors’ 1981 BBC documentary, Peace in No Man’s Land. The book features a large number of first-hand accounts from letters and diaries. Nearly everything described in my fictional letter is drawn from these accounts—though I have heightened the drama somewhat by selecting, arranging, and compressing.

In my letter, I’ve tried to counteract two popular misconceptions of the truce. One is that only common soldiers took part in it, while officers opposed it. (Few officers opposed it, and many took part.) The other is that neither side wished to return to fighting. (Most soldiers, especially British, French, and Belgian, remained determined to fight and win.)

Sadly, I also had to omit the Christmas Day games of football—or soccer, as called in the U.S.—often falsely associated with the truce. The truth is that the terrain of No Man’s Land ruled out formal games—though certainly some soldiers kicked around balls and makeshift substitutes.

Another false idea about the truce was held even by most soldiers who were there: that it was unique in history. Though the Christmas Truce is the greatest example of its kind, informal truces had been a longstanding military tradition. During the American Civil War, for instance, Rebels and Yankees traded tobacco, coffee, and newspapers, fished peacefully on opposite sides of a stream, and even gathered blackberries together. Some degree of fellow feeling had always been common among soldiers sent to battle.

Of course, all that has changed in modern times. Today, soldiers kill at great distances, often with the push of a button and a sighting on a computer screen. Even where soldiers come face to face, their languages and cultures are often so diverse as to make friendly communication unlikely.

No, we should not expect to see another Christmas Truce. Yet still what happened on that Christmas of 1914 may inspire the peacemakers of today—for, now as always, the best time to make peace is long before the armies go to war.

___________

Check out No Glory In War a national campaign of political, cultural, and educational activities that opposes ‘nationalist’ interpretations of the First World War, and aims to promote international solidarity and peace. On their website you’ll find other articles related to The Christmas Truce, including material from the UK poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy, Rudyard Kipling. Also available is the excellent resource No Glory: The Real History of World War One, a new 36-page pamphlet by historian Neil Faulkner looks at the real reasons for the outbreak of the First World War.

Peace

 

Alice Walker’s Thoughts on Christmas

Anything We Love Can Be SavedAlice Walker is one of my favourite wordsmiths. Her collection of essays Anything We Love Can Be Saved is a great read and covers loads of ground, as you might expect from a woman who not only writes, but also campaigns on behalf of the oppressed, be they African women suffering the tradition of cliteradectomy or Palestinians living in the largest open-air prison in the world, Gaza (she was with the international Freedom Flotilla that went out to challenge the Israeli blockade following the murder of members of the first flotilla by Israeli forces).

My Face To The Light – Thoughts on Christmas is one of those essays. I’ve taken the liberty of scanning and compiling the pages into a PDF. Just click on the link.

More seasonal stuff to follow.

Peace