Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Truce: How ordinary people stopped the killing

Christmas Truce WWI and Vietnam
How ordinary people stopped the killing
Neil Fiore, Former 1st Lieutenant with 101st Airborne in Vietnam

A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe . . . .
[Yet] he experiences himself . . . as something separated from the rest—
a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness . . . a prison for us. . . .
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our
circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature.
-- Albert Einstein

In Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce Stanley Weintraub writes of how the English and German troops ceased their hostilities on Christmas Eve of 1914. The Germans moved out of their trenches first, carrying a lighted Christmas tree and singing carols—Stille Nacht and O Tannenbaum—German hymns that have English versions. Soon the British joined in and both sides exchanged presents and food, buried their dead, and played soccer during this troop‑initiated cease‑fire. There was one notable exception: a private named Adolf Hitler who refused to join in.

The unofficial truce of 1914 lasted for two full days. Then the generals on both sides ordered the spoiled troops replaced with new ones who had not met their enemy face to face so the war could resume.

                When I first heard of this amazing story I was reminded of a somewhat less dramatic incident I experienced during my unusual tour of duty in Vietnam. Our advanced unit of the 101st Airborne had no official home so we joined with a Special Forces unit in Nha Trang, a beach town 300 miles north of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). One of the favorite bars of my men was the Mickey Mouse, owned by Francois, a French chef and former Foreign Legionnaire who had married a Vietnamese woman and had two beautiful daughters. We had been dining—if you can call it that—on Army rations for months when Francois invited four of us—myself, a Special Forces Colonel, and two other lieutenants—to his real French restaurant at the very edge of the jungle.

We’d been eating C-Rations out of tin cans, what the Vietnamese offered on the street and an occasional meal at Special Forces. So when Francois described the menu at his restaurant:  filet mignons of water buffalo, real French fries, and giant spiny lobster, served with French wines, we started salivating like four hunting dogs.

Feeling the excitement of both danger and anticipation, we drove our jeep through dense vegetation to Francois’ “Parisian-jungle” restaurant, at the very edge of what I called “shark turf.”  

As we pulled up to the entrance of Chez Francois, we were greeted by a scene right out of South Pacific, complete with palm-covered thatched buildings lit with red lanterns. Our minds were a thousand miles from any thoughts of war and the VC’s expertise at guerrilla warfare. All we could think of was the sumptuous feast Francois had promised us.

What we saw next was a complete adrenaline-fueled shock: at least 30 Vietcong cradling Chinese-made AK47s, squatting in their black silk uniforms around the entire building, white opium pipes sticking out from under their conical straw hats. For the moment they seemed more interested in their opium than in four Americans armed with only 45-caliber pistols.

I gasped at my first sight of armed Viet Cong soldiers up close and couldn’t help thinking of the reports of their brutal torture of any Americans unfortunate enough to be captured alive. The hair rose on the back of my neck and the adrenaline was pumping just the way it did when I was a kid in Jersey City surrounded by gang members on my way home from school. Once again, we were outnumbered and out‑gunned. Only this time, I’d suffer more than a black eye.

We knew it would be foolhardy to try to fight. We had to stay cool if we were going to get back to camp alive. By some grace all four of us were not the type to panic or reach reflexively for his 45. As he took the first step up to Francois’ the Colonel struck a casual tone as he, in passable French, said to the Vietcong, “Bon soir.” I was impressed but still in a heightened state of attention and hoping we’d be alive just a little bit longer to enjoy what might well be our last meal.

The aromas and flavors of Francois’ cooking helped focus my senses on the pleasure of being alive and on gratitude for the miracle and craziness of life. I was on heightened alert for the sound of automatic weapon fire, as well as for the anticipation of each course Francois served us with such obvious delight. I still can taste the firm texture of the giant lobster, the tartness of the dry white wine, the sweetness of the water buffalo, pomme frites unlike any french fries I every had back home, and a silky red wine that carried the aromas of southern France. Savoring this excellent meal in this most incongruous of places was almost enough to erase the threat of death that crouched outside.

I tried to stay focused on the pleasures of the moment but my concentration was interrupted by Francois’s stories – complete with maps of his Foreign Legion campaigns – of how the fathers of the skilled and ferocious fighters waiting outside had defeated the French. Almost two hours of exquisite dining had somehow passed when we finally heard the chilling wake‑up call. Francois looked at his watch and announced, “C'est dix heures. It's 10 o'clock, time for the VC to come in.”

We offered Francois our Merci beaucoup, paid our bill, and tried to stand tall. Then, without a word, we each took a breath, and walked out through the doors into the night, ready to accept whatever fate awaited us.

                We found the VC in the same position as two hours earlier, though possibly mellowed by opium. Following the colonel’s lead, I nodded respectfully to our VC counterparts and, in my best high school French, wished them a Bon soir et bon appetit. Somehow, I managed to get to our jeep without breaking into a mad dash or looking over my shoulder at the VC.

                I felt I had witnessed a miracle of the human spirit that night. We had seen our “enemy” face to face and no one, on either side, felt the need to destroy the other or to prevent him from savoring the pleasures and beauty of this world for a few more hours.

Soon after that magical night, I started the practice of saying a silent grace before every meal and a thank you for every day. I promised myself that I would take time to savor each meal as if it might be my last. I also made a mental note to keep faith in the wondrous higher qualities of human beings, and the possibility that individuals can choose peace even in the midst of fear and extreme chaos.

But within a month of that evening at Francois’s, the American and North Vietnamese generals arrived in South Vietnam. All gentleman's agreements were off and I’m sure neither side would wait patiently while their enemy savored one of life’s feasts at Francois’.  No one would wish the other side, Bon soir et bon appetite.

 [1,246 words]

© Neil Fiore, 2003-2012. All rights reserved.  510 525- 2673.   Neil Fiore, 1496 Solano Ave., Albany, CA 94706‑2148.  

Author of: Awaken Your Strongest Self [McGraw-Hill, 2009], The Now Habit: Overcoming Procrastination While Enjoying Guilt-Free Play (Penguin, 2010), and Coping with the Emotional Impact of Cancer (Bay Tree, 2010).