by Thomas Colley
As the centenary of the start of the First World War approaches (2014), thoughts will likely turn this holiday season to the uplifting Christmas football match that supposedly occurred during a truce between Germany and the Allies on the Western front. Such a heart-warming episode provided a symbolic reminder that humanity could stand morally above the awful conflict in which Western civilisation was embroiled. That sworn enemies agreed a truce and celebrated a mutual religious festival together is one of the most emotive mythologies of war at Christmas.
Perhaps surprisingly, honouring the religious festivals of others is not as commonplace as one might think. For centuries, the Jews across the Christian world experienced persecution at Easter. Half a century before the First World War, the American Civil War saw continued fighting over Christmas, with the festival used for a major propaganda battle. At this time of joy, happiness and perhaps a little sober reflection for those who are less fortunate it may not readily occur to us that, for some, religious festivals are not sacrosanct. Instead, they are a strategic opportunity to press their agenda, be it ideological indoctrination, the incitement of fear or military victory.
Wars are fought on a physical and a symbolic level. On a physical level, religious festivals provide a strategic military opportunity to take advantage of the distraction of one’s opponent with a surprise attack. That may sound controversial. But if moral considerations are removed from the equation in line with strategic theory, the use of a religious festival to attack opponents at their moment of greatest distraction is a rational decision. The Yom Kippur War was one such example, when an Arab coalition used the holiest Jewish day of the year to launch an attack against Israel in 1973. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was another notable example, when the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong used New Year celebrations to launch surprise attacks against the US and their allies during the Vietnam War. Militarily, whilst both offensives eventually faltered, they achieved strategic surprise, and both attackers made significant early gains that had previously eluded them. In Vietnam of course, the Tet offensive was seen as the pivotal catalyst for US public opinion to turn against the war, a spectacular success for North Vietnam in the long term.
However, it is on the symbolic level that using religious festivals for strategic gain is most significant. Of all strategies concerning the use of force to achieve political objectives, terrorism relies most on the effects of symbolism. US embassies in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world were closed this year due to the threat of Islamist terrorist attacks on Eid. Some commentators in the US excoriated the terrorists being so immoral as to choose their own holy day to launch attacks. Yet clearly such an attack could have great symbolic impact, potentially galvanising the support of those sympathetic to the terrorist cause. Though one speculates whether other Muslims would feel the same way about the use of their day of celebration for such ends. An Eid attack might minimise Muslim casualties as more people may be at home with their families. On the symbolic level though it might backfire, alienating more Muslims than it would attract.
As well as military and terrorist acts, Christmas has also been instrumentalised for the projection of soft power. In 2011, North Korea was fuming at South Korea’s construction of several giant Christmas trees along the border with the demilitarised zone. A Christmas tree could symbolise welcoming, celebration, family, an invitation. Yet to the North it could be seen as a cultural threat; a Christmas tree could also symbolise plenty, feasting, religious freedom (let alone a consistent power supply), all things that are rarely experienced by the people of North Korea. Indeed the North Korean government was so upset as to threaten to shoot the trees down, such were their symbolic power. Actually this could perversely be seen as cause for optimism. If North Korean elites feel that threatened by the propaganda effect of a Christmas tree, then North Korea’s cultural borders must be more open than one might think.
This sense of optimism is important at Christmas. Much of the world is not free from strife. Peace on Earth remains an ideal rather than a reality. But let us hope that, regardless of faith, this holiday season brings as many people together as possible in togetherness rather than suffering. We should not have to look back a hundred years for poignant examples of when enemies come together, even briefly, in peace and goodwill. As the popular Christmas Carol ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ proclaims: ‘O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.’