When Soldiers Say No To War

| by Camillo Mac Bica
( December 26, 2014, Boston, Sri Lanka Guardian) This year we mark the 100th
anniversary of the Christmas Truce. A unique event in the annals of war, when soldiers
of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” enduring the horrors of trench warfare along
the infamous 600-mile Western Front, made a conscious decision to stop the insanity,
put down their weapons and said no to war.

Amazingly, some say miraculously, despite the knowledge that fraternization with the
enemy was regarded by military leaders as treason, a crime punishable by summary
execution, many soldiers, recognizing the humanity of the other and their shared
sacrifice, cautiously and hesitantly emerged from their opposing trenches to meet and
exchange holiday greetings and souvenirs with those who just hours before had been
their enemies.
In a letter to his family, Rifleman, C.H. Brazier, Queens Westministers of Bishops
Stortford, described the encounter.
You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches
after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas eve, the Germans

entrenched opposite us began calling out to us “cigarettes,” “pudding,” “a happy
Christmas,” and “English – means good,” so two of our fellows climbed over the
parapet of the trench and went toward the German trenches. Halfway they were met by
four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day, if we did not. They
gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When
they came back, I went out with some more of our fellows, and we were met by about
30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name
and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them
and they sang to us and one played “God Save the King” on a mouth organ.” (Published
in The Hertfordshire Mercury, Saturday January 9, 1915).
In some areas of the Western Front the ceasefire was brief, in others it lasted a few
days, or longer. According to a report filed by the Manchester Guardian’s Paris
correspondent, dated January 6, 1915, as former enemies realized their respective
government’s deception of dehumanizing the enemy, some soldiers on both sides
refused to resume the insanity and the slaughter of those with whom they had become
"The sequel (to the truce) was more interesting than the event itself. The French and
German soldiers who had thus fraternised subsequently refused to fire on one another
and had to be removed from the trenches and replaced by other men."
Leaders on both sides recognized such fraternization as a threat to their ability to wage
war. As a result, any future holiday ceasefires by war-weary soldiers - one attempted
just the following year - were quashed by officer’s threats of disciplinary action and
never repeated.
Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center 1980s
The “HOOTCH” (1) Program was a peer support therapeutic community of about 50 or
so veterans, founded and run by veterans within the Veterans Administration Medical
Center in Brooklyn, New York, during the late 1970s and ’80s. It proved a unique and
effective treatment modality, during a time when, other than a heavy regimen of
psychotropic medication, mainly thorazine (chlorpromazine), little help was available
for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and moral injury. As one of
its founding members, I coordinated the HOOTCH Program from its onset for about 8
years, during which time we enjoyed great success in assisting veterans to negotiate
the long and perilous journey home and to achieve some degree of normalcy in lives
devastated by war.
Early one December day in the mid 1980s, the exact year escapes me (probably the

consequence of a thorazine-induced memory loss), I received a call from Peter
Mahoney, who was, I believe, acting as liaison for a contingent of Soviet veterans who
had fought in their Vietnam, the Afghanistan war. Not unlike the veterans of our
program, the Soviets were suffering from the inevitable consequences of war, PTSD
and moral injury. Having heard the success we were enjoying in the HOOTCH
Program, a group of about 15 Soviet veterans and their therapists hoped to visit the
Brooklyn VA, observe our program and eventually to implement what they learned in
the Soviet Union to better assist their veterans to heal.
I found the idea of such a visit fascinating and therapeutically valuable. Warriors and
cold war enemies meeting face to face, not on the battlefield but in a conference room,
not to kill and to maim each other, but to discuss their experiences and perspectives on
healing. When I presented the idea to the veterans in the HOOTCH community, many,
perhaps even a majority, did not share my enthusiasm, nor did they see the value of
such a meeting.
"These people ARE my enemies," one veteran responded (I thought his use of the
present tense indicative of his state of mind), "and I don’t forget or forgive easily."
Another veteran, call him Hank, was enraged that I would even consider inviting into
our HOOTCH area, our "safe place," enemy soldiers who had fought for a nation that
had supported and supplied weapons to those who injured and killed his comrades in
Some others were just indifferent and uninterested. Despite the rather unenthusiastic
reception for the idea, and not at all certain if any of the approximate 50 veterans who
participated with any regularity in the program would even show up, I made a purely
utilitarian decision that the potential good consequences of such a meeting outweighed
the bad (including Hank’s threat of bodily harm should I continue on with this
At the scheduled day and time, the Soviet veterans, accompanied by two therapists and
a translator, arrived at the HOOTCH conference room. I was relieved to see a number
of American veterans (about 10 to 12 at first) cautiously and tentatively milling around
a nearby hallway. Though I had intentionally set up the room so as not to separate “us
from them,” a dynamic I knew to be alienating, it inevitably ended up that way, the
Soviets on one side of the room, the Americans who eventually overcame their
trepidations, on the other.
In the center, between the two groups, sat the interpreter, the two therapists (who
spoke English fairly well), and me. The atmosphere was tense and the silence palpable.
As I prepared to welcome our guests, to my surprise, the door opens and in walked

Hank, dressed in jungle fatigues, his jacket adorned with his military medals and a 7th
Cavalry patch, the unit he served with in Vietnam. Passing unnecessarily close to
where I was sitting, Hank glared at me rather menacingly as he made his way to the
safety of the “American sector.”
Not having prepared anything, I began by saying what immediately came to mind as I
watched Hank’s entrance. “Some of our veterans were rather hesitant and skeptical
about meeting with soldiers of a nation that had supplied weapons to those who
maimed and killed our comrades in Vietnam. Did any of you have similar feelings and
apprehensions about meeting with us?”
As the interpreter translated my question, I noticed one Soviet veteran near the back of
their area reaching down as if to adjust his pant leg or sock. For a moment there was
silence. As I began to squirm a bit, wondering whether I had violated some
international protocol by asking an inappropriate question, the veteran who had been
bending over now managed, with some difficulty, to stand up and raise a below the
knee prosthetic leg into the air.
"Americanskiy landmine," he announced in broken English as he gazed squarely into
my eyes. He said nothing more. He didn’t need to. In an instant it became clear to all
present that we were all equally victims, and that we shared a bond, a brotherhood of
the warrior that transcended ethnic differences and national affiliation.
The tension in the room dissipated and questions, experiences and observations began
to flow back and forth, slowly at first, then increasing in frequency and enthusiasm, so
much so that frustration grew with the inability of the interpreter, now aided by the
therapists, to keep up with the dialogue. At some point, an American veteran got up
and migrated to the Soviet sector and began a conversation on his own, utilizing an
improvised sign language. Other’s quickly followed suit.
To my amazement, I noticed that Hank was now sitting next to the Soviet veteran who
had removed his prosthetic leg, happily conversing in what I took to be Polish, a
language they both very minimally spoke and understood. The meeting went on for a
number of hours, much longer than had been anticipated, during which veterans
traded various pins and medals as well as contact information to keep in touch in the
At the behest of the HOOTCH veterans and with the assistance of VA clinicians,
doctors and administrators, some of the Soviet veterans, including Hank’s new friend,
were fitted for new prosthetics replacing the rather outdated devices they had been
given in the Soviet Union. HOOTCH members raised money to defray some of the

Not long afterwards, Hank stopped me in the hallway to discuss his impressions of the
interaction he had with his new comrade. Like Rifleman C.H. Brazier, during the
Christmas Truce of World War I, Hank mentioned that he enjoyed the meeting and
found the Soviet veterans to be very nice guys, no different from us. As you can
imagine, this meeting between former enemies was truly an enlightening and
therapeutic experience for all involved. My only regret was that we hadn’t recorded it
on video.
Some have warned against romanticizing those rare occasions when soldiers refuse to
fight. What occurred at Christmas on the Western Front, they conjecture, was an
aberration, a brief and meaningless lull in the hostilities, a consequence perhaps, of
mass hysteria and combat exhaustion induced by a contagion of seasonal good will or
as a remnant of an outdated chivalric-code-inspired camaraderie between enemies in
Others would similarly explain the incident at the HOOTCH as a consequence of PTSD
and Moral Injury - the collective delusion of psychologically, emotionally, and ethically
impaired veterans seeking understanding and forgiveness for their behavior in war.
In a study of soldiers who had experienced combat during World War II, Army General
and Historian S.L.A. Marshall, found that only 15-20 percent of soldiers, even those
under threat, fired their weapons at the enemy. (2)
Marshall concluded from these rather surprising findings that human beings
possessed a natural aversion to killing members of their own species, that humans are
not natural-born killers, and that warriors have to be trained and conditioned to kill.
While some have questioned Marshall’s methodology in conducting this study and
hence, the veracity of his conclusions, I find no reason to doubt the credibility and
importance of Marshall’s study.
As the Army’s chief of military history, Marshall must be presumed competent, and he
certainly had no anti-war agenda or reason to fabricate his findings or his conclusions.
Nor do I accept the attempts by war-ists and corporatists, those who profit from war
and from the suffering and death of warriors, to diminish, explain away, the
importance of the spontaneous fraternizations that occurred at the Western Front and
at the HOOTCH, both of which, in my view, provide ample evidence for Marshall’s
conclusion, not only of a natural aversion to kill but, I would add, of a human capacity
to love and to treat others with kindness and respect.

The frequency, with which wars occur, does not, in my view, establish war as “natural.”
Rather it speaks to the depravity and the effectiveness of the war-ist agenda of
governments and the sophistication of the conditioning techniques they employ to
create enemies and warriors who hate and kill. Consequently, it is not the Christmas
Truce or the occurrence at the HOOTCH, but war that is the aberration, a violation of
human nature.
Consequently, I remain hopeful, encouraged by the fact that, despite the horror,
brutality and insanity of trench warfare on the Western Front, soldiers refused to kill;
that when the veterans of the HOOTCH Program and of the Afghanistan war met face
to face, they realized the deception, rejected the mythology, and recognized that those
whom they were told and conditioned to hate and to kill are, in the words of Paul
Baumer, the protagonist in Eric Maria Remarque’s seminal novel All Quiet on the
Western Front, “poor sods just like me.”
I remain hopeful, therefore, that as soldiers recognize the deception and our shared
humanity and victimization, like the soldiers at the Western Front, they will lay down
their weapons and just say no to war.
Camillo “Mac” Bica, PhD, is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in
New York City. He is a former Marine Corps officer, Vietnam veteran, longtime activist
for peace and social justice, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of
Veterans for Peace.
1. A “hootch” was a term used in Vietnam to denote a “safe place,” some sort of
enclosure usually in a base camp or firebase, where soldier/marines could relax,
write letters, listen to music, etc., and recover somewhat from the stresses of the
2. S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass., 1947.
Copyright, Truthout.
Posted by Thavam