Christmas is never more difficult or emotional than during wartime when the fate of many loved ones hangs like a lonely, forlorn ornament on a tree whose branches are shaken daily by violence. It is at this time that we who do not have to experience the ceaseless worry of having a son or daughter or husband or wife in harm’s way should not only recognize our good fortune but also understand our obligation to those who do.
Whatever our traditional celebration, it should be undertaken with the utmost sensitivity to the fact several thousand young Americans are not coming home this year or ever and that many more face that prospect in the days to come. It matters not at all that this is a path they have taken of their own free will or that we disagree with the policies that put them there. We owe them far more than they owe us for they really are just the instrument of our collective desire under a democratic process. We put them there with our electoral choices and they’ve gone without hesitation.
With this in mind, it is incredible to note that Time Magazine’s eagerly awaited choice for Person of the Year is us, a reflection of our own image as we gaze at the cover once adorned yearly with the pictures of the world’s leading figures, including at one time, Adolf Hitler. This, of course, makes us remember the observation of Pogo, cartoonist Walt Kelley’s sage little possum, that “We have met the enemy and they is us.” How true. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in this mess where even those charged with carrying out a clearly misguided attempt at imposing our political culture concede that it is a cause fast slipping from our grasp — that the destruction in Iraq may not match the ultimate damage to our national psyche and our place in history as a country that fervently honors justice under the guidance of a supreme being whatever he is called.
Wouldn’t the news magazine have done much better selecting a representative of our armed services — perhaps one from each — as persons of the year? Or might it not have been more appropriate to choose one of those mothers whose son or daughter has given his or her life in pursuit of our objectives. If the magazine wanted to broaden that honor, it could have simply adorned the cover with a gold star symbolizing the sacrifice so many families have made. And while the editors were at it, they might have made it clear they were also remembering all the innocent civilians in the war zone who were victims of sectarian violence for which we must accept a measure of responsibility.
It wouldn’t be the first time the weekly newsmagazine used a symbol rather than an actual person or persons. Its editors once chose the computer as the person of the year, a decision that in hindsight probably wasn’t all that bad considering how close to assuming most of our human chores these objects have come.
As a young man during World War II, I can remember the abbreviated holiday season when almost every other window in my small Midwest city displayed a star of either service blue or the tragic gold. Every year during the four that Americans were engaged in the “last good war” more and more of the blue stars changed to the ones indicating the supreme sacrifice. There was a solemnity about our celebrating that reflected the understanding that for many of our neighbors Christmas would never be the same again. We approached the day realizing the casualty lists posted in our newspapers almost daily required less commercialism and more prayer if the fathers and brothers and uncles of our closest friends were to survive.
As wars go, one cynically could cite the fact the casualty tolls are nowhere near those of other conflicts despite the longevity of the fight as a reason to be thankful and less concerned. Wrong. One dead or maimed young man or woman is too many and should serve as a constant reminder of the cost of such affairs. The magnificently observant correspondent Ernie Pyle once wrote that war produces dead men in such monotony one begins to resent them as they pile up in the fields and hedge rows and burned-out cities.
Many Americans have begun to reflect that kind of despair as the reports of atrocities and the body counts mount daily. It is understandable. But that resentment should not attach itself to those returning home as it did in Vietnam. There may never be peace on Earth but they are our best hope.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.