War can create its own ephemeral beauty

十二月 23, 2005

War can be beautiful. It makes Christmas trees shine brighter.

It makes soldiers pray with more fervour, lovers love with more passion.

Operatic voices sound more splendid, familiar tunes are more stirring. Men care more about their wives, their friends, their families. Bottled-up emotions are set free as well as primal instincts and high moral values.

The more vicious, futile and nonsensical a war, the better. Christian Carion's film about the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches proves that war can bring out the best in men, thereby creating its own ephemeral beauty.

Merry Christmas is an Anglo-French-Belgian-German-Romanian co-production and, to be clear, it does not intend to glorify war. Indeed, the very choice of focusing on an unauthorised truce, initiated by the common soldier, epitomises its anti-war credentials. Tommy and Fritz defy their superiors in an act of utter humanity. They are able to show kindness in the brutish wilderness of war, they show mercy, they are human beings.

The generals, the bishops and the German prince are not. They come down hard on our French, Scottish and German heroes, though the film fails to make clear that, in fact, not many were punished because the truce in 1914 was so widespread. In labouring the theme of grassroot fraternising with the enemy, Merry Christmas resurrects the liberal internationalist notion that if only "the people" were consulted, there would be no more wars.

In a similar vein, the film tells us that if soldiers from all sides meet and play football between the trenches, the myth of the evil "other" who eats babies for breakfast is shattered. Men go to war because of how they construct the difference of "others", of how they perceive, picture and imagine the enemy. In 1914, the propaganda machineries were not as well organised as in later years, but the principle of creating "otherness" and "sameness" are all too apparent.

The beauty or attraction of war is that the dull routine of everyday life is broken (something TV channels now try to recreate by sending minor celebrities into the jungle). While the boisterous enthusiasm of "going to war" may fade quickly, opportunities to shine remain. In most war films, this is about doing something heroic.

In Merry Christmas , however, soldiers not only show bravery in fighting the enemy; they also discover a more enticing, more beautiful opportunity lurking underneath the mud and the blood of the trenches. It is the opportunity to overcome hatred, to stretch out your hand to the enemy, to defeat the dullness of war. The meaning of Christmas is magnified, life reaches a higher level of intensity. The two German opera singers who miraculously end up in the trenches give the performances of their lives in front of an enthused Scottish-German-French crowd. It is utterly cold and surreal, but so much better than the Berlin opera. The Scottish parish priest celebrates his most important service ever in no man's land, and for this he is later demoted by his godless bishop.

Is there a better opportunity to show one's true religious mettle? Shouldn't the singers and the priest be eternally grateful to those who started the war? In the end, the extremes of war fascinate us. This is why the entertainment industry produces war movies. And this is why Merry Christmas cannot deplore war without showing how beautiful it can be.

Peter Busch is a lecturer in the department of war studies at King's College London.

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