On Christmas Eve in 1914, the carol "Silent Night" created a silent night in the fields of Flanders, Belgium.

On Christmas Eve in 1914, the carol “Silent Night” created a silent night in the fields of Flanders, Belgium.

World War I was still in its infancy, but it was already becoming a bloody slog marked by brutal trench warfare, with the two sides separated only by narrow killing fields known as “no man’s land.” Then a group of German soldiers decided to form a truce with their British enemies. They set up Christmas trees lit by candles and began singing carols such as “Stille Nacht,” the German “Silent Night.” Unfamiliar with the language but well-versed in the melody, the skeptical British at first shot at the trees and then began to crawl forward to listen, eventually joining in the singing.

According to the book, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” that was the beginning of a spontaneous but brief peace. On Christmas Day, British and German troops ventured into no man’s land and shared food and gifts. They retrieved and buried their dead. They even played a game of soccer won by the Germans, 3-2.

Threatened by their commanders with court martials, the two sides were back at war within a few days. The fighting would continue for four years, involving 65 million combatants and causing 8.5 million deaths.

• • •

This year in Baghdad, Christmas Eve was a silent night as well — at least for U.S. forces. Nine years after their arrival, the last of American troops are gone.

More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq since the beginning of the effort, and 4,500 died there. According to the statewide daily, 72 of them had Arkansas ties.

Arkansans served nobly and honorably in all branches of service. More than 9,000 Arkansas National Guardsmen, once derided as “weekend warriors,” left their homes and families to serve there, some more than once. Twenty gave their lives.

Objectively speaking, America’s goals in Operation Iraqi Freedom have been met. Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons are dead, never again to obtain weapons of mass destruction, let alone use them. Iraq is a democracy — a weak one, but a democracy nonetheless. It’s a fact that there have been no major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since the war began, though how much credit belongs to Operation Iraqi Freedom could be only an opinion.

And yet weary and distracted Americans are greeting the news of peace with a collective shrug. Dignitaries have made speeches and colors have been cased, but it’s not even a lead story. During World War II, Americans exulted when Hitler died and the Japanese surrendered. Now we just change the channel.

It’s reminiscent of a line in the 1936 poem, “The People, Yes,” by Carl Sandburg: “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” These days, he could have written, “Sometime we’ll win a war, and nobody will care.”

I think there are three reasons that Operation Iraqi Freedom has inspired such detachment.

One is that it has gone on so long — more than twice as long as World War II — and is ending not with a bang but with a whimper.

The second is that Americans understand that we may not know in our lifetimes if the war was the right thing to do. We do not know the unintended consequences that will arise or the historical forces that have been unleashed. This could be the dawn of a new age of democracy in the Middle East. Or not — not at all. World War I, after all, gave rise to Adolf Hitler.

The final reason is that while 1.5 million men and women in uniform and their loved ones were asked to sacrifice so much, for civilians it was little more than background Christmas music at a busy shopping mall. Certainly, we were respectful and appreciative to those who served. We clapped if we happened to witness a homecoming. But we didn’t even pay for the thing through higher taxes or war bonds. We just passed the costs — $800 billion so far — on to our children. We never even gave the conflict a real name. The Iraq War, I guess?

Sometimes war is necessary, but if so, it must be necessary for everyone. Never again should the United States enter into a major conflict without a formal congressional declaration, as the Constitution requires. Never again should so much be asked of combatants while so little is asked of civilians. At the very least, if some of us are going to fight, the rest of us should pay for it.

As for those who served, welcome home, God bless and thank you. I hope that your Christmas Eve was a silent and restful night.

• • •

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas.