Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Twelfth straight wartime Christmas for America

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WASHINGTON -- The 12th wartime Christmas in a row begins in a pediatrician's waiting room, to which we have come to have the doctor spray flu vaccine up my daughter's seven-year-old nose. I pick up a copy of Reader's Digest and turn to the section -- unchanged since I was seven, and probably long before -- called Humour in Uniform. Here is one of the anecdotes: When I invited an Army friend to a party, I offered to give him directions. He declined, saying, "I've invaded three countries in five years. I think I can find your house."

The next day, I am at the gigantic military complex on the Washington riverfront called Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, where Michelle Obama is helping Marines sort a few hundred Chinese-made "Toys For Tots" donated by service members for distribution to needy children.

A few dozen women and men in uniform are gawking and taking photographs of Mrs. Obama, and carols are being pumped like flu-mist through the warehouse. Among them is Stevie Wonder singing:

Someday at Christmas, men won't be boys./Playing with bombs like kids play with toys./Some day at Christmas, there'll be no wars. When we have learned what Christmas is for.

It is not a song one expects to hear at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.

I lean over the parapet of cartons that forms a DMZ between the soldiers and the media and ask a young woman in an Army uniform if she thinks that Stevie's wish ever will come true.

The soldier shakes her head. "For as long as I can remember, we've always been at war," she says.

At the on-base complex of shops and restaurants known as The Exchange, a man named Robert Penn is selling Washington Redskins scarves, caps and sweatshirts, plus a few accoutrements of the inferior and detestable Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants.

"Do you think there ever will be a Christmas when America is not at war?" I ask him.

"There would be chaos," Penn replies. "Everybody would be killing everybody. They'd say 'America ain't gonna do nothing. The UN ain't gonna do nothing.'

"There'll always be wars. They may not be ours, but we're gonna be involved in some way. That's our way. It's the U.S. way."

The 12th wartime Christmas in a row comes after a Presidential election campaign in which foreign conflicts -- like domestic gun control -- almost never were mentioned. About 60,000 American troops remain in theatre in Central Asia, and now a few hundred more are on their way to the Turkish-Syrian border. Whether they will march on to Damascus -- making it four invasions in 12 years for the next Humour in Uniform -- and whether they still will be in Syria 11 Christmases from now, no one can foresee. Barack Obama promises that the Afghanistan crusade will end in 2014.

What is clear is that "the U.S. way" runs deep in America's self-identity. Here is Franklin D. Roosevelt at Christmas 1943, broadcasting to the men of the Merchant Marine:

The steel walls of Hitler's and Hirohito's brutal empires will draw tight about their throats. Those who have been enslaved will be freed... There will be no slaves in our free world, nor will the aggressor arise again to enslave his fellow men. It will be peace even if we must resort to force to maintain that peace on earth and good will toward men.

Seventy years later, most of those men lie under hallowed soil in the nation's military graveyards, joined by millions of veterans of a dozen other exercises of American force.

On a mild Saturday, 20,000 of us come to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath upon their graves.

It is a haunting and powerful scene: crowds of citizens, lining up behind tractor-trailers laden with sprigs of evergreens from Maine, then dispersing to all corners of the vast Virginia meadow to honour each man and woman with a silent prayer of thanks.

I take two wreaths and place them at the graves of an army private named Hickey who served in (and survived) the First World War and an Air Force sergeant named Edgerton from the Vietnam era whose marker includes the words I LOVE YOU DAD.

At the plot of a young Army specialist named Matthew Ryan Leslie, a Maryland boy who came home from combat and died in his sleep at the age of 24, perhaps from an adverse interaction of medicines he was taking for post-traumatic stress, I meet Rick and Janet Szoch and one of their six children.

They explain that they are friends of Matthew Ryan Leslie's mother, and that the dozen pebbles that sit atop the stone were placed by that inconsolable mom.

Then Rick and Janet tell me that one of their five sons happened to be studying at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a deranged young man gunned down 32 innocents in an adjacent building, that another son recently graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and is learning to fly a carrier-based surveillance aircraft called the E-2 Hawkeye, and that Janet's sister lives -- by grim coincidence -- in the Sandy Hook section of Newtown, Conn.

Luke Szoch, age 10, is with them at Arlington, three years older than my own precious daughter and the new-winged angels of Sandy Hook School.

Rick and Janet Szoch tell me that they find no connection between a century of almost-constant overseas conflict and an epidemic of home-grown atrocity. "I think it's all the violence, the hand-held video games, it's the breakdown of the family," Janet surmises.

"Do you think that Luke will ever see a Christmas when America is at peace?" I ask the parents.

"I hope and pray that he does, but it's a service that we provide," Rick answers. "If not war, it would be in some charitable or honourable role. That's the role we play in the world. If we didn't, the world would be in trouble."

Around us, beyond us, in every direction, the wreath-layers kneel. "Everyone has been so polite today," Rick Szoch says, as we struggle to be merry at another wartime Christmas, with so many more to mourn.

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 A15

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