If the Pope Called for a Christmas Ceasefire in Afghanistan, Could "Ceasefire!" Enter Mainstream Debate?
When the Israeli military sharply escalated its attacks on Gaza and threatened a ground invasion in late October, the demand for ceasefire entered mainstream public and media discourse in relation to the conflict immediately. The same thing happened when the Israeli military attacked Gaza in late 2008, as it did when the Israeli military invaded Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, the demand for ceasefire has never been able to maintain a strong foothold in mainstream public and media discourse. This is particularly striking now that the war has clearly entered its zombie, autopilot phase. Western leaders have largely given up trying to explain or justify why Western troops are still in Afghanistan and why they are still killing and being killed. Why are we there? What do we realistically hope to accomplish through further killing and dying? Who knows? Who cares? We're there today because we were there yesterday. We'll be there tomorrow because we were there today.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but the war in Afghanistan is alive.
A plausible explanation for why the demand for ceasefire in Afghanistan is not widely raised on the Western powers is precisely because it is the big Western powers who are choosing to continue the war. If Israel were doing in Afghanistan what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan, many people, institutions and governments around the world would be saying, "Ceasefire!" But because it's the U.S. running the show, many people, institutions and governments shrug their shoulders. It's the U.S. - what can you do? But if people around the world were raising the demand, people in the U.S. would hear it, and they would start raising the demand too. Afghans are raising the demand, but it's hard for people in the U.S. to hear what Afghans are saying, if their voices aren't echoed by prominent voices in the West.
What could drive the demand for ceasefire into mainstream public discourse in the West, and enable it to stay there?
What if Pope Benedict XVI called on Western leaders to announce an offensive ceasefire for Christmas? Might that move the demand for ceasefire into mainstream Western public discourse?
In early December 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for a "Christmas Truce" in the First World War. Leaders on all sides were forced to respond to the Pope's call. No formal truce was agreed, but across the trenches of the Western Front many soldiers on all sides observed the Christmas Truce the Pope had called for.
It's wonderful that this movie and song exist to educate people about the Christmas Truce of 1914. But both left out an important part of the story, which is the Pope's call that preceded the Christmas Truce.
This is not to detract at all from the bravery, initiative, and moral clarity of the soldiers who brought about the Christmas Truce. But a key part of knowing history is understanding how decisive acts were not merely spontaneous but were spurred by intentional acts of agitation.
Rosa Parks was not just some random woman who was too tired to give up her seat on the bus. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and had been chosen by her NAACP colleagues to act as the catalyst of a moral confrontation. She later wrote, "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true...the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was spurred by the Pope's moral agitation. And that sort of moral agitation is just the sort of thing that moral leaders are supposed to do.
Today the war in Afghanistan continues killing Americans and Afghans for no reason. If Pope Benedict XVI - the current Pope - called on Western leaders to announce an offensive ceasefire in Afghanistan for the Christmas holiday, mainstream media would report it and Western leaders would have to respond. If we could stop the war for one day, it would set an important precedent, making it easier to achieve a lasting ceasefire and an end to the war.
Pope Benedict XVI has recently inaugurated the use of a Twitter account. The Pope already has a million followers on Twitter. What if people Tweeted the Pope, urging him to call on Western leaders to announce an offensive ceasefire for Christmas?
The Pope is obviously the most prominent and influential Western religious leader - someone whose actions other religious leaders pay attention to - and the historical precedent of his predecessor's call for a ceasefire in 1914 creates a specific and compelling context for his action. If Pope Benedict calls for a ceasefire in Afghanistan, other Western leaders will join his call, and Western governments with troops in Afghanistan will have to respond.
Upon becoming Pope in 2005, Benedict said:
"I wanted to be called Benedict XVI in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences. Treading in his footsteps, I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples, since I am profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is first and foremost a gift of God, a precious but unfortunately fragile gift to pray for, safeguard and build up, day after day, with the help of all."
"Treading in his footsteps": that's exactly the leadership that is needed now. Urge the Pope to call for a Christmas ceasefire in Afghanistan.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.