24 December 2013

Playing for Peace on Christmas Eve

So this is Christmas: Fort McAllister, Georgia, the Confederate fort that marked the end point of General William Tecumseh Sherman's epic, two-month scramble from Atlanta to the Atlantic--the "March to the Sea" that gutted the Confederacy, ensured Abraham Lincoln's re-election, and gave to humanity the phrase, "War is Hell."

So this is Christmas--or almost so: a short battle raged for fifteen minutes on the 13th of December, 1864. Thirty men died, including twelve of the fort's defenders. Over 200 were injured (the Confederates had laced the woods with land mines. One hundred ninety-five of the fort's defenders were taken prisoner. When the battle was over, a Union soldier raced to the ramparts and waved the Stars & Stripes, informing the U.S. Navy gunboats that the fort had fallen. By water and by land the way was now open to Savannah. Confederate forces quickly, humanely--abandoned the city and slipped into the swamps of South Carolina. Sherman entered the city on December 21 and sent a message to President Lincoln, presenting him the city as "a Christmas present."

So this is Christmas: four boys advance on the fort, 149 years after Sherman's forces did. They advance at a run--double-time as Sherman might have ordered. But there is no order in their assault. One advances through the open gate, the others leap into the moat, slide through the palisades, and climb the sandy walls.  "One, two, three...not it!" one of them calls. A chorus of "not it" replies, and a game of hide-and-seek commences.  A fort is a great place to play hide-and-seek.

So this is Christmas: the prophet Isaiah thunders: 
"Every warrior's boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end" (9. 5-7)
I find myself drawn to this kingdom--this government--where swords are used only as plowshares, spears become pruning hooks (2.4); where "the wolf will live with the lamb" and "the young child will put its hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain" (11.6-9). 

But I am not living in the Era of Isaiah, nor is it 1864. I circumambulate the fort, walking between the rampart walls and the river, trying to imagine the sight of ironclads in the water, tuning my ears to the echoes of guns. 

My thoughts are invaded from time to time by calls from the battlements, "Dad?" 

"I'm over here," I call back. 

"Uncle JD?" 

"Don't worry."

So this is Christmas: I think of Isaiah again, and I grin. I think of a new poem:
The field of glorious battle will become a ground of hilarious fun
    Your ramparts will become jungle gyms
Shouts will sound from children who use your cannon as see-saws
    Your artillery shells will roll like bowling balls
In the place where your ancestors were killed and imprisoned
    Your sons will hide and seek, your daughters will run and shout

So this is Christmas: a time when the Prince of Peace haunts the grounds of war.

So this is Christmas: war is over--at least here in Georgia it is.

And this Christmas Eve, in a prayer for peace, I long for boys to play in Afghanistan and Syria and in South Sudan the way I have seen my sons and my nephews play here.

So this is Christmas.