A real war on Christmas

Happy Holidays, fellow Americans.

It’s that time of year when we usually start hearing about the War on Christmas, how a bunch of tree hugging atheists and parent teacher politburo members are doing their best to undermine God and Jesus and the like. Stephen Colbert has made it somewhat of a staple for his show.

And so I’ve gone two paragraphs without mentioning the word Iraq, mainly because I want people to read this post, and I’m very aware that the war in Iraq is something that most Americans would prefer to forget, to pretend never happened, especially during a season when we’re better off thinking of such things as love and peace and joy.

But the Christian minority in Iraq is facing an actual war on Christmas–not just one that prevents them from saying “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays.” It means death threats and church bombings and canceled masses. A war that has, over the past six years, decimated the Christian community in Iraq. (For details, here’s my Washington Post story today; and/or, take a look at Timothy William’s New York Times piece, also published today, which adds some very nice color.)

I don’t want to get preachy or up on my high horse–which, for its nice view of the moral landscape, can be pretty obnoxious. That being said, while reporting this story, something quite strange happened.

The scene: interviewing an Iraqi priest at the Virgin Mary church in downtown Baghdad. The priest is describing the threats against his parish, lamenting the fact that he can no longer celebrate Christmas like in the old days(read:before the U.S. invasion.) He tells me that Christians are “living like rats.”

I ask him for his name.

“I’m not going to give your kind my name,” he says.

“You mean journalists?”

“No, I mean Americans.”

He then, without raising his voice, angrily told me what he thought of America’s war in Iraq. Of George W. Bush. Of weapons of mass destruction. Of the terror of living like a rat.

“How could you have done this,” he said, “You have know idea of the suffering you have caused.”

“I know, I know,” I said.

“No, no you don’t know.”

At that moment, for whatever reason–perhaps because he was a priest, in priest’s garb, and was thus somewhat familiar to me; perhaps because I haven’t been yelled at by a priest since high school; perhaps because my feelings about the war, though I pretend otherwise, are often quite raw; perhaps because what he was saying triggered memories on things I’ve reported on and felt…Well, I felt tears in my eyes.

Totally unexpected, totally against the typical hard boiled, cynical, image I like to present to the world at large.

It was an awkward moment, to say the least.

Me, an American. I wasn’t  a person, but a symbol–I represented something to the priest that triggered something dark and painful inside him,a boiling over of emotion, an outlet for his own frustrations and anger and disappointments.

For a few moments, the intellectual distance that I usually try to keep between what I write about here and what I feel broke down.

When that distance collapses, all the talk of success and winning in Iraq and policy and credibility and the casual reciting of dry civilian death tolls is exposed for what it is. That kind of talk–perfect for policy briefs and think tank discussions and op-ed pages– becomes empty and hollow and almost obscene.

Here was man, I told myself, who had loved Christmas, loved his role celebrating this time of year, loved his congregation–who had associated Christmas with all the good things about humanity–who was now fearing for his life and the lives of others. A dude who had seen his wife of life wrecked.

The priest offered me coffee and a piece of candy. I left fifteen minutes later.

Later, part of me was sort of pissed at the priest, too. Couldn’t he see that I wasn’t to blame? Not my fault! Hell, I always thought the war was a bad idea…I voted for Nader…I try to bring attention to what’s happening here…I’m more than my just my passport…and what happened to forgiveness…. I suppose I was pissed at him, though, for making me feel. He was angry at me, so I responded with anger in kind.

This morning, a bomb, hidden in a handcart,  exploded outside a historic church in the city of Mosul, killing two.


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15 Responses to A real war on Christmas

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A real war on Christmas - Michael Hastings - The Hastings Report - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. Lewis DVorkin says:


    A powerful experience that has given me much pause. Thank you for sharing this on True/Slant. I know this will be on my mind for the next few days, if not longer, especially as I see all the American troops on TV sending wishes to their family members.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Lewis, thanks very much for the kind words. On the silver lining side, there is a true resilience here, despite all the trauma.

      And we’ll be having a nice Christmas party as well tomorrow. (We have both a Christmas tree, and a flag for the Shiite holiday of Ashura.)


  3. libtree09 says:

    A truth revealed in such a manner should bring sadness, guilt and yes, anger. I wonder however if that anger was tinged with frustration.

    The actions of our country during Bush/Cheney left me shocked, angry and shamed.

    I will remember this story and think of how a crusade can fold onto itself and turn the “good guys” into the “evil doers”.

    I and all of us here that follow you wish you a happy Christmas and hope that you will continue to be a good example of a true American.

  4. misterb says:

    I hope Bill O’Reilly reads this, perhaps he will gain a little perspective. What can we do for Iraq in addition to getting out of there?

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Good question. Going forward, it remains unclear what kind of relationship we’ll have with Iraq. Certainly, a military partnership between the two countries, and my guess is we’ll be sending lots of foreign aid this way for years. We’ve also started to take in many more Iraqi refugees.

      I don’t think we’re ever going to apologize however, though I think we have much to apologize for. (But, as Colbert said, reality has a liberal bias…So maybe my latte drinking self is missing something…)

  5. vickielyna says:


    You are compassionate journalist who bring real intelligence to your work.

    Buy allowning the Priest to express his pain, sorrow and grief (dispite what it triggered in you). You allow this man the dignity of being really heard.

    That is powerful in peace let alone in war. At a time when people are issolated in there grief and longing, it is especially nessary when called upon to listen. Painful, anger provoking certianly but necessary all the same.

    There isn’t anything you could do about the senceless killing or threat of killing of christains. But you could and did hear out one lone man in his hour of need. Bravo!

    And by doing so showed the true colors of the person you are. This held you in good sted and by token the American’s the Priest so regaled.

  6. vickielyna says:

    Religious persecution is another type of war that ttears at the fabric of any community. It is especially hard at a time of celebration. My heart go out to the people of Irag and all those who find themselves persecuted on the basis of religion.

  7. Caitlin Kelly says:

    Thanks for being so honest with the priest and us and with yourself. We do ourselves and the people we often interview a disservice by not,when appropriate, revealing that our hearts are as engaged as our intellects. This is especiallly important when you are overseas and de facto representing both journalism but the U.S. That’s a real responsibility and one not to be taken lightly, which you appreciate.

  8. Jeff McMahon says:

    Thank you for this powerful piece, Michael, which has so many virtues: putting the domestic war on Christmas in perspective, reminding us of the harms of real war and of the radical disproportion of harm to necessity in Iraq. Quite right that Americans have gotten numb to news from Iraq, and so the language often seems inadequate to reawaken the pain and the shame, but look, you’ve done it.

    There’s a moment of irony here, for me, near the end: “Not my fault! Hell, I always thought the war was a bad idea…I voted for Nader…”

    In 2000 I was deeply engaged in argument with Nader supporters, trying to get them to shift their votes to Gore, not because Gore was perfect (although he was much better than the Greens made him out to be), but because we all needed to band together to prevent Bush. The fate of Iraq was a major point in that debate. We all knew Bush just needed an excuse to destroy that country. Nader supporters knew. So they may not have voted for Bush, but they also didn’t vote to prevent him. I do think there’s a particular responsibility that Nader supporters bear in this mess, for which they all ought to experience a reckoning like the one you’ve described to us, a moment with your unnamed priest. Of course, that’s also true of all Americans. There is always more we all could have done.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Jeff, thanks very much for reading, I appreciate it.

      We’ll probably have to agree to disagree on Nader, but I think it’s a tough case to make that he and the Naderites should share in the blame here. We’re getting into alternative history scenarios,with the question: would Al Gore have invaded Iraq? We don’t know, really. Maybe. Maybe not.

      What we do know is this: 1) The official U.S. policy of regime change in Iraq was instituted under Bill Clinton, and 2) The Democractic Party leadership supported the Iraq war whole heartedly–John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman(who was Gore’s VP choice back then, yikes…) Evan Bayh, and the rest of them. 3) Now, under a new Democratic president, Mr. Obama, we’ve gone ahead and majorly escalated the war in Afghanistan when there were other less costly(and in my opinion smarter) alternatives to pursue.

      None of the above gives me too much faith that Gore would have been able to resist the political winds after 9-11 and stand up to the liberal hawks (who would have populated his administration) and the neocons, all who would’ve still been clamoring to go after Saddam.

      Perhaps one could blame the Democrats for not voting for Nader?

      Thanks again for stopping by, and all the best.

      • Jeff McMahon says:

        Great points, Michael, but… that little bit of sleight of hand in which George W. Bush said “Hey, look over there!” and then, while we were distracted, replaced the Osama bin Laden piece on the chessboard with the Saddam Hussein piece… it’s just too difficult to imagine that personally-motivated move was so inevitable it would have happened under any other party or president. We ought not to hold onto the now deeply discredited Bush-era fantasy that attacking Iraq was a response to being attacked by Al Queda. 9/11 was hijacked, and it took the mind of a Bush to do that. Remember the entire world of facts and doubts and opposition Bush had to ignore to attack anyway? That required a unique mind. Unique in the worst way. I don’t think Nader was a serious candidate, but I don’t want to hijack this sensitive, heartfelt, and important post with yellowing arguments from what might have been at the turn of the century. Keep up the good work, and thank you for sharing it with us.

  9. Liz Cook says:

    Thank you for posting this poignant reminder of the realities of Christmas in Iraq. Here in DC the “war on Christmas” can often mean a politically correct agenda…happy holidays vs merry Christmas (http://www.sphere.com/the-point/article/war-on-christmas-comes-under-attack/19286654).

    Thank you for sharing your experience and allowing us to look beyond ourselves.

  10. jaimecolemansc says:

    Wow. The topic of Christians in Iraq, let alone the Christian church there, isn’t something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Thank you for this piece, Michael. Merry Christmas.

  11. Pingback: Christmas Day reads « jay.blog

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