*Note: This essay was published in the Los Angeles Times print edition on December 24, 2018, under the title “If only in their dreams.” It can also be found online here.
Bing Crosby will forever remind me of a giant Latino sergeant I served with in the Army on my first deployment to Iraq in 2003. A full head taller than me, his huge right hand resembled a meat cleaver when he saluted. Tough? Sure, but he was equal parts genial, and his Grand Canyonesque grin put us all at ease. And there was this quirk: In December, he loved to play the original version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” over and over, and over. He got more than one soldier to cry.
It was a twisted, holiday version of the age-old game of Say Uncle. Not suitable for those without a steady soul, sometimes it was hard to take. Eventually, most broke. He had weaponized Bing Crosby’s voice and Kim Gannon’s lyrics.
Of course, we weren’t the first soldiers to hear a Crosby tune abroad. Seventy-five years ago this Christmas, “I’ll Be Home” was first heard by American troops serving in World War II around the globe. Crosby had recorded the song for Decca Records on Oct. 4, 1943, accompanied by the John Scott Trotter Orchestra. It spent 11 weeks on the charts and reached No. 3.
The small song packs a powerful punch. It contains a mere 39 words, five or less per line. The entire song lasts less than three minutes. “Christmas” is repeated three times to reinforce the holiday theme. The writing’s sparse simplicity still stuns listeners.
Gannon wrote the song as if from the hand of a deployed soldier sending a letter home: “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me.”
It acknowledges the painful privilege that often defines military service — longing for home, against the uncertainty of life in a war zone. And when the song closes with Crosby’s captivating voice — “If only in my dreams” — reality sets in: if only.
For soldiers, the worst part is simply not knowing. Fifteen years ago, in the Iraq War, we were given so many different dates. When we arrived in early April 2003, we thought we’d be home by October. Then it was November. Then early December. That’s when the dread sank in. We weren’t going home anytime soon.
But that’s a soldier’s life. And in just a few lines, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Crosby’s croon captures the essence of that pain. And sometimes, in song, hard truth beats soft fiction, which might explain why a major magazine poll in 1945 had GIs voting Crosby the one person that had done the most for their morale while serving overseas.
Not everyone was a fan. Our British allies banned the song from BBC airwaves under a policy that excluded material considered too gauzy or sentimental. They thought it might hurt troop morale. Maybe the BBC should have listened to their own prime minister, who, during the war, famously pointed out that the British people were more resilient than “sugar candy.”
That same resilience persists on the front lines today, and it’s why one thing is certain this holiday season: There’s some soldier out there with my old sergeant’s sensibilities. In 2018, around 250,000 Americans will spend Christmas in a foxhole, on a bunk or aboard a ship, swaddled in some sort of camouflage. I’m sure a good number of them will be listening to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on repeat.
And yes, my sergeant got me to cry in Iraq. It took a while, but the tears came. I didn’t make it home that Christmas, and I knew so many who, Christmas aside, would never make it home at all.