WASHINGTON — AT CHRISTMAS, halfway around the world is farther away from home than it is the rest of the year. Soldiers know this better than anybody else.
In Saudi Arabia today, they feel it even though today's troops got there in hours instead of the weeks it took their elders to cross the oceans during World Wars I and II and Korea. Whether they are as homesick as those who sat out earlier Christmases in New Guinea's 100 percent humidity or North Korea's zero temperature is hard to say. Veterans of each war tend to think they had it harder than the ones who came after. Each new generation of soldiers has conveniences earlier servicemen never knew, intended to make the distances seem shorter.
Today there are air-mailed cassettes, with voices from home. During World War II there was V-mail, those thin blue folded blanks that made both envelope and writing paper. During the Civil War troops wrote much longer letters, describing their battles in detail that would never have survived the World War II censor.
In the Forties, there were no yellow ribbons back home like the ones that sprouted on America's trees and porches the moment this year's deployment began. Instead there were millions of little red-white-and-blue banners, with blue stars to represent men and women in uniform, and gold for those who died in service. Gold-star mothers: a term, a concept, an honor that seems as remote as Eniwetok today.
Most Americans are like me, lucky not to have spent a Christmas getting shot at. Of my seven Christmases away from home, only one was in service, 8,000 miles away but blessedly between wars. Another was under hairier circumstances, in Vietnam, but there I was reporting, not fighting.
We were at a map coordinate called Viem Dong, not far south of Danang. There Bravo Company of the 9th Marines was dug into the dunes, patrolling day and night to fend off Viet Cong intrusions. On the highest dune was a little decorated evergreen, sent by the parents of one of Bravo's Marines killed a month earlier.
Christmas eve, eight Marines and one reporter decided to pick their way through rings of barbed wire to a leper colony half a mile away, to do something American troops abroad traditionally do, regardless of their own situation. Unarmed, they went to play Santa Claus to those less fortunate than themselves.
Theoretically, such good deeds make soldiers feel better. But not always.
A 19-year-old Marine submitted to being glued with first-aid cotton to make a beard and whiskers. Five Marines carried gifts -- C-ration goodies, medical supplies and a few rubber balls. I was surprised by the sudden fierceness with which sick children fought over them.
There was no electricity at the leprosarium, so the medical corpsman with us examined one man's eyes by candle light. The patient's face was deeply pockmarked, his nose just a dent in his face. Except for the nurses, all the Vietnamese in the open hall looked that way, some better, some worse. The advanced cases were shut away in another building, beyond cheering.
When the gifts were gone and the doc had passed out all his pills and ointments, knowing how useless they were, we walked back in the darkness. Spaced out as if on combat patrol, we came through the wire under the guns of two M-48 tanks hull down behind the dunes.
As the company settled into its holes, a Maryland boy shouted into the night, ''OK, don't give me that ho-ho-ho stuff, fat boy. I said halt!'' The troops around him laughed, then quieted.
In the captain's sandbag bunker, six of us sat and drank PX vodka out of C-ration cups, and talked. We discussed Washington's defense policy, Marine training and the merits of the new M-14 rifle compared to the old M-1. Nobody talked about girls, or his family. The night was silent; no distant artillery or close-up machine-gun chatter. Nobody marked the moment when midnight came. As the group broke up, everybody said ''Merry Christmas,'' but there were no toasts, and very little laughter.
That was 25 years ago at Viem Dong, but it could have been 213 years ago at Valley Forge, 127 years ago along the Rappahannock, 73 years ago in the trenches of France, 48 years ago on Guadalcanal, 40 years ago in the hills above Pusan. It could be tomorrow night, in different sand dunes by a different sea.
Today jets have replaced mules and satellites function as guiding stars, but no invention can bridge the distance to home.