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NORAD's Christmas Eve Santa Claus tracker needs to end

The messy business of war doesn’t jibe with the Christmas spirit.
Photo illustration: A radar over a drawing of Santa Claus on his sleigh.
There's nothing jolly about the U.S. military.MSNBC / Getty Images

This Christmas Eve, the United States military will be busy “tracking” Santa Claus’ sleigh as it makes its reindeer-powered journey across American airspace. What’s today known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, has been doing so each holiday season for over 60 years. If I had my way, this year would be the last.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Scrooge or some kind of anti-Santa advocate prone to humbuggery, and I acknowledge that the story behind how NORAD’s predecessor started the tradition is cute: a typo in a newspaper for Sears’ Santa hotline was the number for a secret line of communication, originally designed to give the orders to launch a nuclear onslaught against and/or in response to the Soviet Union. Heartwarming stuff, folks.

It’s a gag that’s mostly taken for granted at this point, but every once in a while, it provides for comedy gold, like when then-President Donald Trump seemingly tried to prompt a crisis of faith in a 7-year-old who’d called to ask about the jolly old elf’s whereabouts. That was in 2018, during a shutdown, so that tells you how high a priority this whole practice has become.

No, I’d prefer we end the tradition because it’s about time that we decoupled St. Nick from the world’s most powerful military. American culture is saturated with a desire to associate the military with the saccharine. We get videos of soldiers returning home to their pets or children but never questions about why they were deployed for so long or what threat they were fighting; military jets flying over NFL games give us an injection of jingoist testosterone before more regionally focused battles of testosterone are played on the field; and we get the Netflix movie “Operation Christmas Drop,” a seasonally themed rom-com that cheerfully seeks to boost approval for America’s military base in Guam.

The messier business of war that goes on in the background doesn’t jibe with the Christmas spirit.

The messier business of war that goes on in the background doesn’t jibe with the Christmas spirit. Last week, The New York Times published a two-part investigation into the civilian casualties of American airstrikes. America’s increased reliance on aerial campaigns helps military officials avoid the political headaches that come from massive ground deployments, but that strategy contributes to the profound disconnect between the American public and the wars fought in its name.

While the image of war conducted via remote control inspired by the use of drones is more complicated in reality, especially for the controllers pulling the trigger, it remains part of the ongoing sanitization of military operations for public consumption. This is purposeful, with the Department of Defense serving as the sole adjudicator of the civilian deaths it has caused and the lone dispenser of accountability. This has resulted in an obscuration of the true toll that airstrikes take on the people living below.

As investigative journalist Azmat Khan wrote for The New York Times, the trove of assessments of 1,300 reports of civilian casualties she obtained shows that “despite the Pentagon’s highly codified system for examining civilian casualties, pledges of transparency and accountability have given way to opacity and impunity.”

“In only a handful of cases were the assessments made public,” Khan continued. “Not a single record provided includes a finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action. Fewer than a dozen condolence payments were made, even though many survivors were left with disabilities requiring expensive medical care. Documented efforts to identify root causes or lessons learned are rare.”

That’s quite the juxtaposition with the outward face of humble, cornfed Americana that the military assumes. Would you really think an organization that delivers toys to Micronesia and keeps the airspace clear for Santa Claus could be capable of malice or neglect? The answer is, of course, yes. But that’s not what the Pentagon would like you to believe, as it spends roughly $600 million per year on public relations contracts.

If the Air Force did accidentally target Santa, say during one of his stops outside the U.S., would we hear about it?

Earlier this month, a friend of mine mused on Twitter: “wonder if this will be the year NORAD finally kills Santa.” It’s a great joke, which prompts this hypothetical: If the Air Force did accidentally target Santa, say during one of his stops outside the U.S., would we hear about it? Would the resulting loss of life be deemed “credible”? Or would it just be another case investigated and tucked away in the Pentagon’s files?

The fact that we can’t say with any certainty what the Pentagon would do isn’t exactly comforting, and no matter how absurd the hypothetical, the military wrongly killing someone is more frequent an occurrence than its interest in the delivery of toys. So out of concern for Santa’s safety, out of exasperation at the Pentagon’s propaganda and because at Christmas you tell the truth, let’s have NORAD release Santa from its annual pantomimed surveillance.