National Geographic : 2005 Nov
their collections to find previously unpublished material. And my indefatigable guides scoured antique shops with me to salvage letters that might eventually have been thrown away. The letters were breathtaking. We uncovered riveting accounts of the fighting at Verdun, Leningrad, Berlin, Pusan, Saigon, Sarajevo, and many other cities whose names are now synony mous with ferocious battles and sieges. What makes the letters so powerful is not only the history they record but also the common humanity they reveal. The homesickness felt by Civil War soldiers who thanked their sweethearts for sending them "likenesses" (their word for photographs) was echoed in the letter from Mi chael Kaiser, a German peacekeeper who served in the Balkans in 2000. The anguish felt by a Hungarian mother named Anna Koppich who had lost her son in World War II was as un bearable as the despair experienced by an Amer ican woman, Gloria Caldas, after her son, Ernie, was killed in Iraq in 2003. The depth of convic tion articulated by a young Jewish soldier named Joseph Portnoy in 1945 was as heartfelt as the faith of Muslim Turkish troops at the battle for Gallipoli. And when I met Chuck Theusch, who corresponds with Vietnamese veterans, I thought of the British and German soldiers who spon taneously stopped fighting on Christmas Eve 1914. Theusch and the Vietnamese now build libraries together in the country where they once faced each other in battle. Erase the names, dates, and geographical ref erences in these letters, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the nationalities of the writers. Their words transcend bound aries, offering insights that are timeless and uni versal. They reflect the full range of emotions, made more vibrant and poignant through the prism of warfare. Both a warning and an inspi ration, the letters remind us of our capacity for 84 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * NOVEMBER 2005 violence-and of our potential for compassion. They're a searing reminder as well of the pro found and often lasting effects of war on every individual caught in its grasp. Perhaps what struck me the most was that many of these letters were written at all. Some are private admissions of fear or loneliness. Others are graphic descriptions of combat that evaded the censors. A British prisoner of war named Clifton Johnson-Hill even risked his life to write a series of short messages to his wife while he was held captive by the Japanese during World War II. Had he been found with the letters, which detailed the brutality of prison life, he could have been tortured or exe cuted. Such letters are a testament to the desire among those directly affected by war to ensure that the sacrifices it imposes, and the trauma it inflicts on troops and civilians alike, are never forgotten. Several months after I spoke with Ammar, a Kuwaiti scholar showed me a letter written by a soldier to his mother during the gulf war. "I've never forgotten your face.... How much have you suffered and are still suffering for years. Please have mercy on me.... Had it been in your hands you would have taken me out of hell." The soldier was an Iraqi, and the letter, found on his body, was his last message home.