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War Letters
NOVEMBER 2005
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War Letters @ National Geographic Magazine
By Andrew Carroll
Photographs by Maggie Steber
Decades of correspondence between soldiers and their loved ones back home offers a poignant view of war.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

For years I traveled throughout the U.S. speaking with veterans, and time after time I heard the same appeal: Seek out letters by veterans from different nations. At the very least, they said, foreign war letters would offer a fresh perspective on familiar battles and historic events.
 
Before embarking on my global search, anti-American protests flared up around the world because of the war in Iraq. I braced myself for the possibility that in such a contentious atmosphere few people would be willing to assist me, and I would return empty-handed.
 
The response, in fact, was overwhelming. In every country people could not have been more hospitable or generous. Veterans shared letters they had not shown to their own families in years—if at all. Archivists spent days sifting through stacks of correspondence deep within their collections to find previously unpublished material.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 synonymous 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 Michael 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 unbearable as the despair experienced by an American woman, Gloria Caldas (above), after her son, Ernie, was killed in Iraq in 2003. The depth of conviction 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 spontaneously 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 references in these letters, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the nationalities of the writers. Their words transcend boundaries, offering insights that are timeless and universal. They reflect the full range of emotions, made more vibrant and poignant through the prism of warfare. Both a warning and an inspiration, the letters remind us of our capacity for violence—and of our potential for compassion. They're a searing reminder as well of the profound and often lasting effects of war on every individual caught in its grasp.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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