Defeated Cossacks taunt the pompous sultan of the Ottoman Empire. A black corporal beseeches Abraham Lincoln to ensure that his regiment receives proper payment for performing their duties. Mohandas Gandhi urges Adolf Hitler to turn back the tide of war. A suicide bomber in Iraq explains his simple motivation to his family. This poignant collection offers a nuanced and moving look at the act of armed conflict. Each of these 30 remarkable letters sheds light on what it means for us to take up arms against one another and record a piece of that terrible deed. They encapsulate the full experience of battle, from feats of courage and sacrifice to the grief that follows acts of violence, ultimately affirming the power of the written word.
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THERE'S NO HOPE IN WAR
Kurt Vonnegut to the Draft Board
28 November 1967
For as long as there have been wars, there have been conscientious objectors - people who refuse to fight in the military on principle - and the earliest on record dates back to the year 295, when Maximilian of Tebessa declined to enlist in the Roman Army. He was swiftly beheaded. Between the years 1965 and 1970, approximately 160,000 people attempted to abstain from military service in relation to the Vietnam War, including, in 1967, Mark Vonnegut, son of celebrated novelist Kurt Vonnegut. As Mark attempted to remove himself from proceedings through the standard channels, his father decided to strengthen Mark's chances by writing to the Draft Board.
November 28, 1967
To Draft Board #1,
My son Mark Vonnegut is registered with you. He is now in the process of requesting classification as a conscientious objector. I thoroughly approve of what he is doing. It is in keeping with the way I have raised him. All his life he has learned hatred for killing from me.
I was a volunteer in the Second World War. I was an infantry scout, saw plenty of action, was finally captured and served about six months as a prisoner of war in Germany. I have a Purple Heart. I was honorably discharged. I am entitled, it seems to me, to pass on to my son my opinion of killing. I don't even hunt or fish any more. I have some guns which I inherited, but they are covered with rust.
This attitude toward killing is a matter between my God and me. I do not participate much in organized religion. I have read the Bible a lot. I preach, after a fashion. I write books which express my disgust for people who find it easy and reasonable to kill.
We say grace at meals, taking turns. Every member of my family has been called upon often to thank God for blessings which have been ours. What Mark is doing now is in the service of God, Whose Son was exceedingly un-warlike.
There isn't a grain of cowardice in this. Mark is a strong, courageous young man. What he is doing requires more guts than I ever had-and more decency.
My family has been in this country for five generations now. My ancestors came here to escape the militaristic madness and tyranny of Europe, and to gain the freedom to answer the dictates of their own consciences. They and their descendents have been good citizens and proud to be Americans. Mark is proud to be an American, and, in his father's opinion, he is being an absolutely first-rate citizen now.
He will not hate.
He will not kill.
There's no hope in that. There's no hope in war.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I SHALL DIE WITH MY HEAD HELD HIGH
Blanca Brissac Vázquez to her son, Enrique
5 August 1939
Beginning in July 1936, the Spanish Civil War lasted for two years and eight months and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths; the dissolution of the country's democratic government, the Second Spanish Republic; and, in its place, the installation of a military dictatorship headed by Francisco Franco that lasted until his death in 1975. Executions were commonplace during the initial conflict, and they continued for some time afterwards, too, as Franco's forces exerted their authority and removed potential troublemakers. It was during this period of cleansing, weeks after the war ended, that thirteen young women later known as las Trece Rosas (the Thirteen Roses) - most of whom were members of the Unified Socialist Youth - were arrested and sentenced to death. They were executed by firing squad on the morning of 5 August 1939. Hours before they took their last breath, one of the Roses, twenty-nine-year-old Blanca Brissac Vázquez, wrote to her son.
My dear, my precious son,
I'm thinking of you in my last moments. I only think of my darling boy, who is now a young man, and knows to be as honourable as his parents were. Forgive me, my son, if I ever did wrong by you. Forget that, son, do not remember me like that, as you know how distressed it makes me.
I will die with my head held high. Just be good: you know that better than anyone, dear Quique.
All I ask of you is to be good, very good, always. Love everybody and do not hold grudges against those who sentenced your parents to death, not ever. Good people never hold grudges and you must be a good, hardworking man. Follow the example of your Papa. Won't you promise me that, my dear son, in my last moments? Stay with my beloved Cuca and always be a son to her and my sisters. Take care of them when they grow old. Make it your duty when you become a man. I won't say any more. Your father and I face death defiantly. If your father has confessed and taken communion, I am not aware, as I won't see him again until I face the firing squad. I myself have confessed.
Enrique, never forget the memory of your parents. Go to communion, well prepared, with a proper foundation of religion, as I was taught to do. I would keep writing to you to the very last moment, but I must say goodbye. My dearest son, until we meet again. My love for all eternity.
THE HISTORY OF A BATTLE
Duke of Wellington to John Wilson Croker
8 August 1815
On 18 June 1815, in Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium, the British and Prussian armies joined forces to defeat the French in the Battle of Waterloo, the last conflict of the twelve-year-long Napoleonic Wars. In August, two months after commanding the British to victory, the Duke of Wellington was contacted by the First Secretary to the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker, who, as both a statesman and an author, was keen to see published a detailed written account of this most historic of wars. It seems only right, then, that he should have written to the person at the very top of the tree - someone who witnessed more of the conflict than most - for his opinion on such an endeavour. This was the Duke of Wellington's reply.
Paris, 8th August, 1815
My Dear Sir,
I have received your letter of the 2nd, regarding the battle of Waterloo. The object which you propose to yourself is very difficult of attainment, and if really attained is not a little invidious. The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.
Then the faults or the misbehaviour of some gave occasion for the distinction of others, and perhaps were the cause of material losses; and you cannot write a true history of a battle without including the faults and misbehaviour of part at least of those engaged.
Believe me that every man you see in a military uniform is not a hero; and that, although in the account given of a general action, such as that of Waterloo, many instances of individual heroism must be passed over unrelated, it is better for the general interests to leave those parts of the story untold, than to tell the whole truth.
If, however, you should still think it right to turn your attention to this subject, I am most ready to give you every assistance and information in my power.
ALL THESE MUST BE FREE
Rabbi Morris Frank to his son, Henry
1 May 1944
Approximately 1.5 million Jews enlisted with the Allied forces during World War II in an effort to defeat the armies of Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy, and as a result, close to 300 rabbis also signed up to work as Jewish chaplains wherever such support may have been needed, be it on the frontline or in concentration camps. One of the first to set foot on German soil and hold a service for the troops was Rabbi Morris Frank of the Fourth Infantry Division, who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1906 and ordained in 1935 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Frank worked tirelessly to connect with and offer comfort not just to his division's Jewish contingent, but to people of all faiths, and his efforts were widely appreciated. In May 1944, weeks before the Normandy Landings took place and with family on his mind, Frank took a moment to write one of many letters home - this one to his young son, Henry.
1 May '44
A few days ago I paid another visit to the school for refugee children. You remember - I wrote you about the school where young boys and girls were brot over from parts of Europe. These children had no homes - and nothing to eat. The cruel Nazis had bombed their cities - and they were left without any place to go. I know you would want to help these children so I went to see them and brot them some fruit juices, candy, cookies, and chewing gum. This made them very happy. Seeing them happy made me think of you. Thank God, Henry, you live in America. You can show your thankfulness by helping America stay free - by seeing that everyone has freedom. After this war - and when you grow up - there will be plenty to do and you must learn to do it. It will be your job to help people all over the world keep peace. It will be up to you to do your part to do away with war. Henry - you must always remember that every child whether he is the son of a Hindu, or a little Chinese boy, or a child of a Ukraine peasant, whether he is a youngster born in Burma, or he is one of our sharecropper's children or whether he is a Jewish child in one of Europe's Ghettos - all these must be free - and they must have food. They must be free to think, to say, and to [do] what they think is right. It's a big job, Son, but I know you can be of help - and I want you to be useful.
Henry you can't imagine how happy and thrilled I was to learn of your visit to Grandma and Grandpa in Chattanooga. You certainly made their Passover happy. I think your Mamma is just too precious-
Which reminds me, Son. Have you been taking good care of your Mother? You know we both think she is wonderful - the best Mamma in the whole world - and just now with me away - its up to you to take care of her. See that she is happy - and not lonesome. Once in awhile tell her you love her - and tell her that your Daddy loves her very much.
I am sending you a few pictures. They are for my only Son from his only Daddy.
Give Mamma a big hug and a big kiss for me. Give your Grandma a kiss for me - And to you I send all my love -