Back in 1998, a national, volunteer effort called the Legacy Project was created with the intention of encouraging Americans to seek out and preserve letters composed by those who had served in every American conflict from the Revolutionary War onward. The mastermind behind this project was an earnest young man named Andrew Carroll.
Carroll was a somewhat odd candidate to kick-start such a hugely ambitious project. He'd never been in the military. No one in his family had ever served either. He wasn't even particularly interested in history.
"What happened is I was in college in 1989," says Carroll, "and my dad called to say the house had just burned down. Nobody was hurt, which was the most important thing, but everything was gone."
Carroll was relieved to discover that almost everything the family owned could be replaced. "It was a major inconvenience, of course," he says, "but one thing that was truly gone forever were the letters. It got me talking to people about their old letters and correspondence. What shocked me was how many veterans said they were throwing their letters away. That's really what generated interest in this whole subject."
Carroll somehow got his hands on a few war letters and was deeply moved by what he read. Realizing the great historical resource he was just beginning to tap into, he began formulating a plan to collect as much such correspondence as possible.
"What I noticed was the war letters I was reading were more dramatic, more riveting, more powerful than any other types of letters. On a whim I wrote to ’Dear Abby' and asked if she could do a column on this little effort. I think I made it sound more official than it really was at the time. Much to my shock, she said let's do this for our Veterans' Day column."
The column ran on Nov. 11, 1998. It immediately opened the floodgates. "I started getting inundated with thousands of letters from around the country," says Carroll. "Here's the thing, logistically I was not prepared for the response, but emotionally I was even more overwhelmed."
One man sent along a cover letter explaining that these were the last letters received from a brother right before he went missing in Vietnam. Another packet explained that a father who had fought in World War II had been a distant man who had only opened up to his kids in his letters home from the battlefield.
Over the previous years, Carroll had already made a name for himself in the literary world. Along with poet Joseph Brodsky, he'd cofounded the American Poetry and Literacy Project to put books of poems in motel rooms alongside Gideon's Bibles. In 1999, he'd released a collection of general letters culled from 400 years of American history called Letters of a Nation.
It was his war letters campaign, though, that really pushed him into the national spotlight. Following the publication of the "Dear Abby" column, Carroll found himself in possession of 50,000 letters from American conflicts. He created the Legacy Project to preserve them, and he selected 150 or so such letters to be published in his aptly titled collection, War Letters, which became a mega bestseller when released in 2001.
Over the intervening years, the Legacy Project has continued to collect war letters. Carroll's follow-up volume, Behind the Lines, was just released last month. The difference between this collection and the previous one is that this time around Carroll has decided to include letters from foreign troops and civilians.
For three years, he traveled all over the world to more than 30 countries collecting thousands of rare and previously unpublished letters connected to American wars. The extraordinary thing about Behind the Lines is that mixed in with letters from ordinary Americans and big shots like Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas MacArthur are some amazing letters from ordinary foreigners on the other side of the military fence. Some of Carroll's personal favorites came from Iraqis involved, in one way or another, in the most recent conflict.
"I think one of the most incredible stories in the book," he says, "involved an Iraqi man whose hand had been cut off during the Hussein regime for the crime of using foreign currency, which is what everybody was doing when the dinar became worthless. The regime used him as an example and chopped off his hand. Before this had happened, he'd written a letter to his wife saying that we have to maintain our faith and Allah will provide and so forth. It was just a short, poignant letter.
"Then, nine years later, when the Americans came in, people heard about this man's plight. They sent him and several other Iraqis who had also lost their hands to the United States for treatment and new prosthetic hands, which normally cost a thousand dollars. With his new prosthetic hand, after getting some rehabilitation, he writes another letter to his wife saying, ’Remember how I said to trust in God and have faith?' We have both those letters."
Behind the Lines is filled with such stories, some uplifting, some even funny. Of course, the very nature of such a project functions to highlight some of the most brutal aspects of warfare throughout the course of the past couple centuries. I tried to get Carroll to discuss his views of the current Iraq War on the record, but was unsuccessful. Yet he did point out that anyone who reads these letters is going to gain a deeper understanding of just how horrific war can be.
"Our project does not have a political agenda," he says, "but we do include letters that are very graphic. One of the reasons we do this is that when people read these letters, they will gain an appreciation for those who served, to say that I had no idea that this is what these men and women go through.
"The last chapter in the book, for example, is about the emotional and physical aftershocks of war. It doesn't end when the bullets stop firing. A lot of these guys have PTSD. They have nightmares and all sorts of issues that they have to deal with."
Carroll views this book as a way to help those who've never been in war understand the ramifications of armed conflict, and what those on the front lines must endure. "People have said that this is the most anti-war book that they have read, and I know others that call it the most patriotic book that they've read. Not that the two are separate. I don't want people to think that this is an Andy Carroll agenda with respect to politics. I want the book to transcend that. It's really about giving those who serve an opportunity to speak for themselves."