Saturday, November 10, 2001

PBS' 'War Letters' unfolds horror and humanity

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Andrew Carroll began collecting U.S. war letters three years ago, he feared that young Americans living in peace couldn't understand the horrors of combat. Things are different this Veteran's Day.

        But his collection, published in his best-selling War Letters book and adapted for TV by PBS' The American Experience (9 p.m. today, Channels 48, 54, 16), has become even more resonant since terrorist attacks plunged the nation into another war.

        “Whether a soldier is serving in the American Revolution with a musket, or in Afghanistan with an M-16, the emotions and sentiments remain relatively the same time after time, generation after generation, war after war,” said Mr. Carroll, who has collected 60,000 pieces of war correspondence in three years.

        “War letters from the past are the best — and possibly only — way we have of understanding the present,” he says.

        In PBS' War Letters, we hear the fear and frustration from young, impressionable men and women in their own simple words. When those emotional narratives from the front lines are combined with rare home movies, snapshots or news film, the combination evokes both sympathy and empathy.

        • “They are teaching us to kill. You probably looked away and shuddered, and I don't like the idea either, but we all know it's for all our own good,” wrote an inductee from Fort Benning, Ga., in World War II.

        • “I know now, for certain, what we are fighting for! ... (To) give the children of this, and the coming generations, a chance to learn the true meaning of freedom,” wrote a World War II soldier from Italy.

        • “People who live at home in luxury and ease ... and enjoying their families in peace, have but a very faint idea of the continual anxiety the man endures ... All confusion. Smoke and cold. Hunger and filthiness,” wrote a Revolutionary War infantryman in 1777.

        • “I don't think any man can exactly explain combat. Take a combination of fear, anger, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, disgust, loneliness, homesickness and wrap it all up in one ... It makes you feel mighty small, helpless, alone,” wrote a soldier from Vietnam.

        The letters chronicle the darkest moments of humanity. They also are powerful, inspiring reminders of the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit, offering the nation comfort after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        “We have faced horrendous circumstances before, and we have persevered,” Mr. Carroll said. “And we will do so through this crisis as well.”

Legacy Project

               Since making a national appeal in the Dear Abby column on Veteran's Day 1998, Mr. Carroll has been inundated with copies of letters — he doesn't want originals — from the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. He plans to catalog them and offer them to a museum.

        He launched the Legacy Project after letters from a friend who had witnessed the crackdown in China's Tiananmen Square were consumed in a house fire. He didn't want the nation to lose the personal histories written on battlefields around the world.

        “There is a sense of urgency, of saving these letters, because every day they're getting thrown out,” said Mr. Carroll, 31, who distributes poetry books through his nonprofit American Poetry & Literacy Project, based in Washington, D.C.

        Overwhelmed by thousands of letters delivered to his post office box, Mr. Carroll decided to publish the best 200 chronologically in War Letters : Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (Scribner; $28). Filmmaker Robert Kenner selected 35 to be presented on TV by topic — basic training, combat, loneliness, death, questioning their mission, and coming home.

        “By seeing what (soldiers) endured and experienced, we gain a greater appreciation of the true cost of freedom,” Mr. Carroll said. “By learning the horrors of war, we understand better the sacrifices made by those who confronted these horrors.”

        Mr. Carroll, who was 3 when the Vietnam War ended, was shocked to read 1960s' accounts from Southeast Asia.

        “War was very abstract (and) remote for me before I started this project. I was emotionally not prepared for what I was about to read. And the first thing that struck me was how young these men and women are.”

Hitler stationery

               Unfortunately, War Letters viewers won't know the ages of most letter-writers. The film would be greatly aided by noting the name, rank, age, date and location for each letter.

        The most unusual letter in the show was written on Adolf Hitler's personal stationery by Sgt. Horace Evers of Long Island on May 2, 1945. He contrasted “Hitler's luxuriously furnished apartment in Munich” with “the living hell of the Dachau concentration camp” 10 miles away:

        “In two years of combat, you can imagine I have seen a lot of death ... But nothing has ever stirred me as much as this. I can't shrug off the feeling of utter hate I now hold for these people.”

        In the book, the letter continues: “The first box car I came to had about 30 of what were once humans in it. All were just bone with a layer of skin over them ... They had that beaten, "what did I do to deserve this' look. Twenty to 30 other box cars were the same. Bodies on top of each other, no telling how many ... How can people do things like that? I never believed they could until now.”

Hoping for more letters
               Since the book and film were completed, America has entered a new chapter of history.

        Mr. Carroll is looking forward to reading accounts from soldiers in Afghanistan, and from those who witnessed the World Trade Center terrorism. He's hoping to receive another deluge of letters, from wars past and present, after the national broadcast.

        “The letters written after Pearl Harbor are war letters, and so are those written about the World Trade Center attacks, even if written on the home front,” he said. “I really hope we also receive copies of e-mails written by servicemen and women expressing their views of the attacks.

        “Perhaps the only positive from this terrible event is that Americans have gained a renewed sense of patriotism and community. We have put the focus of heroism back where it belongs — on those, such as police officers, firefighters, and servicemen and women, who truly and knowingly risk their lives for others,” he said.

        “We see it on the evening news, but we also see it in the letters written by those who, for generations, have gone off to fight for this nation.”

Sampling from PBS' War Letters

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