Roughly two-thirds of the way into Andrew Carroll’s newest book, a collection of war letters called Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters—and One Man’s Search to Find Them, the reader comes across a World War II letter from a 22-year-old private from Indianapolis. The letter, dated May 29, 1945, explains that the private had been a POW since the previous December.
I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than ‘missing in action.’ Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do—in précis: …”
The letter goes on to describe how the private had been captured, marched by the Germans without food, water, or sleep for 60 miles, then locked up, 60 men to a cell, until shipped out again to a Dresden work camp.
“I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait. I can’t receive mail here so don’t write. Love, Kurt Jr.”
Carroll’s postscript explains that Kurt Jr. is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., whose experiences in Dresden inspired his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In a phone interview, Carroll, who traveled around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq, collecting war letters, explained the difficulty in finding the never-before-published letter. According to one source, Vonnegut didn’t even remember writing it. Then, the small Dresden archive housing it couldn’t find the letter in its files. Still, Carroll persevered and Vonnegut, now 82, read the unearthed letter at the book’s kick-off party. An even more memorable moment arrived four days after the kick-off event, when Vonnegut’s 19-year-old grandson read the letter to an audience in Amherst. “To hear that young voice from Vonnegut’s grandson,” remembers Carroll, “who looks a little like Kurt, and to know this is what the letter writer was really like at the time he penned it was incredibly powerful and poignant.”
Despite the attention Vonnegut’s letter will inevitably draw to the book, it’s included with little fanfare among 200 American and foreign war letters that range from the American Revolution to the current Iraq war. Carroll, the founder of the Legacy Project, a national, all-volunteer effort that seeks to preserve wartime correspondence, also edited the best-selling anthology War Letters. This follow-up differs in that War Letters focused only on American letters, whereas the newer book spans the globe, including letters from both ally and enemy combatants. In his introduction, Carroll discusses his travels to 35 countries searching for personal letters. “The inspiration to include foreign letters along with American ones,” says Carroll, “came from American veterans and troops here who thought foreign letters might lend a fresh perspective on familiar battles and a deeper understanding of war itself.”
Carroll himself doesn’t come from a military family; his passion for military history grew out of a search for lost letters that led him to long conversations with veterans. While a college student in 1989, Carroll’s family home burned to the ground. Though no one was hurt in the fire, it did destroy the family’s possessions. For Carroll, the biggest loss was the destruction of all his letters. “Once they were gone it became a tragic thing for me. Those letters were truly irreplaceable.”
Even now, Carroll considers the books only one small part of the Legacy Project, which continues to preserve war letters. After talking with veterans, Carroll was shocked at how many threw away their old correspondence. “In some cases the memories were too painful; they didn’t want them lying around. They would literally burn them or throw them away, and to me it just meant we were losing something of great value.” Indeed, Carroll considers the letters preserved by the Legacy Project “as our nation’s great undiscovered literature.”
And in a way, the letters in Behind the Lines read like a novel—a complex and harrowing one. Carroll has organized the letters chronologically within thematic chapters that focus on everything from love to combat and even humor (one German woman during WWI writes to her husband’s commanding officer: “I, the signer below, have a request to make of you. Although my husband has only been in the field for four months, I would like to ask you to grant him leave of absence, namely, because of our sexual relationship. I would like to have my husband just once for the satisfaction of my natural desires. I just can’t live like this anymore.”)
The novel, if it may be called that, is an unfinished one, with many chapters ending with letters and e-mails from troops currently serving in Iraq. And Carroll is not unaware of the political ramifications such a book could suggest in the here and now.
“I’ve tried to avoid the political aspects of conflict and just show the humanity,” Carroll explains. “Humanity in the sense of what it’s literally like for the individuals caught up in conflict. Their perspective often gets ignored. If people feel I have an outright political agenda it will actually dilute the more important goal, which is to preserve these voices. For history’s sake, for society’s sake, the best thing to do is let the letters speak for themselves.”
Andrew Carroll will speak at the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula on Thursday, Aug. 18, at 7 PM. He continues to seek past and current war letters for the Legacy Project. Submission information can be found at www.WarLetters.com.