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The reality of war revealed
on May 22, 2005
Andy Carroll's last book - War Letters - showed what war is like by reprinting letters of American combatants who had ac-tually fought those wars. (I should confess that one of my letters about Vietnam was reprinted in that book.)
Andy's new book - Behind The Lines - shows what war is like with reprints of letters from both combatants and non-combatants - civilian women and children. This book also in-cludes letters written by non-Americans as well as Americans.
Andy limited the letters to those from the wars in which America was involved. Thsee wars range from the Revolutionary War (there's a great letter from a Hessian soldier [Hessians were German soldiers "leased" to Great Britain to fight as mer-cenaries] giving his impressions of America and the poor fighting ability of the rebels), the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam (there's a good letter from a soldier asking his parents to forgive him for having killed a man in combat), Kosovo and Gulf Wars I and II.
While many letters deal with combat, other letters show the many faces of war. At times, war can be terrifying, funny, ab-surd, touching and hilarious. (You know you've been fighting too long when the same incident strikes you as both terrifying and hilarious.)
One letter was a love letter written by a California woman to a Swiss national. In fact, the letter was complete fabrication. The Swiss national actually was a German spy traveling in Great Britain during WWII. The letter was created to make his cover seem more believable.
One letter was from a brother who had enlisted in the Union army in the U.S. Civil War. He wrote to berate his brother for having enlisted in the Confederate army.
One letter was from a German wife to her husband's company commander. She requested that her husband be given a leave "because of our sexual relationship." She wanted her husband to come home so they can have sex. The commander's sym-pathetic reply is included in the book.
One letter writer came up with a list of "The Army's Ten Commandments," which should bring a smile to anyone who served in the Army. Commandment number four is, "Thou shall not laugh at second lieutenants."
One writer came up with a letter filled with multiple choice op-tions. By checking various options, he could either proclaim his undying love or write about an upcom-ing/imminent/current/recent military offensive.
Several letter writers tried to warn their families that they should prepare for a slight adjustment period when the men come home. One Vietnam writer warned, "If it should start raining, pay no attention to his joyous scream as he strips naked, grabs a bar of soap, and runs outdoors for a shower." (As a Vietnam veteran, I found that letter puzzling. Doesn't everybody shower that way?)
The book is divided into several themes that illustrate the dif-ferent faces of war: friendship; combat; laughing though the tears; civilians caught in the crossfire; and the aftermath of war.
As a Vietnam Infantry pointman and squad leader, I view a book about war differently from most people. Andy's book showed me a side of war I had never considered - its impact on non-combatants - who could neither run away (what any sane person does when people are trying to kill him) nor fight (if you're going to die anyway, why not die fighting?).
The book also showed me what I already knew from my own experience: that war changes forever those touched by it.
One Vietnam veteran was haunted by the fact that several of his comrades had died rescuing him after he was seriously wounded. So decades after the end of the Vietnam war, he left a letter at the Vietnam Memorial thanking those men for their sacrifice. That letter is included in the book.
Don't buy this book if you are looking for stories about triumphant soldiers marching in victory parades in front of cheering, grateful crowds. That's not the side of war that Andy wanted to show. Instead, the book shows the side of war that doesn't make the 5:00 TV news.
You will need to read this book in small doses because the emotional impact of the letters can be overwhelming. In Los Angeles I attended a reading of selected letters from the book. One of the speakers read a letter he had written as a Jewish teenager while riding in a sealed railway car on his way to a German concentration camp. The letter told his sister how much he loved her. He pushed the finished letter through a hole in the side of the railway car and hoped that a kind peasant would find and mail it to his sister. One did.