The story of America's wars has been recorded first hand in countless letters soldiers exchanged with their loved ones over the years. Andrew Carroll wants to make sure those documents aren't lost to history. In 1998, he launched the Legacy Project, and he recently published the first results of that effort in a book called "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars." He's still collecting letters, most recently from the war in Iraq. In a recent interview with VOA's Nancy Beardsley, he explained how the Legacy Project began. Andrew Carroll: "I'm not military. No one in my immediate family has served in the armed forces, and I think like most people I grew up with great respect for our veterans. What happened was, right before Christmas in 1989, we had a fire in our house that wiped out everything. The worst thing about it was that all my letters were destroyed. And so it just got me thinking about the value of letters. And over time I talked to a lot of individuals about their letters. And I was surprised by how many veterans I talked to were throwing their letters away. They just felt their letters weren't of significance. So I wrote to an advice columnist who has a huge readership, Dear Abby, and said, 'Could you do a column, encouraging your readers to save their war letters?' and much to my surprise, she said, 'Let's do it.' And I just got inundated with literally tens of thousands of war letters, from the American Revolution up to Bosnia, and since then we've made a big appeal for letters and e-mails from Afghanistan and now from Iraq. And we're really encouraging people to get in touch with us if they know somebody. All the information on how to reach us is in the web site, warlettersdotcom. We don't publish anything without permission."
Nancy Beardsley: "And how do the letters from Iraq compare to letters from earlier wars?"
Andrew Carroll: "The humanity of warfare doesn't change. In all wars you start off with almost a kind of enthusiasm to get into battle. They really want to get going, and they also know the quickest way to go home is to get the war over with. But as time goes on you see them become more reflective. When they see casualties, when they realize the stress of this, it just changes their thinking, their perspective changes, and that's true from the beginning of time."
Nancy Beardsley: "Do you have some examples you could read for us?"
Andrew Carroll: "Sure. This is by a young Marine who's still over there, and he's writing to his girl friend, just a few lines to give you a taste of it. He starts off: 'Dear Babe, we had some bad news the other day. We lost two Marines. They were in first platoon. They were swimming across the canal to a recon mission. Four went. Only two made it back. I'm all right, obviously.' And he goes on talking about the sand storm. 'Last night was probably the worst environment I've ever been in. First off was the wind, about 30 to 40 miles per hour. We couldn't see anything. Alavarado and I were lying behind a machine gun, and in about one hour you couldn't see us. We were buried. When the sand hit your face, it hurt like hell.' He goes on to say, 'I love you so much. I've got to get going. I love you with all my heart. I miss you incredibly much.'
"This letter is a little lighter in tone. I'm sure many people remember the stories of dolphins that were being used as mine hunters in the harbors and around the Persian Gulf. And this was written not long ago by a Navy pilot who said:
'Just a story to pass along. A little over a week ago, we got a funny call from our tower while we were out flying. We were told to report all dolphin sightings. Apparently the ordinance guys had lost one of their male mine-hunting dolphins. They put it in the water, and it had just swum away. They'd sent out a couple of others, trying to lure it back, presumably females, but with no luck. All the planes out here in the Gulf were alerted in case we saw a lonesome dolphin swimming around. Apparently there was a happy ending, however. Flipper showed up back a couple days later. I guess even our finned friends get a little weary of life on and around the boat. Love to all.'"
Nancy Beardsley: "So other than the embedded journalists, these are really some of the first behind the scenes reports we're getting from that war?"
Andrew Carroll: "This is the first draft of history, absolutely, and it's unfiltered. I'm so impressed by what the embedded journalists have done, and we saw there were casualties, from many different countries, journalists who paid the ultimate sacrifice. But the thing they did not have to confront was taking a life. Some of these men and women realize they are dropping bombs or pulling triggers that could end some one else's life, and that in itself changes the dynamic to some degree. And it's why all these letters, e-mails, reports are so important for history's sake."
Nancy Beardsley: "How has the advent of e-mails and easy overseas telephone service affected wartime correspondence?"
Andrew Carroll: "The e-mails I think are quite good, and they're better than nothing, because I think a lot of the men and women would prefer to call home, so at least with E-mail we have a written record. It gives you that eye-witness sense of being there. There is this immediacy to it. And yes, some of the e-mails are written quickly, and they have typos and so forth, but there are Civil War, World War II letters that were also written in haste. And then there are some e-mails that are very profound, very reflective, very descriptive. I personally like handwritten letters, because you can see the handwriting and sometimes there are little grains of sand on it, and you get that sense of the circumstances under which they're writing these letters, but anything written down from overseas is worth something historically."
Nancy Beardsley: "This is an ongoing project. What's ahead for you?"
Andrew Carroll: "Beginning in September 2003, I'm going to begin an 8 month trip around the world to about 25 different countries. And the purpose is to seek out war letters from these other nations. During American wars and other major world wars, what were other people writing home, meaning other than Americans, meaning those we fought with like the Australians and the British and the French, and also those we fought against. And that too at one point will be posted on my web site, warlettersdotcom. I'm going to put my itinerary there. But we'd love to hear from people who have war letters from other countries or advice on where I should go. This has really turned into a personal project and a real labor of love."
Nancy Beardsley: Andrew, thank you very much. Andrew Carroll is the editor of War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars.