Putting War Into Words

Andrew Carroll's book marks the latest chapter in his battle to preserve memories of America's military conflicts

July 04, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

After bullets and blood come words, little bits of shrapnel from the soul.

"I feel these letters capture history," says Andy Carroll, a man who has just relived all of America's wars.

Carroll spent two years tramping through 35 countries and every conflict involving the United States - from Afghanistan to Vietnam, from the Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom - on a marathon correspondence quest.

He rummaged through the world's collective attic, searching for letters that spoke eloquently to any aspect of any conflict in which his countrymen have ever fought.

Behind the Lines is the product of that road trip: a compilation of some 200 of the best pieces of writing he found. From soldiers and civilians. From our side and theirs. It's shoulder-heavingly sad and, at times, funny; disturbing and frequently inspiring.

Carroll, a 35-year-old Washingtonian and self-described accidental historian, is on a 50-city promotional tour, the publishing industry's equivalent of a forced march. Last week, he was in Baltimore for a reading at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library.

He began with some heavy artillery.

"This is just a young 19- or 20-year-old kid writing home to his parents," Carroll tells an audience of about 15 people. "It's almost like this Heminwayesque short story."

He opens the book and reads the unflinching account of U.S. Army Cpl. Maitland Livsey, who was chasing Nazis through rural France in February 1945:

"We ran into three Jerries in the farmyard one of whom tried to hide in a half-full rain barrel, of all places. I'll never forget the neat triangle of holes Joe's tommy gun put in that barrel! I was almost hypnotized as I watched the water change gradually pink and then red as it spouted out the oaken bullet holes. As we started off across the fields I glanced back at the rain barrel. A dog sniffed warily at marshy ground around it. A large rooster, which had disappeared in a flurry of feathers such a short time ago, now crowed defiantly at the world."

Four years ago, Carroll edited War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars, another archival effort that focused solely on American military personnel and their families. It made The New York Times best-seller list. Behind the Lines is more ambitious in scope and, he admits, more "intense."

But not antiwar.

He likens it to the movie Saving Private Ryan, which told the story of the D-Day invasion from the everyday soldier's muddy-boots-on-the-ground perspective.

"One of the reasons we want to peel back the layers of warfare is it shows the bloody mess underneath," Carroll explains. "That's how we pay tribute to them. This is what they went through."

Behind the Lines features an expectedly epic cast of characters: a worried Kuwaiti father writing to a son who hasn't returned from the gulf war; a young Philadelphia woman fretting (needlessly, it turned out) about the fall of Baltimore under the British naval bombardment of September 1814; an American lieutenant in World War I sending a letter to his father, telling him in graphic detail how he retrieved his brother's shattered body from a makeshift battlefield grave.

The book includes a long letter in which Lila Oliver Asher, now 83 and living in Chevy Chase, describes her visits to military hospitals. Asher was an unconventional USO volunteer, a roving artist who drew keepsake portraits for some 3,600 blind, maimed and shell-shocked veterans.

"My husband was overseas in field artillery," Oliver recalls, "and he said I saw more war than he did."

Many people warned Carroll not to expect much cooperation on his world tour. These days pro-American sentiment is at low tide in many countries, they said. To the contrary, however, he discovered government officials, museum curators and complete strangers were happy to share. Some stories begged to be told.

Patricia Barrett of Ruxton went to see Carroll because one of her children just gave her Behind the Lines for a birthday present. Coincidentally, a relative had recently unearthed a stash of letters that her husband and his three brothers wrote to their mother while stationed overseas during World War II.

"I've been a widow for 17 years," she tells Carroll during the question-and answer period at the library. "To have these now, it's like he's talking to me. A beautifully written letter is a treasure."

The author knows that from his own experience.

In December 1989, during Carroll's sophomore year at Columbia University, his parents' Georgetown home was destroyed by fire. His room got the worst of it. He lost virtually everything he owned, including letters a friend had sent from China during the heat of the previous spring's Tiananmen Square uprising.

The experience gave Carroll, a college English major, a sudden appreciation for history and the fragility of life. He went on something of a preservation bender.

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