The Troops at the Front as Poets for Future Readers

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Since 11-10-01

From: Brooke Rowe
Sent: Friday, November 09, 2001 1:18 PM
Subject: [vetissues] The Troops at the Front as Poets for Future Readers, by JULIE SALAMON The New York Times

The Troops at the Front as Poets for Future Readers, by JULIE SALAMON The New York Times (EXCERPT) PBS presents an extraordinary one-hour distillation of Andrew Carroll's book, "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From
American Wars."

Not long ago my stockbroker, whom I've never met face to face, called me on business but instead kept me riveted with his first-person account of the Sept. 11 attack. He told me of his escape from the Merrill Lynch offices in the World Financial Center, across the street from the twin towers, and of his single-minded desire to speak to his wife. He couldn't get through. As the towers crumbled and the sky turned black, he crouched by the Hudson River embankment, certain he was going to die without reaching her.

He apologized for "going on about it," but I assured him that I needed to hear his story as much as he needed to tell it. Our usual impersonal friendliness wouldn't do now.

The vastness of what had happened was incomprehensible without individual experience to give it shape and meaning. In our fast-moving culture, myths and icons are manufactured quickly, so this awful event has already developed a recognizable imagery, heroic and tragic.

Pictures of the burning towers and of the noble rescuers trigger automatic reactions of sorrow, admiration and anxiety, but the real human ache comes from the homely details of those who died or survived.

Look at photos of a pile of bones from a concentration camp and feel numb horror; talk to a Holocaust survivor and the bones take on flesh and blood. A young man named Andrew Carroll understood this long ago.

In 1989, when he was 19, his family's house burned down. Though no one was injured, the family's letters were destroyed, including one from a friend who had been in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square uprising that year.

Mr. Carroll felt the loss of this personal record so profoundly that he began collecting copies of letters that had affected friends and relatives. Most of them had been written in wartime.

Mr. Carroll was so touched by what he read that he asked Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) to write a column asking people to preserve their war correspondence, which she did three years ago on Veterans Day.

Thus began Mr. Carroll's "Legacy Project," which brought him 50,000 letters and led to a $500,000 contract with Scribner for "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars." The book became a New York Times best seller; Mr. Carroll said he would donate his advance to veterans' groups.

Now "The American Experience" on PBS presents "War Letters," an extraordinary one-hour distillation of Mr. Carroll's book. The program neither condemns nor celebrates the American conflicts it covers, from the Revolution to the Persian Gulf war. Rather it illustrates the transformative or at least literary power of the extraordinary experience of war.

Ordinary men and women become valiant journalists and poets as they record what they see and what they feel. Politics and military strategy are largely absent from this collection, though a World War II letter from a black soldier to Yank magazine bitterly challenges the Army's Jim Crow policies. Almost always, though, the perspectives here are individual, not global, and therefore become universal.

"Dearest Girly," begins a letter from World War I, dated June 18, 1918. "We were all subjected to several different kinds of gas today, with and without masks. As usual, I cannot rid my clothes of the odor. It sure is horrible stuff, honey. Deadly and usually ensures a slow and horrible death. There's one kind that kills quickly. Chlorine.

But I do not prefer any kind or brand myself. I had to have a photo taken today for an officer's identification book, which every officer must carry. I believe they take the book when your body is found and send the photo to the War Department. There is no danger though. You'll have me back soon. The war cannot last forever. Heaps of love to you wifey dear. Ed"

There's terrible poignancy in the casual mixture of affectionate nicknames and grim detail. "It sure is horrible stuff, honey." The hopefulness, too, is striking. Is Ed's jaunty optimism a pose, or is he simply trying to protect his wife?

The director and producer, Robert Kenner, has beautifully translated the letters for television by enhancing rather than illustrating the words with wartime film clips, photographs and impressionistic re-creations.

Mark Adler's smart score emphasizes the various personalities of the letter-writers, whose words are read by actors including Kevin Spacey, Joan Allen and Edward Norton. There is no narration; there are no elderly witnesses commenting on their former selves (even for more recent wars), and this gives the letters a haunting immediacy.

The now-familiar witness approach can be moving and will be in abundance on Veterans Day. HBO presents "We Stand Alone Together" at 8:30 p.m., a companion piece to the cable channel's "Band of Brothers" mini-series about an American parachute company in World War II.

The soldiers of Easy Company appear as they were and as they are now, elderly men with vivid memories relayed in eloquent vernacular. "I sleep on it; I eat on it; I never, never forget that," a man says about a fellow soldier who died saving him.

On the History Channel, prisoners of war and the soldiers who saved them describe their experiences on "Rescue of the Bataan `Ghost Soldiers,' " also about American troops in a Japanese P.O.W. camp in the Pacific.

But "War Letters" goes beyond descriptions of battles and the emergence of specific acts of bravery and cruelty. It reminds us though we don't need much reminding now of how wrenching events intensify the beauty of ordinary life.

A soldier, writing from a snowy encampment on the Western Front on Feb. 6, 1945, comments that the countryside looks like a Christmas card. "When we were kids snow sure was fun," he writes. But he notes darkly: "The Flexible Flyers have turned into tanks. The snowballs are grenades. The wet stuff trickling down the back of necks is often blood."

Some are absurdists, like a man named Mort, who described his training at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1943 with cranky humor. After ordering his Dear Louisa to stop sending him underwear, socks and candy, he vividly describes bayonet training. "We lurch about and are required to growl, grimace and look at each other with hate," he writes. "They even teach us how to scientifically stomp on a man." He elaborates with funny little stick drawings.

Others are lyrical, like the Civil War soldier describing the advent of death. Some are stoned, like a correspondent from Vietnam recounting his visit to an opium den. And others are bitter, like the young man named Leon stationed in Korea writing to the woman who has just broken up with him: "Over here where your past is your last breath, your present is this breath and your future is your next breath, you don't make too many promises.

Which leaves me what?" He enclosed a picture of himself, which shows a sad-faced boy, and we learn that what he was left with was two days. Then he was killed.

The letters themselves seem to have had totemic value for their writers. "Hoping this letter finds you all in the best of health," one says. The black soldier ends his complaint about racism with a challenge for Yank magazine: "Some of the boys are saying that you will not print this letter. I'm saying you will." Listening to these stories, it's hard not to wonder about this generation's legacy.

Between anthrax and e-mail, the sending and receiving of letters on paper has become almost anachronistic. One day, will it be impossible to grant the wistful request of a gulf war soldier? "I hope you're saving all my letters," he says in a postscript. "Someday I'd like to go through them."