March 18, 2009

Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters and One Man's Search to Find Them by Andrew Carroll

BOOK #: 18
CHALLENGES: Triple 999, In Their Shoes Challenge, Reading Your Name Challenge
RATING: Mmm...That's Good!

Andrew Carroll traveled throughout the U.S. and around the world in search of the most unforgettable letters ever written during U.S. wars. The book not only contains letters between U.S. soldiers and their loved ones, but also letters of foreign troops and civilians who were caught in warfare. The letters range from love letters between fiances to Dear John letters, from secret messages written by POWs to letters written with a soldier's dying breaths. There are letters containing descriptions of the darkest side of war that are not for the faint of heart. There are letters of reconcilliation between veterans from countries that were once at war with each other. There is even a letter from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who had been captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.

The letters reveal strong emotions and brought out strong emotions in me. I cannot imagine anyone reading some of these letters and not feeling emotionally overwhelmed by their content. To have lived it is a situation so far removed from myself that I can scarcely imagine it. It is a difficult book to read for this reason, even though the letters are never more than a couple of pages long, with most being shorter. The challenge of it is to read it knowing that it could never be as hard for you as it was for those whose writing you are now reading.

With the U.S. still at war today it is a timely book to peruse. I believe it can help those of us who have never been in the streets of war to understand those who have been there and are there right now. I do not have bombs exploding on my streets. I don't have to worry about a battle in my backyard. I don't have to worry that the rules may change tomorrow and then change again the day after that. War is not merely a crime-ridden neighborhood. War is 24-7, not the occassional gang violence (not that I am in any way diminishing the effects of gang violence). It is important to know that those in war hardly, if ever, get time to sleep, let alone kick back and relax on a Sunday. Working constantly, being on guard continuously, seeing things no one should ever have to witness, feeling homesick and wanting nothing more than to get home to their families safe and sound is more difficult than I can fathom. I do not pretend to understand what it might be like.

That is why this book is so important. It takes you inside the war- not to the heart of the battle, but to the heart of the soldier. You will never look at war- or a soldier- the same way again.

Here are some brief excerpts from letters in the book:
"I can die peacefully knowing that you, my sisters and brother, and my friends will always remember me. I will pray to you when I crash into the enemy, and pray for me after my death because all of your prayers are heard and accepted by God." -Reinhard Heydrich during WWII

"Above all, keep in mind that beneath that tanned and rugged exterior there is a heart of gold (the only thing of value he has left). Treat him with kindness, tolerance, and an occassional fifth of liquor, and you will be able to rehabilitate that hollow shell which was once the happy-go-lucky guy you once knew and loved." -Note written to a family about to receive a serviceman back from the Vietnam conflict

"When am I to see your smiling face? Have mercy on me." -a letter found on a body during Operation Desert Storm

"I thought I was stronger and more resistant emotionally. People coped better with the loss of their loved ones in the camp. Only I, who was stronger than the average person, broke down totally. I was on a roller coaster that seemed infinite. My dear Gyurika, my child that meant life and joy and sorrow to me, was no more. Everything ceased to exist. I stopped existing myself." -Anna Koppich, a Jew at Auschwitz-Birkenau about the death of her only child, who was seven years old at the time

The end of the book has a collection of letters from the aftermath of war, including coming home letters and letters from veterans to one another. It is overall a book definitely worth reading.

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