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Before leaving, I had been forewarned to expect everything from indifference to outright hostility.
The purpose of the trip, which would take me to more than thirty countries across five continents, was to search for letters by soldiers and civilians from nations that had been wartime allies or adversaries of the United States throughout our history. My timing was not ideal. The invasion of Iraq was fueling anti-American sentiment around the world. People were burning the Stars and Stripes not only in Palestine, Cairo, and Tehran, but Berlin, Rome, and London. And in some of the places I would be traveling to, Americans were being threatened physically, kidnapped, and, in extreme cases, executed. Due to the brief amount of time I planned to stay in the relatively more dangerous regions, the risk for me was minimal, but some degree of concern was not unwarranted. (Indeed, only days before I checked in to my hotel in Afghanistan, a bomb placed by members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda detonated behind the hotel, shattering most of the back windows. Amazingly no one was seriously hurt. The day after the explosion I called to see if the hotel was still accepting guests. The clerk assured me cheerfully, "Oh yes, all is well! You come. Bring cash!")
The inspiration to seek out foreign letters came from an unexpected source American veterans. In 1998, I launched an initiative called the Legacy Project that preserves wartime correspondences as a way to honor and remember those who have fought for this nation. Since then, people across the country have sent in tens of thousands of previously unpublished letters from all of our major conflicts, beginning with the War of Independence and continuing up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The letters not only record extraordinary moments in time the battle of Shiloh, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the storming of Fallujah they capture the more human side of warfare and reveal the thoughts and emotions of the troops who have been eyewitnesses to these events. Although I had always admired those who served in the military, I had no real concept of all that they sacrificed, on and off the battlefield, until I began reading their letters home.
For two years I traveled throughout the US speaking with groups of veterans about the importance of saving what they had written from the front lines. During these conversations we talked about wartime correspondences in general and how essential mail was to their morale, the tricks they used to evade the censors, the letters they dreaded receiving more than any others (rejection or "Dear John" messages from a sweetheart), and the ones that were the most gut-wrenching to write (condolence letters to the families of fallen comrades). We also discussed the changes in letter-writing from generation to generation, especially with the advent of e-mail, and how, while the tone has become less formal over the years, the emotions have remained fundamentally the same.
One question that initially surprised me was being asked with increasing regularity: was the Legacy Project collecting letters from other countries? I responded that only a few had trickled in over the years, donated primarily by stamp collectors and bargain hunters who had discovered them at estate sales and flea markets in the US and abroad. I was curious why these veterans were interested in foreign correspondences, and the history buffs replied that the letters would make for fascinating reading, providing a fresh perspective on familiar battles. But most of the veterans expressed the belief that these letters might contribute to our overall understanding of war and the larger impact of these conflicts on everyone involved friend and foe alike.
An idea began to take hold. For years I had been yearning to go abroad and visit the places I had been reading about in the letters. I wanted to see the trenches of World War I that still zigzag through the French and Belgian countryside, walk along the Normandy coast where Allied forces had landed on D-Day, peer across the Demilitarized Zone marking the border between North and South Korea, explore the tunnels of Cu Chi outside of Saigon, and, if possible, set foot in Baghdad and Kabul. But instead of embarking on a mere sightseeing tour, I could give the trip a purpose and seek out war letters in every country I visited. All I had to do, I figured, was locate the main military archives and museums and dig through their collections. Ideally, I would also introduce myself to veterans and active duty personnel along the way and solicit letters from them directly.
Well-traveled friends and colleagues were more pessimistic about my plan of action. They alerted me that many of the institutions I expected to visit were government-run and notorious for their unwieldy bureaucracies. Upon arrival I would have to produce a letter of introduction just to secure an appointment with the archivists, and there was still no guarantee the staff would grant me access to their holdings. There was also the larger matter of the world's political climate at the time. Acquaintances overseas prepared me for the possibility that the veterans, military personnel, and other people I hoped to meet might distrust my motives or be unwilling to cooperate with an American. The very nature of the appeal was a delicate one, as I would be asking these individuals to share with me copies of their private letters. If a foreigner approached me with such a request, I'm not sure how enthusiastic my response would be.
After five months of planning and armed with an itinerary that weighed in at seven pounds, I was out of stubbornness, naiveté, or perhaps a bit of both determined to go. I had secured the necessary visas, gotten my vaccinations, cancelled my magazine subscriptions, reconfirmed all reservations, said my good-byes, fibbed to my mom about having no intention of traveling to Iraq, and then headed to the airport.
Gdansk was first. A port city on the northern coast of Poland, Gdansk is celebrated as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, where, in 1980, a thirty-seven-year-old electrician named Lech Walesa galvanized his fellow shipyard workers to demand from Poland's Communist government the right to organize trade unions. The reason I began in Gdansk, however, had more to do with what happened there on September 1, 1939, when German forces pounded the city with artillery before launching a full-scale invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. (Arguably, the clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing, China, on July 7, 1937, which ignited a larger conflagration in the Pacific, represents the first shots fired in the war.) After Germany's assault, hostilities swept the globe like a virus, ultimately killing tens of millions of people. The Poles alone lost one-fifth of their population.
I arrived in Gdansk on September 1 curious to see where the war in Europe had erupted, but, more importantly, to find firsthand accounts written by Polish troops or civilians on that horrible day in 1939. The curators and librarians I spoke with were gracious but explained that they had nothing. They also thought it was doubtful that anyone in the city wrote about the invasion for fear of being accused by the Germans of spying. It was an inauspicious beginning to the trip.
With extra time on my hands, I briefly toured the city and wandered around Westerplatte, the site of the initial German bombardment. I watched as a steady procession of individuals, some alone, some with their families, quietly lit candles and placed flowers around the gravestones of Polish soldiers who were casualties of the attack. A group of German high school students crammed into the tiny History of Gdansk Museum and listened with rapt attention as their teacher narrated the events of that day and then described the hellish occupation of Poland that followed. One girl, apparently unfamiliar with this history, placed her hands over her mouth, aghast, and began to cry.
My next stop, Oswiecim, is better known outside of Poland by its German name Auschwitz. I arrived late in the evening and, although I needed to get up early the next morning to take a tour of the former extermination camp, I was still on US time and couldn't sleep. The weather for the next day was forecasted to be warm and perfectly clear, and I knew that, being a Saturday, the place would be crowded with tourists. Recognizing it was an unusual request, I called for a taxi and asked the driver if he could take me over to the camp just to see the outside of the site under relatively more peaceful circumstances. I figured I could walk around the exterior grounds for a few minutes and take a picture of the infamous and grotesquely cynical ARBEIT MACHT FREI ("Work brings freedom") greeting that adorns the top of the camp's main gate.
As soon as the taxi driver and I pulled up to the entrance, I knew we were out of luck. The actual site was well behind a large parking lot and tourist center, and it would be impossible to see anything meaningful. The hour was getting late, and the driver had told me earlier that I was his last fare of the night. But sensing my disappointment, he seemed determined to find another entrance. Sure enough, after winding through a long, inconspicuous street off the main road, we came up to a dimly lit wooden guardhouse. The driver stepped out of the car and approached the night watchman, who looked understandably suspicious. The two men began talking, and I overheard the guard saying, "Nie, nie." The driver was emphatic. Finally, the guard checked his watch, shrugged, and gestured to the entrance with a flick of his hand. The driver turned to me and said: "OK. We go in." He then opened his door, reached inside, and clicked the meter off. I told him I didn't think it would take us very long and that he should absolutely keep the meter running. "No, is OK." It was almost midnight.
All I could see until my eyes adjusted to the darkness were the tall black silhouettes of trees and the outline of what appeared to be row after row of barracks. We walked slowly and in silence. Occasionally the driver pointed to an important structure as we passed by. "Gas chambers," he said. "Here, crematoria." I would stop to look more carefully at a building or peek into a window and, every so often, blindly snap a photograph. Obviously the camp looked nothing like it did when, during the war, thousands of lives were extinguished within its walls every day. There was no sound of trains. No smell of burning flesh. No maniacal guards shrieking orders. No sense of human presence whatsoever. But the vast, shadowy emptiness of the camp worked its own kind of horror and was more haunting than any place I had ever visited before. As we drove back to the hotel, I stared out the taxi window, completely overwhelmed by what had just happened. I felt enormous gratitude toward the driver for going out of his way to make the visit possible. But mostly I remember thinking that this trip was going be intensely more emotional than anything I had expected.
One by one the letters were starting to accumulate as well. I located some remarkable correspondences by Holocaust survivors, and a museum in Warsaw had a poignant letter by a Polish pilot telling his parents that, since they had last seen him, he had fallen in love, married a British girl, and had a son. (But other than that, not much was new.) One archivist contacted members of his own family who were veterans to see if they had any letters, and although nothing came of it, I thought it was a rather thoughtful gesture.
After Poland I went to Russia. Through an American friend living in Moscow I met my exceptional guide, Olga, who mapped out the entire schedule for St. Petersburg. Our primary stop was the State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad, and the staff could not have been more amiable. A quick, handwritten note from me requesting access to their archives was all that we needed to provide, and within minutes they were pulling from their files letters and other personal papers salvaged from World War II or, as they call it, the Great Patriotic War. Leningrad, the city's name before it was changed back to St. Petersburg in 1991 after the fall of Communism, had endured one of the longest and most brutal sieges in history, lasting almost nine hundred days and claiming an estimated six hundred thousand lives.
The process of selecting letters was hardly a scientific one, but we worked out a relatively efficient system: the curator would skim through a file and summarize the contents for Olga, who then repeated it to me in English. Depending on my "nyet" or "da," the item either went back into the pile or off to be copied. "This is a long poem by a soldier describing his sorrow," Olga said about the first document.
Me: "Um, probably nyet. I really just want letters."
Olga: "Well, this next one is very moving, too, but it's a journal, so nyet?"
"Nyet," I replied.
Olga listened to the next synopsis with growing, and then waning, interest. "It's a letter...from a husband telling his wife not to forget him if they are separated...but it does not seem to have a lot of emotion. I think we can find better." Nyet, she determined on her own. Sure enough, as the curator started describing a small stack of letters bound together, I could see Olga nodding her head and looking optimistic.
"These are a series of letters," she began to explain, "by a brother and sister orphaned during the siege who are telling their aunt all that has happened to them and begging her to come and save them."
"Da, da, da!" I exclaimed, and within minutes I had photocopies in hand. I would not have the letters translated word for word until I returned to the States several months later, but they were every bit as compelling as I had hoped.
The Balkans came next. My flight into Sarajevo landed late in the evening, so it wasn't until the morning that I discovered how stunningly beautiful the city is. I could easily understand why Sarajevo was selected as the site of the Winter Olympics in 1984. There is both a vibrant modernity and ancient patina to Sarajevo, where upscale hotels line the main avenues and cobblestone streets lead to the Old Market and its antique merchant shops. But intermingled with this beauty and it is easy not to notice them at first, before you begin to see them everywhere are thick clusters of luminescent white gravestones. Nestled among residential neighborhoods, in the city parks, next to schools, behind sports stadiums, and wherever it seems there should be an open space or field of grass, the cemeteries are an ever-present reminder of the terror that descended on Sarajevo beginning in the spring of 1992 when Serb forces declared war on Bosnia. Private homes and apartment buildings are still scarred and pockmarked with bullet holes and artillery blasts. And on the streets and sidewalks, shallow impressions in the shape of splattered paint mark where mortar shells exploded during the siege. The residents now call them "dragon's feet."
Thirty years old when we met, Amir Telebecirovic, my guide throughout Sarajevo, was still a teenager when the war erupted. It began, in fact, on his nineteenth birthday. Despite having no military experience whatsoever, Amir was forced to serve in the Bosnian army, which was massively outgunned and under-trained compared to the highly skilled Serb troops. Many of Amir's closest friends, also just teenagers out of high school, were killed in the fighting.
As we walked the city on our way to meet with archivists and historians who had letters to show us, every corner prompted a sharp memory or horrific story. We crossed the bridge now named for Suada Delbrovic, the first person to die in the war. On April 6, 1992, as Serb forces began positioning themselves in Sarajevo, Delbrovic was shot to death on the bridge during a demonstration calling for peace. Just over a year later, on the banks of the River Miljacka below, two young lovers Admira Ismic, a Bosnian Muslim, and Bosko Brckic, a Christian Serb died in each other's arms after they, too, were caught in the crosshairs of a Serb sniper. Amir and I went to the Lion's Cemetery where the two are buried beneath a heart-shaped headstone. Later, when we passed the bustling open-air Markale market, Amir told me it was site of the infamous mortar attack of August 28, 1995. Almost forty people simply out shopping for groceries were blown to pieces. The shelling of Markale was one of several atrocities against civilians that prompted the US-led NATO airstrikes on Serb forces around Sarajevo.
Amir recounted one story that, although relatively insignificant in the larger context of the fighting, was for some reason especially unsettling to me. At the beginning of the war staff members at the local zoo were unable to move the animals to safety, and Serb snipers situated on the hills overlooking many of the cages decided, for fun, to pick off the animals one by one. The lions were on the other side of the zoo and consequently were not at risk of getting shot. Their fate, however, would be much worse, as it was impossible for the animal keepers to make their way to the lions' cages and feed them without risking their own lives. Residents who lived nearby would later recall that one of the most unnerving sounds of the war was the roar some described it as more like a dry scream of the trapped, emaciated lions pacing their cages as they slowly starved to death.
Just hours before leaving Sarajevo, I asked Amir about the darkest moment of the war for him personally. There were many, he responded, but the worst occurred during the first winter of the siege. With no electricity or heating fuel, residents were freezing to death in their homes. Early one evening Amir's father went outside to collect firewood, which was becoming scarce throughout the city. (By the end of the war, virtually every tree in Sarajevo had been chopped down. Some individuals went to the desperate measure of digging up graves and dismantling the coffins, simply for the wood.) A Serb soldier or, more likely, sniper caught sight of Amir's father and shot him in the back. Neighbors were able to drag him to a car and rush him to the hospital. Before the siege, the drive would have taken only a few minutes. But the direct route was cut off by barricades and some streets were too dangerous to use, so they slowly had to wind their way through Sarajevo. The hospital itself was without power and overcrowded with other critically injured patients. Amir's father bled to death before any of the doctors could even examine his wound.
After hearing this, and with all the other stories of atrocities still fresh in my mind, I blurted out: "God you must hate the Serbs."
"No!" Amir responded firmly. "No, no. There's been enough hatred. I'm sick of it. My girlfriend is a Serb. Many Serbs in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia suffered, too. Many people in Serbia didn't know what was going on because Milosevic lied to them. At some point it has to stop. There's been too much already. It has to stop." When I asked him how he could be so forgiving, he said, "Only people who have been through it can really understand how bad it can be." This sentiment would become one of the most dominant themes of the trip.
The subject was first brought to my attention during my visit to Volgograd just over a week earlier. During World War II, when the city was called Stalingrad, it was the site of what is considered to be one of the bloodiest battles ever fought. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the first thirty-six hours of the German bombardment that began on August 23, 1942. Disease flourished as bodies decayed in the streets and dogs fed on the corpses. Troops on both sides coerced young boys and girls into serving as scouts and runners, primarily to deliver messages or fill soldiers' canteens in the Volga river. And both sides shot the children they suspected of aiding the enemy. "For me, the philosophical question of whether violence is ever justified was once torturous," a Russian lieutenant named Joseph Maranov wrote to his beloved, Lola, from Stalingrad on August 29. "Now," he continued, "my dream, my aim is to rip apart, destroy, suffocate, and tear the enemy to pieces." Approximately half a million Russians and half a million German and Axis soldiers died in five months of savage fighting. "You do not understand the hatred," one Russian said to me after noticing I was reading a book on Stalingrad. "You have September 11 attacks in your country. How many killed? This was September 11 every day for almost two hundred days."
A local guide took me to see the massive statue of Mother Russia, who stands majestically atop the highest hill in Volgograd and commemorates the resilience of the soldiers and civilians who defended the city. She is more than one hundred feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Her right hand holds a sword, raised in defiance, and her left is outstretched in the direction from which the Axis troops invaded. Several hundred yards away is an indoor memorial with an eternal flame that pays tribute to those who perished. When my guide and I walked in, I heard tranquil but somewhat melancholic music playing. "Which Russian composer is that?" I asked.
My guide responded, "Actually it's Schumann."
I was incredulous. "They selected a German composer for the Stalingrad Memorial? Why didn't they pick a Russian?" The guide explained that when they built the monument in the 1960s, they wanted to send a message of reconciliation to the Germans who came to pay their respects to those who had died.
American veterans were also reaching out to former enemies. At the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii I met with two Pearl Harbor survivors, Dick Fiske and Everett Hyland, who, decades after the 1941 attack, befriended Japanese pilots who had flown in the raid. Fiske even put me in touch with one of these veterans, Zenji Abe, whom I met in Japan two months later. (In a terrible coincidence, the very morning I had lunch with Mr. Abe and his family in Tokyo, Dick Fiske passed away.) The two men had corresponded with one another before Fiske's death, but, regrettably, almost all of their letters have been lost.
Through a close friend named Mike Meyer who fought in Vietnam, I was introduced to Chuck Theusch, a veteran who frequently travels back to Vietnam to build libraries as a way to foster goodwill between our two nations. Chuck very kindly sent me copies of the letters he exchanged with a Vietnamese woman, Tran Thi Anh Thu, who worked at the My Lai Memorial. When they first met she wanted little to do with him. They are now friends, and with Thu's permission, Chuck provided me with a copy of their correspondences.
Whatever concerns I had about being confronted with resistance or a lack of cooperation on my trip proved completely unfounded. In every country people were going out of their way to be helpful and often at a significant emotional cost. Many of the stories and letters they were sharing with me brought back painful memories of losing those closest to them. An Australian woman named Olwyn Green gave me a copy of the letter she wrote to her husband Charlie in 1992, fifty years after his death in the Korean War. "I always told you how much I loved you," she stated, "I probably didn't tell you: You are the finest human being I have ever known." A Kuwaiti man named Abdul Hameed Al-Attar translated for me the last message he wrote to his son Jamal, who was unjustly imprisoned by the Iraqis during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and then never heard from again. The uncertainty of Jamal's fate made the situation all the more unbearable for the family; "[Y]our mother is still keeping your personal belongings in your room," Al-Attar wrote to his son, "checking them every morning as if you will be coming soon (probably today or tomorrow) she says with tears pouring from her red eyes." Statistics can accentuate the enormity of war but not its humanity, and these letters are stark reminders of the individual stories behind the numbers.
Many veterans generously contributed letters that were especially intimate and candid. "I am fearing for my life for the first time," a Dutch private first class named André Dekker in Srebrenica confided to his girlfriend before passionately declaring his love for her. "You're everything to me," he wrote, "my shoulder to cry on, my love nest, and everything you give to me exceeds my expectations. I feel good when I'm with you, I can be myself and together we are invincible." (Dekker survived.)
The veterans who offered these more revealing letters hoped that they might have a cathartic value for the men and women in the armed forces now. No one can truly understand military life the constant pressures, the separation from loved ones, both the thrill and terror of being sent into combat, the devastating shock of losing a buddy like those who have already been through it. The older veterans empathize deeply with the current generation of troops and want them to know that there is solace in realizing that others have borne these hardships too.
A Korean War veteran named Alfred Puntasecca Jr. gave me a copy of a letter he had sent to his parents and siblings in 1953 before heading back to the States. Nineteen years old at the time, he wanted to prepare them for the battle-hardened man he had become, and not the boy they once knew: "I'm looking forward to seeing you again, but I'm in no hurry to see the expressions on your faces when you see me," Puntasecca wrote. "It is going to be hard being civilized again. What the hell ever civilized means." He then added, "I am going to tell you now. You'll need a lot of patience with me. Patience, and, understanding. We all will. See you soon." Fifty-one years later, a nineteen-year-old soldier in Iraq named Scott Curry mailed a letter to his mom that included the following:
Mother's Day is coming so happy Mother's Day. I wish I was there for the 2nd year in a row I've missed so much since I left for the Army. That's what makes coming home more scary than here. At least here we know what to do, shoot back. Home I will not know what to do, how to act, that's what worries me. Here we use violence to fix problems. I can't do that at home. So I have to re-learn how to live a normal life. I miss you so much and can't wait to see you.
What struck me about the majority of the letters that people were sharing was how graphic they were. More so, in fact, than anything I had ever read before. "I came across one of our boys decomposed beyond all recognition," a Canadian chaplain named William Mayse wrote to his wife during World War I.
[H]e lay just as he had fallen the head was missing but all the accoutriments was buckled on, his rifle & helmet lay close by I cut the buckle off the belt as a momento, & we burried what remained of him I tried to find something by which he might be identified but it was impossible Poor boy in some far away home in Canada someone is mourning the loss of husband son or sweetheart & the saddest of all is, they will never know how he died or where he is burried, & even now they may be clinging to the hope, that he is still alive.
Both in the US and abroad, many of the people who were contributing letters voiced a frustration with how war is often romanticized in the popular culture. As evidenced in the letters themselves, this was not a new lament. "You say that you wish you were over here," Major Oscar Mitchell wrote to a friend named Sylvia Helene Hairston on April 15, 1944. Mitchell was serving in the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II, and he was quick to discourage Sylvia or anyone else from idealizing life on the front lines. "Although most people think that they are War Conscious, are they really? so far removed from the far-flung battle fronts, can they be?" He continued:
You are really War Conscious when you see the airplanes, in formation, early in the morning, flying to meet their rendezvous...and see this same formation returning in the evenings. But the number is not the same! Twelve went out, nine returned. You stand there, looking up, watching them fly into the distance; into and part of the horizon, then disappear. You wonder, what really did happen. Those that went down in flames....Do they die as you see them in the movies? I do not think so. Not with a smile on their lips and a happy gleam in their eyes, rather painfully and regretfully with the knowledge that this is it! You'd have to see the wounded streaming back from the front after a battle...above all, to see the light go out of men's eyes. Young men shaking from nervous exhaustion and crying like babies. Strong men they are, or were, who did not or will not have the chance, ever, to live normal lives....People may think they know what War is like. Their knowledge is facts of the mind. Mine is the war-torn body, scared to soul's depth. When I was in the States, War was far away, unreal. I had read, I had seen pictures, but now I know.
Many individuals who provided letters that depict the harsh realities of war stressed to me that they do not regard themselves as pacificists. They believe that there is cruelty and brutality in the world tyranny, genocide, slavery and if the worst of these evils cannot be defeated through peaceful means, they must be destroyed by violent ones. The combat veterans I met, in particular, are fiercely patriotic and proud of their military service, and their letters speak with great conviction about the courage of fallen comrades and the importance of honoring the freedoms for which they gave their lives.
What they abhor is the glorification of war itself. They believe that sanitizing or concealing its ugliness only trivializes the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve. They want people to understand the toll it takes not only on combatants, but on their family members and especially those who will receive a phone call or knock on the door informing them that their loved one has been killed. The wounds they suffer are every bit as traumatic and searing as the ones sustained on fields of battle, and they will last for the rest of their lives. The emotional aftershocks of war reverberate long after the peace treaties are signed.
And while many combat veterans recognize the allure of going off to battle and can well recall the intoxicating rush that comes from being under fire, they also know the exhilaration rarely lasts. It is tempered by exhaustion and hunger and endless hours of marching and waiting. It vanishes entirely when one sees a friend get shot to pieces or blown up and later shipped home in a flag-draped coffin. Civilians, too, often feel an initial sense of excitement when war is announced, and there is an undeniable electricity and tension in the air at the beginning of any conflict. Here again, the veterans are familiar with how easily that fervor can wane and how crippling it is to morale when troops suspect that support on the homefront has started to fade.
What they emphasize above all is that there is no greater decision a society can make than when or if it will declare war and if it does, it must prepare itself for the consequences. What war demands of those who serve in the military, as well as the suffering it inflicts on so many who do not, is often much worse than what people who have not experienced it firsthand can imagine. This was the theme most commonly expressed, implicitly and explicitly, in the letters I found during my travels throughout the United States and around the globe, and it was the sentiment conveyed to me with the greatest urgency in the conversations I had with those who have been affected by war in some profound way. Individually, the correspondences they shared represent the private letters of troops and civilians writing to a spouse or a parent or a friend or some other loved one about what they have seen and felt and endured.
Collectively, these are their messages to the world.
Copyright © 2005 by Andrew Carroll