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Featured here are dramatic accounts of combat written immediately after the most ferocious battles American troops have ever faced; poignant expressions of love by homesick husbands and sweethearts; humorous anecdotes and gripes about insufferable conditions; thoughtful reflections on the nature of warfare; and perhaps most devastating, a startling number of last letters, heartfelt messages penned just hours before the sender was killed.
War Letters is a testament to the heroic contributions and astonishing literary voices of common soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors, as well as war nurses, journalists, spies, and chaplains. There are also previously unpublished letters by such legendary figures as William T. Sherman, Clara Barton, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernie Pyle, Helen Keller, Douglas MacArthur, Julia Child, Dwight Eisenhower, Norman Schwarzkopf, and America's first black general, Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
"Individually, the war letters collected here are distinct, finely cut works of art, some more polished, some rougher around the edges, but each one exquisite in its own right. Together, they create a larger narrative: the story of Americans at war against themselves and other nations," observes Carroll in his introduction. These historic letters capture the full fury and intensity of warfare, and they reveal in vivid detail what the servicemen and -women of this nation have experienced and sacrificed on the front lines. War Letters is a lasting tribute to those who have fought for this country, and a celebration of the enduring power and lyricism of personal letters.
Excerpt from The Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, & Bosnia
S. Sgt. Dan Welch, a tank commander with the 1st Infantry Division, Seventh Corps, was also elated by Iraq's surrender. But in a letter written to his mother and extended family back in Maine a week later, Welch began to express more ambivalence about the brief, almost surreal war he had just experienced. Welch was also unsettled by the Allies' decision not to assist the Iraqi rebels struggling to topple Hussein. (Marianne is his wife and Chris is his three-year-old son. Although Welch states that he is writing from the "King Faud Military City," he later realized he was, in fact, at the King Khalid Military City.)
8 March 91
I'm now back in Saudi Arabia. I'm in a maintenance collection point about 20 miles from King Faud Military City (K.F.M.C). The rest of my unit is still in N. Kuwait. My tank developed an oil leak part way through the fighting, and finally quit 2 days ago.
I don't know if KFMC is on the map, but if it is you know where I am. I sure don't. I wrote some place names I saw on the way here on the back of my hand, but I did my laundry today and......
We passed Kuwait City on the coast road in the middle of the night. I can't describe it. I mean the scene on the highway. We all just looked at it in the moonlight as we drove through the now silent carnage, going "God damn, God damn......"
I talked to a lieutenant today who saw it during the day while it was still fresh, and he gave an interesting description of the dead that still littered the highway, vehicles, etc. He picked up a beret out of the front seat of a car, with a dead Iraqi in the back seat, eyes wide open, frozen in a silent scream.
I still think of the guy I shot the day before we attacked. If I hadn't done it, he could have been in an EPW camp right now, waiting to go home, just like me. He probably would have surrendered along with most of the others, just one day later.
We should be able to get to the phones in the next day or two. You'll already know if I did when you get this.
They're talking we'll be here like probably three weeks or so, then move into the KFMC itself for 3 weeks or so, and then move from there toward the aircraft. We heard the first guys got home today. 100 from 24th Mech at Ft. Stewart.
I guess I haven't said anything much about what I'd done during the ground war. I started writing to Marianne about it, but it didn't come out right. We didn't do much shooting, though we (my tank) expended more ammo than any of the others in my platoon. We never shot another tank or vehicle, except one suspect tank, that, after the dust from the artillery settled, ended up an already dead heavy truck. We shot up some trenches and bunkers, mostly empty. But you never really know. We ran over some AP mines and unexploded DPICM and cluster bombs here and there, received some incoming artillery off to our flank once, etc. Mine missed an anti-tank mine by about 2 feet on the right side once coming around a dune, and at our speed would have probably gone off under my gunner and I.
It never seemed like a war. More like a field problem. Even when stuff was burning all around you and firing going off all over the place, artillery firing from behind you and landing to your front. It was very real, but more a curiosity than anything else. I just can't describe it.
Like one time 21 was right next to me, and we were on the move. He was on my right, and ran over an AP mine or submunition with his left track. It exploded and sent shit flying past me. I was up out of my hatch, and the first thing that came to mind was can I get to my camera before the smoke clears? I didn't even think to duck. And the L.T. (21) just throws his hands up and smiles, like "Oh well".
The first time I ran over one I thought that 23, to my left had fired his main gun. I didn't realize 'till one of the others ran over one what had happened. Sometimes the stuff blows a hole through the track, etc. Sometimes it doesn't scratch it.
When we were breaching the main Iraqi defense line in the neutral zone, an idiot popped up with an AK from a trench and started firing. Mine was the first to return fire, and he didn't pop back up. Although the muzzle fask was pointing at us, you just don't think of it as someone shooting at you. Just a target and you engage it, like on a range.
Right after I released the mineroller and was linking back up with the platoon, some incoming artillery rounds landed maybe 300-400 yards from us to the left and my only consideration was that it wasn't a very good shot. And the second volley never came, so I just figured that our counter-battery must have had better aim.
Can you understand what I'm saying? I think I would have had to have gotten hit for it to seem different. I guess I've played it so much for the last ten years that it just didn't seem much different than the training. I've had field problems that were tougher. This only lasted for four days. It wasn't even long enough to seem like a war. The waiting and worrying before we did it were worse than doing it.
The only time I was ever really afraid was a couple of weeks before we did it. Then I got over that. After that, the only time I thought much about it was when I would picture that split second as the impact would rip my cupola from the turret and half my body would collapse onto my gunner's back, and the resulting tears back home. But not even that from the time the prep bombardment ended and we rolled forward through the cease fire.
The thing that was hardest for me was knowing how Marianne and you, Ma, were probably taking this back home. The image I've had of you two sitting in front of the T.V. afraid that I'm already dead, can and has choked me up and brought tears to my eyes. Even now as I write this I'm hoping that Marianne isn't still waiting for the "We're sorry" Team to come knock at the door. I wish I could get to a phone to relieve the pain.
You don't know what it's like to hold an M-16 up to a man's back and make him clear out of a trench, and pick up a few pieces of rock hard bread, blue and green with mold, and break pieces off and eat them.
Or realizing you came a few feet from crushing live men that you thought were dead, and only saw at the last moment because they were too afraid to stand up.
It's only been the last couple of days that I've come to realize the horror that has taken place here. It's not a personal feeling of horror, but more an overall picture of horror. And I think it's taken so long because with only the small number of exceptions on our part, it was almost entirely theirs.
I can only imagine what it was like for those who were part of the carnage of which we witnessed the silent aftermath on that highway. It is just so very strange.
I'm just now realizing the significance of all these things I've been through and seen, that were at the time merely curiosities. It's just different now. I don't know if I'm really explaining it or leaving you wondering what the hell I'm trying to get across.
I wish that that night that we were mopping up the remains of that republican guards division that there had been another one behind it, so that there would be less of them left. We have now left the rebels in Iraq with a much harder problem to solve in their struggle. And when we pulled up to Basra, we had to halt for about an hour while a battalion of Rep. Gds. T-72's pulled out of the positions that we sat in for 3 days before we withdrew. They left one behind that they couldn't get started, and I smashed out all the optics and visions blocks with a tanker's bar with delight, knowing how much work and money they'd spent fixing it. We should have torched it after we stripped it, but by that time it was a no-no.
The news said that rebels had come to our lines asking us to join them, and also said they were running short on ammo. Of course we couldn't join them, but I and others would have led them to the vast stock piles in our vicinity if they had come to us.
I think we've made a mistake and not finished this the way it should have been ended. There is now a weakness in my heart for the people of Iraq. I'm still trying to explain what has gone on here. The next time you go to the drive-thru at McDonalds, remember that you haven't been living off rice, onions, and radiator water in your hole in the ground for the last month and a half, hoping you won't be exterminated by a pilot you don't hate, because someone told you if you didn't they would kill you and your family.
The next time you see someone throwing garbage at the White House, know that a helicopter is not going to spray them with nerve gas.
Don't hate the guy that has been busy burning Kuwait hotels and dragging people off, because it's been happening in his hometown for quite a while now, and by now he probably doesn't even realize what he's doing.
It may appear to most of us over here and to you back home that we've done our jobs, but we've screwed up and didn't finish it. He's still alive, and unless somehow the rebels finish what we've started, we may be back.
I guess I'm finally starting to feel I've fought in a war.
This is what I expected it to be like in the first place before I came over here. It just took a while for it to sink in that it really was. I think the easy victory just clouded the undertones until I reflected on it for a while here tonight.
But I still think we did the right thing, although we didn't go far enough. I still like what I do, this hasn't changed that. And I'm not psycologically scarred or maimed for life. If anything, this has just reinforced all I've believed in before I came over here. And I'll be home soon.
P.S. I hope you're saving all my letters. Someday I'd like to go through them with Chris.
Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Carroll
But while working on a collection of American correspondence (Letters of a Nation), I was horrified by how many times I heard veterans say they had thrown away all their old letters because they felt no one would be interested in what they had written. I wrote to "Dear Abby," who had generously endorsed Letters of a Nation, asking her if she would encourage her readers to seek out and preserve their war letters. I rented a tiny post office box in hopes a few readers would send in photocopies of anything they had that was particularly dramatic, historic, or impassioned. The column ran on November 11, 1998.
Three days later the post office rang. "You need to come down and pick up your mail, now," I was told. Tens of thousands of letters were pouring in from around the country. I was overwhelmed not only by the sheer quantity of letters but by their power and intensity. I don't know if it was the imminent threat of death or the jarring nature of what these young men and women saw, but there was something about their letters that was unlike anything I had ever read before. They were deeply emotional, graphic, whimsical, and remarkably descriptive. Stretching as far back as the American Revolution, many of these letters related eyewitness accounts of Shiloh and Gettysburg, D-Day and Pearl Harbor, the Tet Offensive, and even Desert Storm. More than 50,000 in all have come over the past several years, and the best 200 of these -- from the Civil War to the present day -- are being published, all for the first time, in War Letters.
Although the book means the world to me, it was not the reason the Legacy Project was created. War Letters is part of a larger mission to safeguard old wartime correspondence for future generations. All of my earnings from the book are being donated to veterans groups and similar nonprofits around the country, and we have set up a web site (www.warletters.com) with free information on how to preserve old correspondence. The site also showcases additional letters we could not include in the book due to space limitations. We will continue adding letters to the site in the coming months.
Having read through literally tens of thousands of letters by young servicemen and -women -- many of whom who were ultimately killed in action -- I no longer think of war as an abstract concept. These individuals are more than just names to me now. They have personalities. I see War Letters as a tribute to these men and women, many of whom are no longer alive to tell their stories. Now their voices can be heard again. (Andrew Carroll)