Reading Group Guide
Bringing together a remarkable collection of voices, Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War features 50 dramatic, historic, humorous, and inspiring letters written during the American Revolution through the present day by U.S. troops and their families.
From an impassioned e-mail by an Army doctor serving in Iraq that addresses the recurring question in times of war, "Where is God?" to a lighthearted letter by a World War II nurse who had a memorable encounter with the Pope, these correspondences reveal the many ways that American military personnel and their loved ones have written about God, spirituality, and religion.
“Grace Under Fire is not really about war, but faith,” says the book’s editor, Andrew Carroll. “Our troops and veterans have experienced harrowing and sometimes traumatic situations and they write with great wisdom about what is truly important in life, especially in relation to faith and God. There is so much that every one of us, military and civilian alike, can learn from these men and women about resilience, devotion, love, gratitude, heroism, and sacrifice.”
The letters and e-mails featured in Grace Under Fire tell extraordinary stories and represent a stirring tribute to the everyday courage that arises in even the most devastating circumstances. And these correspondences can also inspire meaningful dialogue about profound issues that affect us all. We hope that the topics and questions that follow will enhance your reading of the messages shared in this powerful and insightful book.
Before your reading group or book club gets together to discuss Grace Under Fire, you might want to encourage everyone to bring with them, if possible, a war letter (or e-mail) that they or someone else in their family has written or received. For those who do not have family war correspondence to share, any special or meaningful letter will suffice.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. What does Andrew Carroll's introduction illustrate about the nature of
adversity? What are the main turning points, both positive and negative, that impacted his faith? Talk about pivotal moments in your own life that influenced your relationship with God.
2. Revisit James Williams's letter on page 7, which opens the collection. What aspects of patriotism, Providence, and love of family does he articulate? Do you think that troops today express the same sentiments in their letters and e-mails home? How do you think correspondences today might be similar to or different from ones written more than 200 years ago?
3. Several of the Civil War letters demonstrate the conviction that many soldiers and their loved ones held that God was “on their side” in the war. What do these letters and the outcome of the war suggest to us about the mystery of God’s purpose?
4. Beginning on page 27, David Thompson’s May 1919 letter to his parents describe his efforts to find and properly bury his brother, Joseph, who fought and died in World War I. Despite Thompson’s understandable grief about Joseph’s death, the tone of his letter is not one of great despair. In fact, there is almost an element of relief. Why is this? What other impressions did you have of this very intimate and candid letter?
5. Alexander Goode’s letter to his fiancée on page 33 expresses his love for the Bible as the word of God, but also for its wisdom and poetic beauty. What are some of your favorite verses from the Old and New Testaments? Why are they important to you?
6. There are many correspondences in the book, such as George Syer’s message to his newborn son (page 41) and Joe Graser’s letter to his younger brother (page 60), that offer words of advice or encouragement to a family member. What values do these letters emphasize? What would you write in such a letter to a loved one?
7. James Penton drew a sketch of a nun caring for barnyard animals while the surrounding area was being shelled, and he included the drawing in a letter (page 48) about the strength of this nun’s religious devotion. How do you define true faith? Who are people you’ve known who’ve demonstrated “grace under fire”?
8. Probably the hardest letter for any person to write is a message of condolence to someone who has lost a loved one. Revisit the letters by Samuel Roosevelt Johnson (page 14), war nurse Maude Fisher (page 24), Chaplain George M. Phillips (page 65), and Chaplain H. E. Van Meter (page 67). How are these letters different from one another? How are they similar? What would you emphasize in such a letter?
9. The letters by Syd Brisker and Molt Shuler Jr. on pages 72 and 87, respectively, describe “improvised” religious ceremonies in which they participated. What do their letters tell us about the need for such rituals? Why are these ceremonies important to them? Why are they important to anyone?
10. The sacrifices made by American service members are evident throughout Grace Under Fire and particularly in Chaplain Ray Stubbe’s letters (which begin on page 93) from Vietnam. What role does faith play in the lives of the selfless troops to whom he ministers? How is his own military service—and indeed, the service of all military chaplains—an example of selflessness and sacrifice?
11. Movies and video games often portray killing in a lighthearted way and rarely show the emotional consequences of what it’s like to take another person’s life, even if it’s in self-defense. How does Ron “Butch” Livergood feel after he shoots an enemy soldier? Did his letter (page 101), which reads almost like a confession, surprise you?
12. One of the most universal questions asked in times of war and amidst so much suffering is, “Where is God?” Walter Bromwich poses the question in a letter to his pastor in 1918 (page 23), almost 90 years later Gloria Caldas struggles with the question after she learns that her son has been killed in Iraq (page 127), and an Army doctor named Scott Barnes addresses the same question during his deployment to the Middle East (page 129). After grappling with this issue, which relates to any kind of human suffering and tragedy, what conclusions did these three individuals come to? Did you find their answers convincing? Is there anything you would add to what they have written?
13. True and faithful love is another theme that runs throughout Grace Under Fire. What temptations and challenges do troops encounter when they are far from home (see in particular: John M. Allen’s letter on page 21, Roy Fisher’s letter on page 82, and the e-mails between Sandi Douglass and Donna Kohout, which begin on page 132)? What do these and some of the other letters between spouses and sweethearts in the book teach us about the nature of genuine love? What values do these couples celebrate and cherish?
14. The last letter in the book is by Dell Myrick, who was reunited after almost 50 years with her high school sweetheart. How is this correspondence a “war letter”? What does their story and Dell's words suggest to us about fate and grace?
15. Overall, which letters and stories in the book affected you the most? Andrew Carroll writes in his introduction, “At its heart, this book is not about war. It is about courage, devotion, honor, resilience, and, of course, faith.” Do you agree with this, or do you see Grace Under Fire as more of a “war” book?
Andrew Carroll frequently travels the country to spread the word about the Legacy Project and Grace Under Fire. If you’re interested in having him talk with your reading group or book club, please write to: WarLetters2004@yahoo.com.
Grace Under Fire
Letters of Faith in Times of War
Edited by Andrew Carroll
ISBN 978-0-385-51974-8 * Hardcover
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