An Interview with Andrew Carroll
1. Grace Under Fire was the result of a major tragedy in your life. Talk about the genesis of the book.
This whole effort to honor our troops and veterans by preserving their letters (and now e-mails) really began after my home burned down in 1989. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but everything was destroyed. The worst part of the fire was losing all of our letters, and I started asking other people what they were doing to save their own family correspondence. I was shocked by the number of veterans I spoke to in particular who told me that they had thrown their letters away. I wrote to 'Dear Abby' and asked her if she would help us spread the word about a new initiative I had launched, the Legacy Project, to seek out and safeguard wartime letters, and she agreed. Since the day her column ran on November 11, 1998, I've received more than 80,000 letters and e-mails from every conflict in our nation's history.
2. Isn't it true that this experience initially made you lose your faith in God?
When I put out the call for war correspondence, I think many people assumed that meant I was only looking for battle-related letters. The first wave of submissions focused primarily on combat, and reading about so much death and suffering caused me to ask the timeless question, 'Where is God?' But as the Legacy Project expanded and I emphasized that we were looking for war letters on any subject, I started to receive letters by troops who had written home about the courage, compassion, and heroism of their brothers and sisters in arms. These servicemen and women had seen the worst of human nature, but they had also witnessed the best, and their letters not only renewed my faith, they deepened it. The letters in Grace Under Fire are, for the most part, very inspiring, and I think they'll strengthen the faith of everyone who reads them.
3. Why do you focus on letters? What makes them so special?
I love letters and e-mails for many reasons. American troops have participated in some of the world's most historic moments, and their letters capture these events like nothing else. Out of the 80,000 correspondences we've received, there are eyewitness accounts of the first shots fired at Lexington, General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the battle for Belleau Wood in World War I, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the D-Day invasion, the Inchon landing in 1950, the fight for Khe Sanh in 1968, and the ground campaign into Baghdad in 2003. The letters and e-mails by our troops record not only what they saw, but what it felt like to be in the front row of history.
What also amazes me about the war letters I've received is how beautifully written they are. Young servicemen and women, some of whom didn't even graduate from high school, have penned the most compelling and unforgettable writings I've ever read. In fact, I truly see these war letters as our nation's undiscovered literature, and so much of it remains tucked away in attics, basements, and closets throughout this country.
What I most appreciate about these correspondences, however, is that they humanize our troops and their families. Their words reveal distinct personalities and voices, and they remind us that these men and women are not just soldiers, airmen, sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines. They are someone's child, sibling, spouse, parent, or best friend. And I think we get a much better sense of the sacrifices they are making for all of us when we get a glimpse into their lives and recognize their humanity and uniqueness as individuals.
4. What are some of your favorite letters in Grace Under Fire?
Every one of them is memorable in some way, and I am partial to them all, but there are definitely some stand outs. The letters by the two brothers who commanded opposing forces in the Civil War, each one convinced he was doing God's will, are dramatic and heartbreaking. The letter by the soldier who was almost lost at sea after his ship was torpedoed is absolutely riveting. The two letters by Alexander Goode, one of the famed Immortal Chaplains, are truly historic and allowed me to highlight one of the greatest war stories I've ever heard. And the e-mails from Afghanistan and the Middle East, especially Major Clint Sundt's description of the Biblical history of Iraq, are as striking and profound as anything written in wars gone by.
I really struggled with how to conclude the book, and I was blessed to find an incredibly poignant letter by a woman named Dell Myrick, who wrote to her husband Herman on their wedding anniversary. They had met right before World War II and fallen in love, and then Herman went off to fight. When Dell didn't hear from him, she assumed he was no longer interested in her. It turned out, Dell's sister—out of jealousy—was intercepting his letters! By the time Dell figured this out, it was too late and she and Herman had already started seeing other people. Fifty years later, they ran into each other serendipitously. They were both single at the time, started dating, fell in love again, and got married. It's one of my favorite stories, and, again, it was the perfect letter on which to end the book.
5. Grace Under Fire features letters from every major war in our history. Are letters from the Revolution and Civil War much different from e-mails written today?
The main difference is the formality of the language. Other than that, I find the emotions very much the same. I begin the book with a letter by a soldier fighting in the War of Independence, and the sentiments expressed to his young son are almost identical to those I've seen in e-mails coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether you're going off to war with a musket or an M-16, the individual experience of leaving home and putting yourself in harm's way is rather universal. And as troops and their families cope with the anxiety of these deployments, one of the subjects they write most frequently about is the enduring power of faith. Each person reflects on it and values it differently, but the importance of believing in something greater than one's self is a theme that resonates from war to war and across the generations.
6. You've said that you consider U.S. troops "great, unrecognized theologians." What do you mean by that?
Many troops have confronted life and death circumstances, and these experiences tend to make themóas they would anyone—more contemplative about larger issues. Their letters reflect this thoughtfulness and contain a great deal of wisdom about morality, religion, and spirituality, and I think there is much we can learn from them. Two of my favorite letters in Grace Under Fire confront the question that, as I mentioned earlier, caused my own crisis of faith, which is: 'Where is God amidst all of the suffering and destruction of war?' Private Walter Bromwich, who fought in World War I, asked the question in a letter he wrote home to his pastor in 1918, and almost ninety years later an Army doctor named Scott Barnes mused on the same subject in an e-mail he sent back to the States. Each answers the question in his own way, but they come essentially to the same conclusion—God is in the hearts of their fellow troops who demonstrate extraordinary selflessness and courage time after time.
7. Are there atheists in foxholes?
There are indeed, although I've received very few letters by them! But they do exist, of course. I've never liked that 'no atheists in foxholes' quote, not only because it isn't true, but because it implicitly suggests that wartime faith isn't genuine—that it's a short-term and self-serving, 'God, please just get me through this battle' kind of faith. Certainly troops might pray more fervently when the bombs and bullets start to fly, but there are very good reasons why faith can be emboldened in wartime that have nothing to do with one's own immediate survival.
Living in a war zone is a very intense experience, and it tends to concentrate the mind on what is truly meaningful as opposed to the superficial nonsense that often distracts us in our daily lives, like the latest celebrity gossip or media scandal. What troops do become focused on are the important things in life, such as family and faith.
Also, the most persuasive reason why troops don't just cling to faith for their own protection is, in my opinion, that so often it is their belief in a higher power that prompts them to risk their lives for their comrades in arms. Faith can certainly offer us solace and comfort in difficult times, but it also makes demands of us—to serve and give thanks to God and to sacrifice for others. What I love about the men and women featured in Grace Under Fire is not just what they've written about faith, but the fact that through their bravery and compassion they are examples of faith in action. There are countless American heroes out there right now putting their lives on the line for this country, and I wish we heard more about them in the media. They deserve to be on the cover of newspapers and magazines more so than any pop idol or movie star.
8. You're on a campaign to encourage churches and other places of worship to more actively support our troops. What are you asking them to do?
I want to emphasize that Iím not criticizing any of these places for not doing enough, as I know many are working to help our troops already. But I do think we can all, as a nation, do more to remind our men and women in uniform that we haven't forgotten them. Even if the fighting in Iraq ended tomorrow, we would still have troops stationed in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Korea, Africa, and countless other places around the world. Faith plays such a central role in the lives of our troops, and if all of the churches and synagogues rallied to send care packages, phone cards, and letters; 'adoptedî a local base or home for the wounded to ensure that they have everything they need; or raised funds for nonprofits that help military personnel and their families, it would make a huge difference. (To learn more, please see the 'Supporting Our Troops and Book Giveaway for the Troops' links on this website.) I'm donating proceeds from Grace Under Fire to some of my favorite charities that assist the troops, and I am also going to underwrite a massive giveaway of books to military chaplains.
9. You write that Grace Under Fire isn't about war. What, ultimately, is it about?
The letters featured in the book were written, of course, in the context of war, and this is what makes them so breathtaking. But in the end, I think that Grace Under Fire is not about war, but faith—about finding it and holding onto it even in the most seemingly hopeless circumstances. We all fight battles in our lives against sin, temptation, and doubt, and I believe that every one of us can find hope and inspiration in the words of those who have faced even tougher battles and not only survived, but come through them stronger than before.
Even if we've never served in the armed forces, we will discover great counsel and insight in these letters about matters that transcend war. For example, those of us who are civilians will never have to write a letter to the parents of a combatant who's been killed explaining how he died, as many chaplains in the book had to do. But most of us will, at some point in our lives, have to send a condolence letter to a friend or relative who's lost a loved one, and we can learn from these chaplains letters how to write such a message with great sensitivity and sympathy. There are also many love letters throughout Grace Under Fire, as well as letters of advice and support between family members. All of these letters can help us as we search for the right words to extend to someone else, or to fortify our own spirits when the need arises.
10. You've also said that Grace Under Fire might be your last book of war letters. Is this true?
As long as I'm alive I will continue working on the Legacy Project and talking about the importance of preserving our nation's wartime letters and e-mails. This is something I feel very strongly about, and far from waning, my passion for this effort only grows as I discover more and more extraordinary correspondence as time goes on. I'd also like to do more about posting letters and e-mails online so that they're more accessible to a wider audience. But having edited three other collections of wartime writings—War Letters, Behind the Lines, and Operation Homecoming—I think that Grace Under Fire will be my last. This, in many ways, is the most personal book I've done, in that I've written more about my own spiritual journey, and I like the idea of having my last anthology be something that comes from the soul and is especially meaningful to me.
Many people have (understandably) assumed that I started the Legacy Project to collect war letters for the purpose of editing these books. Actually, the opposite is true; I use the books as a way to promote the Legacy Project. So as much as I want people to help me spread the word about Grace Under Fire, which I absolutely love and think is a beautiful, powerful, and inspiring little book, most of all I hope that they'll join me in the larger mission of seeking out and preserving our nationís wartime correspondence. They represent the pages of our national autobiography, they are a treasure trove of hard-earned wisdom, and most of all they are a lasting tribute to those who have sacrificed so much for this nation.