PUTTING WAR INTO WORDS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After bullets and blood come words, little bits of shrapnel from the soul.

"I feel these letters capture history," says Andy Carroll, a man who has just relived all of America's wars.

Carroll spent two years tramping through 35 countries and every conflict involving the United States - from Afghanistan to Vietnam, from the Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom - on a marathon correspondence quest.

He rummaged through the world's collective attic, searching for letters that spoke eloquently to any aspect of any conflict in which his countrymen have ever fought.

Behind the Lines is the product of that road trip: a compilation of some 200 of the best pieces of writing he found. From soldiers and civilians. From our side and theirs. It's shoulder-heavingly sad and, at times, funny; disturbing and frequently inspiring.

Carroll, a 35-year-old Washingtonian and self-described accidental historian, is on a 50-city promotional tour, the publishing industry's equivalent of a forced march. Last week, he was in Baltimore for a reading at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library.

He began with some heavy artillery.

"This is just a young 19- or 20-year-old kid writing home to his parents," Carroll tells an audience of about 15 people. "It's almost like this Heminwayesque short story."

He opens the book and reads the unflinching account of U.S. Army Cpl. Maitland Livsey, who was chasing Nazis through rural France in February 1945:

"We ran into three Jerries in the farmyard one of whom tried to hide in a half-full rain barrel, of all places. I'll never forget the neat triangle of holes Joe's tommy gun put in that barrel! I was almost hypnotized as I watched the water change gradually pink and then red as it spouted out the oaken bullet holes. As we started off across the fields I glanced back at the rain barrel. A dog sniffed warily at marshy ground around it. A large rooster, which had disappeared in a flurry of feathers such a short time ago, now crowed defiantly at the world."

Four years ago, Carroll edited War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars, another archival effort that focused solely on American military personnel and their families. It made The New York Times best-seller list. Behind the Lines is more ambitious in scope and, he admits, more "intense."

But not antiwar.

He likens it to the movie Saving Private Ryan, which told the story of the D-Day invasion from the everyday soldier's muddy-boots-on-the-ground perspective.

"One of the reasons we want to peel back the layers of warfare is it shows the bloody mess underneath," Carroll explains. "That's how we pay tribute to them. This is what they went through."

Behind the Lines features an expectedly epic cast of characters: a worried Kuwaiti father writing to a son who hasn't returned from the gulf war; a young Philadelphia woman fretting (needlessly, it turned out) about the fall of Baltimore under the British naval bombardment of September 1814; an American lieutenant in World War I sending a letter to his father, telling him in graphic detail how he retrieved his brother's shattered body from a makeshift battlefield grave.

The book includes a long letter in which Lila Oliver Asher, now 83 and living in Chevy Chase, describes her visits to military hospitals. Asher was an unconventional USO volunteer, a roving artist who drew keepsake portraits for some 3,600 blind, maimed and shell-shocked veterans.

"My husband was overseas in field artillery," Oliver recalls, "and he said I saw more war than he did."

Many people warned Carroll not to expect much cooperation on his world tour. These days pro-American sentiment is at low tide in many countries, they said. To the contrary, however, he discovered government officials, museum curators and complete strangers were happy to share. Some stories begged to be told.

Patricia Barrett of Ruxton went to see Carroll because one of her children just gave her Behind the Lines for a birthday present. Coincidentally, a relative had recently unearthed a stash of letters that her husband and his three brothers wrote to their mother while stationed overseas during World War II.

"I've been a widow for 17 years," she tells Carroll during the question-and answer period at the library. "To have these now, it's like he's talking to me. A beautifully written letter is a treasure."

The author knows that from his own experience.

In December 1989, during Carroll's sophomore year at Columbia University, his parents' Georgetown home was destroyed by fire. His room got the worst of it. He lost virtually everything he owned, including letters a friend had sent from China during the heat of the previous spring's Tiananmen Square uprising.

The experience gave Carroll, a college English major, a sudden appreciation for history and the fragility of life. He went on something of a preservation bender.

In 1991, he read about a speech Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian emigre poet, had given in which he lamented that Americans were becoming immune to the wonder of words. Poetry, in particular, was evaporating from the literary scene, he said.

Carroll dropped Brodsky a note offering to help change that state of affairs and, to his surprise, heard back. The two subsequently hatched a plan (formally known as the American Poetry and Literacy Project) to flood the country with poems.

They raised seed money, then some corporate dollars, and pretty soon Carroll - the project's unpaid executive director - was distributing poetry books by the thousands. To a homeless shelter in San Diego. To a nursing home in Washington. To public libraries in Austin, Texas.

Brodsky died in 1996, but Carroll still wears his poetry-preservation hat. In 1998, still miffed about the Tiananmen Square mementos he'd lost, he branched out into letters. He hit upon the idea of starting the Legacy Project, a grassroots effort to save American wartime correspondence before it all disappeared into landfills.

Carroll made a plea to syndicated advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, of "Dear Abby" fame. She wrote a column on his behalf. Within days he was buried in war letters. They've been rolling in for seven years now; some 75,000 and counting.

First War Letters, now Behind the Lines. Next up is a National Endowment for the Arts Project, "Operation Homecoming," that Carroll has been drafted to head up. With help from authors such as Bobbie Ann Mason, he's conducting writing workshops at military bases around the country, teaching servicemen and women the tools of short story, poetry and essay writing, plus journal keeping. An Operation Homecoming anthology is scheduled for publication in 2006.

Through it all, Carroll continues to live in his one-bedroom Washington apartment and to draw only a subsistence-level salary. He voluntarily blew most of his Behind The Lines advance on travel expenses. He also donated more than $400,000 in royalties from War Letters to assorted veterans groups and nonprofit organizations.

"He is very genuine," says Mike Meyer, administrator of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation, which has benefited from Carroll's largesse. "He's one of those examples of somebody who cares so much he's pretty much put himself in second place. I don't think Andrew has reached his highest level yet."

Several years ago Carroll asked author Christopher Buckley to do a public reading on behalf of the Legacy Project. They've since become friends.

"Every now and then, Nature coughs up an Andy Carroll, but Nature doesn't do that every day," says Buckley. "He basically lives a monastic existence. ... Nobody else would gather these letters.

"And he's the Johnny Appleseed of poetry. He is 'a river to his people' in the Arab phrase. I think in another time he would have been a priest."

At the tail end of Carroll's Baltimore reading a man in full dress Marine uniform stands up and introduces himself: Capt. Gerald Finnegan. By his side is Lance Cpl. Everett Wilson. They're currently stationed at Quantico, Va., having recently returned from combat duty in Iraq.

Finnegan donated a letter to the Legacy Project, but has never met Carroll. He was moved by War Letters and now the new book. Likewise Wilson.

"We wanted to both come up here and thank Andrew," says Finnegan.

Before leaving, the captain pulls a letter from his pocket. He sent it to Wilson's uncle last April after a pitched battle in An Nasiriyah, Iraq. He begins to read aloud:

"... As the officer in charge I was in awe of Lance Corporal Wilson's fearlessness and devotion to duty. In my eleven years in the military, I've never met ..."

Finnegan chokes up. He asks Wilson to continue reading for him.

When the corporal finishes the letter, Andy Carroll steps forward. The Legacy Project never sleeps. A soldier must do his duty. There is history here to capture.

"Can I get your e-mail address?" he says to Wilson. "I want those voices represented."

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