"Behind the Lines is an extraordinary achievement, a compendium of
voices at once immediate and timeless, heart-breaking and entertaining.
Andrew Carroll bears witness to cataclysm by allowing participants to
speak for themselves, achieving an evocative power rare even in the
best war literature."
Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943
Behind the Lines is the first book of its kind: a dramatic, intimate, and revealing look at warfare as seen through the personal correspondence of U.S. and foreign troops and civilians. From handwritten missives penned during the American Revolution to e-mails from Afghanistan and Iraq, Behind the Lines captures the full spectrum of emotions—exhilaration, fear, devotion, courage, heartache, patriotism, rage, and even humor expressed in times of major conflicts.
These letters, Andrew Carroll has said, represent "the world's great undiscovered literature," and readers will be captivated by their emotional intensity, candor, and historical significance.
Behind the Lines is also a very personal book that chronicles Andrew Carroll's three-year journey throughout the U.S. and around the world, including to Iraq and Afghanistan, to seek out these rare and previously unpublished letters and e-mails. The stories he found and the people he met are an integral part of the book.
1. Andrew Carroll's last book, War Letters, features wartime correspondence only by Americans, while Behind the Lines includes letters by both U.S. and foreign troops and civilians. In the introduction to the new book, Carroll says that American veterans encouraged him to seek out foreign war letters. Does it surprise you that they asked him to do this? Why do you think these veterans wanted him to include letters by soldiers and civilians from other countries who have fought either with or against the United States?
2. Behind the Lines begins with a first-person account of Carroll's trip around the world to seek out wartime letters, and the book includes numerous photographs from his journey. How does this more personal approach affect the way you read the book and the letters Carroll found? Or does it not make a difference?
3. Carroll writes in the Editor's Note that, while the book includes foreign letters from more than 30 nations, he only focuses on wars in which Americans have actively participated. Do you feel this is too limiting? Or would the book have lost its focus by trying to represent as many global and regional conflicts as possible?
4. Carroll also writes that, both in the U.S. and abroad, people went out of their to give him letters that are quite intimate and emotional. (See pages 61, 417-422, 428, and 436.) Why do you think they were so willing to share these extremely personal stories?
5. What is your overall reaction to the foreign letters in the book? Do they detract from the U.S. letters or enhance them? Do you find cultural differences in these letters or do they seem similar to those by Americans? How do these letters change or confirm your views of war?
6. Some of the letters in the book are quite vivid and depict combat in great detail. (See pages 135-137, 188-192, 217, and 355.) Why do you think the troops wrote these extremely descriptive letters to loved ones, including children?
7. What is your reaction to the chapter featuring humorous letters, which begin on page 221? What role does humor play in the lives of troops on the front lines and of their families back home? Does it make light of the seriousness of war or does it help those who fight relieve the tension of combat?
8. When we think of wartime correspondence, we often visualize letters written by soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors, and other combatants. Behind the Lines features many letters by military spouses, parents, and other loved ones on the home front, as well as letters by and about civilians. Why do you believe Carroll included these? Do you find them as powerful as the combat letters? Should they be considered "war letters"?
9. Similar to the previous question, why do you think Carroll included a chapter focusing on "aftermath" letters? What are some of the emotional issues veterans and their families grapple with in the months and years after a war?
10. "For most servicemen and women—officers and enlisted personnel alike—few tasks are more emotionally demanding than writing to a fallen comrade's next of kin. Every word they put to paper will be read and reread by grieving relatives and will affect how that soldier, Marine, airman, or sailor is remembered forever" (page 115). After reading several of the condolence letters, is it your opinion that these letters should be specific or vague about the details concerning a combatant's death? How would you approach writing such a letter? Which type of letter would you rather receive?
11. "Death over here has become such a light matter that I've almost forgotten that it was supposed to be accompanied by sadness" (Joseph Portnoy, page 169). Did reading so many wartime accounts desensitize you to the horrors of war? If so, should the book contain fewer letters in order to create a greater impact? Or did the quantity and diversity of letters help you to better understand all of the different emotions troops and their families experience during a conflict?
12. On page 207 Carroll writes that, while many troops serving today can contact their loved ones instantly by satellite phone or through the Internet, when an especially intimate or personal message needs to be shared, they often sit down with pen and paper and handwrite an actual letter. Why do you think this is the case?
13. How do the e-mails in the book (see pages 213, 218, 276, and 447 for some examples) differ from the handwritten letters, if at all? Or is there no difference? How many members of your reading group still write actual letters?
14. Are the letters written from past wars—the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, etc.—intriguing to you? Do the letters from these conflicts seem significantly different in tone or content compared with letters/e-mails from more recent wars?
15. Overall, which letters are the most memorable to you? The most intense? Heartbreaking? Poignant? Funny? Carroll has said that he wanted these letters to cover the full spectrum of emotions experienced in times of war. Are there any you feel were not represented? Are there any larger themes you believe were not touched on as well?
16. What do you think of the structure of the book—i.e., grouping letters together by subject instead of by war? Would a more chronological approach have been preferable? Why or why not? The format of Behind the Lines allows you to read the book from beginning to end or to dip in at any page and read a single letter. Which way did you read the book? Why?
17. Carroll writes in Behind the Lines that, even after years of reading war letters, he still has difficulty articulating what makes a war letter "great." What makes a letter special in your own mind? What criteria would you use?
18. "It feels that everyone back in the world is getting on with their lives, finishing school, getting jobs or internships, making friends, planning their future—and we are frozen in time" (Stephen Webber, page 219). There is such a vast difference between the lives being led by troops abroad and civilians here at home. Does this book foster a better understanding of what these servicemen and women go through on a regular basis? Did anything surprise you about what they have written?
19. How does Behind the Lines or any collection of letters differ from traditional history books? What do these first-hand accounts offer a reader that third-person narratives cannot? And, conversely, are there any limitations?
20. What is your impression of how war is perceived in our culture, especially by young people? Has this book changed your own views on war? Has it inspired you to read more about a specific conflict or the subject in general?
For readers in your group who are veterans or active duty personnel (or are related to someone who is or has been in the military), encourage them to show the group a wartime correspondence of their own. For those who have letters or e-mails they would like to share with Andrew Carroll's Legacy Project, please click here for more information.
All material © Copyright The Legacy Project, 2008