"We as civilians—who elect certain leaders and rally behind a war—have an obligation to understand what we're asking [the troops to give up] and I hope that these letters do that," says Andrew Carroll, a Washington, D.C., based historian. Carroll has devoted the past 16 years to collecting and preserving war correspondences throughout American history.
These letters provide an intimate look into the experiences of the men and women who have fought America's wars. "It's not the president or general who's far-removed from the battlefield, it's the individual who's right there in the trenches or in the foxholes, that's what brings war to life," says Carroll.He hopes that these letters will humanize the men and women in uniform so that "[Americans] no longer see them as just soldiers, airman, marines, or sailors, but as somebody's spouse or child or parent or best friend."
His collection, which now contains over 100,000 letters ranging from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, was recently donated to Chapman University where it will be digitized and made available to the public. Chapman has incorporated the letters into their educational studies and aims to be the nation's largest and most preeminent archive of personal wartime correspondences. Carroll says being a privately funded project has helped make the experience more personal for him and for the people sending in the letters.
"They aren't sending in letters to some government bureaucracy. They're sending it to people who respond to them personally and who read every letter. It's very meaningful to us," says the historian.
The vast collection includes a letter from a young GI in Munich who, using Hitler's golden embossed stationary, wrote to his parents about the horrors of Dachau he had witnessed the day before. Another one is from a Revolutionary War soldier to his friend, explaining the reasons why General Washington's army must fight for freedom. And another one was written from a young marine in Iraq to his mom right before he was killed, thanking her for raising him to be the man he was. The collection contains thousands of these personal stories which serve as a somber reminder of the horrors that war can bring to individuals and their families.
"I think the more we have a sense that these are actual individuals that we're sending off to fight, I think it's better for the entire country, I think it's better for the military, it's better for all of us," says Carroll.
About 3 minutes.
Produced by Amanda Winkler. Camera by Winkler, Joshua Swain, and Ford Fischer.
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