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'War Letters' lets soldiers speak

Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. - Andrew Carroll's New York Times best seller "War Letters" comes to television as a one-hour documentary under the banner of PBS's "American Experience" (9 tonight, WQED/WQEX).

Written, produced and directed by Robert Kenner, the TV version of "War Letters" includes readings from 35 letters, culled mostly from the book and from Carroll's Legacy Project (www.warletters.com), that seeks to preserve correspondence from all of America's military conflicts.

In July, when Carroll and Kenner discussed the collaboration, timed to air appropriately on Veterans Day, they had no idea America would be in the midst of another war from which more letters will emerge.


"American Experience: War Letters"

When: 9 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Letters read by: Joan Allen, Gerald McRaney, Edward Norton, David Hyde Pierce, Kevin Spacey and others.


TV shows about letters written during wartime aren't new. They're almost a staple of History Channel programming. Kenner said PBS's "War Letters" is different because it includes letters from almost every American war and because the program has no narrator. Instead, celebrities read the letters, including Esai Morales, Bill Paxton, Giovanni Ribisi, Eric Stoltz and Kyra Sedgwick.

Some of the video images are battlefield re-creations. Others are home movies taken by soldiers that have never aired on TV.

One of the letters featured was written by Pvt. Walter T. Bromwich in June 1918 and sent to the pastor of his home parish, St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Charleroi.

"Here I sit, thinking of the little church back home, wondering how you are getting along," Bromwich writes. "Don't think I am down-hearted but ever since I volunteered I've felt like a cog in a huge wheel. The cog may get smashed up, but the wheel goes on. And I can't feel God is in it."

Another letter compares war to hell and then posits that such a description is unfair to hell. A letter written during World War II by a witness to the attack on Pearl Harbor refers to the event as "a little disturbance," tongue planted firmly in cheek. One letter was written by a staff sergeant who found himself in Hitler's private Munich residence in 1945. He wrote the letter on Hitler's stationery.

"There is an incredible power to letters, especially war letters," Kenner said. "It's people at the most dramatic time in their lives who are able to express feelings and emotions that they might not be able to share during normal times."

Carroll said letters take the reader psychologically through the experience, no matter which war.

"I was struck not just by how different the letters are from the Civil War to Vietnam, but how similar they are," he said, "the bitterness that's there, the anger, even in World War II."

The tone differs from war to war, particularly the formality of letters written during America's earliest wars. He said World War I letters had a certain naiveté, "more of an 'aw, shucks' idealism."

Letters from the Gulf War were more difficult to find. It wasn't a function of e-mail, which didn't gain prominence until a few years later, but the short duration of the war. And because those fighting the war felt no one cared about battles carried out like a video game.

Because of e-mail, Carroll now encourages those writing letters to print them out and save them. His intense interest in letters developed only after his house burned down in 1990 and he lost correspondence from friends, girlfriends and family members.

"I didn't really have historic letters, but it was just the personal loss that inspired me. I had no interest in letters or history before that happened."

After the fire, Carroll started encouraging people to save their letters, particularly war letters. A "Dear Abby" column on Veterans Day in 1998 encouraged readers who had letters of historical significance to send a photocopy to Carroll. He received 50,000.

"There's something about the tangible quality of a handwritten letter," Carroll said. "We have Civil War letters and some from World War I, one with a bullet hole right through the middle. When you hold that letter in your hand, it's chilling. And you see little splotches of mud and blood, and it gives it a power and an immediacy that nothing can replace.

"Historically they're irreplaceable," Carroll said. "I am afraid that in the future there won't be as much letter writing. But hopefully, we won't have a need for war letters anyway."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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