From the frontlines of America’s war in Afghanistan a Yale graduate turned Army warrior reflected on his experience in letters home. Now he’s put those letters together and they reveal a man comforted by the trivial and questioning why he is there.
If war is the true oldest profession, then perhaps the soldier’s letter is the origin of the form. The particular constructs and constraints of a military campaign—necessary separation from loved ones, daily news and hardships, hours of tedium that must be filled, not to mention the prospect of death—combine to create perfect letter-writing conditions, and average soldiers have been communicating existential insights large and small since the moment they became literate.
Collections of such letters can be revealing. Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson’s slim volume What They Fought For is filled with nuance, as Union and Confederate soldiers provide eloquent arguments about the need to preserve the republic, the dangerous precedent of succession, and the horror of having one’s land invaded. War Letters, a collection of American military correspondence from the Civil War through the conflict in Bosnia, was compiled by Andrew Carroll and became a New York Times-bestseller when it was published just prior to 9/11. Carroll’s soldiers and war-caught civilians display a remarkable consistency, writing about love and faith and minutia in equal measure.