In every American war from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War, American military men and women have captured the horror, pathos and intensity of warfare by writing letters home. Tens of thousands of these letters have been handed down from generation to generation. In an effort to preserve this correspondence, writer Andrew Carroll set up the Legacy Project and has collected thousands of war letters. Using the most compelling and enlightening of these missives, War Letters tells the story of American wars from the viewpoint of the men and women in the front lines.
The film features breathtaking eyewitness accounts of famous battles, intimate declarations of love, poignant last letters written only days before soldiers were killed, humorous anecdotes, gripes about insufferable conditions and many profound and memorable expressions of exhilaration, fear, whimsy, exasperation, anger, and patriotism. To highlight the universal experience of war -- the horror and loneliness, the senseless killing and terrible destruction -- War Letters intercuts letters written 200 years ago with those written in the last few decades. It weaves evocative recreations of Civil War battles with moving footage of World War II amphibious assaults.
In the first sequences we hear from new recruits going to boot camp or beginning their long journey overseas. One World War II soldier demands that his mom stop sending him Milk of Magnesia because he doesn't anticipate having any more bowel trouble. A Vietnam war recruit can't bring himself to tell his mother that he is being shipped out. He asks his father to: "Tell mom I wished I could have told her myself, but I just didn't know how." In June 1861, a Union soldier anticipating the conflict he is about to face, writes: "what is most horrid of all in this contest is that brother will meet brother and father will meet son in the strife."
In following sequences we hear about the brutality and horror of battle. One writer takes us to the water logged trenches at the Argonne; another to the freezing, snow-covered fields of the Bulge. They describe blizzards of bullets and shells, acts of tremendous bravery and the sheer barbarity and arbitrariness of war. One soldier says comparing battle to hell "is hardly fair to hell." Another describes combat as a "combination of fear, anger, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, disgust, loneliness, homesickness."
One sequence of the film focuses on the intimate letters between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters. From the Philippines one soldier tells his wife that he "misses her so much right now it seems as though my heart is going to burst." The young soldier is killed before his wife receives the letter. Another soldier's bitterness jumps out from his letter to the woman who has just left him for another man, "... he's there, I'm here. 'Be careful' you tell me. I almost laughed out loud."
In the final sequences of the film we hear the questioning letters. A World War I soldier writes to his priest at home, "How can there be fairness in one man being maimed for life, suffering agonies, another being killed instantaneously, while I get out of it safe?" A Marine in Vietnam angrily asks why his buddy had to die. "He didn't deserve dying in a damn country not worth fightin' for. He had about 38 days left in the Marine Corps... 38 days to start living again." One teenager coming home from Korea warns his parents they'll have to be patient with him. "You know, it's almost funny," he writes. "We see a guy in a wheel chair, a guy on crutches, we break our backs trying to help him. But what about the wounds you can't see? The phantoms, the nightmares, the ghosts in your head?"
The words of the letters in War Letters are full of poetry, compassion, humor, determination, and raw emotion. Ultimately, they transcend the subject of war and concern some of the most powerful contradictions of the human condition.
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