Illumination of Extraordinary Things

An Interview with Andrew Carroll, Editor of Operation Homecoming

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Andrew Carroll - 40 something with glasses, brown hair and trim beard

Andrew Carroll, editor of Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. Photo: The Boeing Company.

Washington writer Andrew Carroll is the founder of the Legacy Project, a national, all-volunteer project to seek and preserve wartime correspondence. Carroll taught several Operation Homecoming workshops in addition to editing the published anthology.

NEA: What was your initial reaction to the Operation Homecoming program?

ANDREW CARROLL: When I first heard of it, I thought it was a great idea but nothing was going to come of it. You're talking about a group of people [the military] that's reserved and reticent. It's anathema to military culture to express individual opinions and emotions. But as I learned more about the project and got immersed in it, I thought it was one of the most brilliant ideas ever.

NEA: Given the reticence associated with military culture, why do you think the workshops were so successful?

CARROLL: I asked that question myself quite a bit. There's one answer I remember in particular, from a group at Fort Bragg. Someone said, "It's the first time anyone's asked [to hear our stories]."

NEA: What was it like to lead a writing workshop for military personnel?

CARROLL: I was thunderstruck by how open the troops were. Usually, when you're hearing [war] stories, it's been years or decades since the troops have served. This was so immediate. I prefaced my workshop by talking about my first visit to a military base, to say that we're all new to something. I told them, "A lot of you are new to writing -- don't be shy about asking questions and don't get frustrated if the writing gets hard. You all have extraordinary stories, you have amazing discipline, and you're intelligent -- that's what you need to be a writer."

NEA: What makes the Operation Homecoming anthology so different from other collections of war literature?

CARROLL: There's been no anthology like this before. This anthology contains the work of active duty troops, but also work by relatively young people who have retired from the military. This is their first-hand experience. This anthology is also significant because the NEA has focused on many different genres, not just letters. There are poems and short stories and memoir and e-mail.We've never had this kaleidoscope of genres before.

I think this anthology is also significant because it gives people an idea of what these troops are sacrificing, not just physically but emotionally. It helps to bridge the disconnect between the military world and the civilian world. If this book can help us appreciate who these men and women are and what they're called to do, that's a good thing.

The reader gets to know these individuals, not just as statistics, not just as faceless soldiers or airmen or sailors or pilots. They have a background, a biography.Words like courage and honor and camaraderie are kind of hollow if you don't understand the nitty gritty of warfare. It helps us to better understand what these troops [are] going through.

NEA: Why do you believe it's necessary and important to publish war literature?

CARROLL: In any historic event, it's not the generals or the politicians, it's the individual men and women in the eye of the storm, it's those voices that most need to be preserved and that are the most fascinating. I think there's a feeling that we've heard everything about the conflicts, there's nothing we can be surprised by. Every piece [in the anthology] surprised me for one reason or the other. For all of us who think there's nothing left to see or learn about the war, these pieces illuminate extraordinary things.