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War e-mails offer immediacy, but sacrifice eloquence

Sometimes, Iraq didn't seem so far away.

Marine Tom Brunk often called his wife, Amanda, on a cell phone. Or sent e-mails. Or posted notes on his MySpace page. Or mailed a computer thumb drive packed with digital pictures.

Or Amanda Brunk just checked her online bank account for proof Tom was safe: His debit card purchases at a base PX were recorded instantly.

What he didn't do was write letters.

The traditional art of letter writing, practiced by soldiers nearly as long as nations have waged war, has undergone a revolutionary overhaul in the digital age.

Today, troops put pen to paper far less frequently than their parents and grandparents, opting instead for e-mail, instant messaging and the Internet.

"I can't imagine what people did back in World War II," said Amanda Brunk, 22, who lived in Tampa until her husband, also 22, returned safely home earlier this year.

Historians who piece together life in the trenches by the letters of ordinary soldiers worry that much is lost in a world of instant communication.

It's more than the concern about messages deleted forever. Are we somehow less expressive and eloquent in e-mail?

"Every new means of communication limits a historian's ability to pull together the truth of a particular event," said Michael Gannon, a retired University of Florida history professor who has written extensively about World War II.

"And now with e-mail, we're in a particularly precarious position."

• • •

A soldier's letters home are an iconic staple of history. At their best, they can rise to the poetic in their depiction of war.

"It smells of death and is barren and desolate," a Marine wrote his parents from Iwo Jima in 1945. "Suribachi is bleak and forbidding. The men sit about listlessly. Nobody is in any sort of mood for kidding. There is death all around. ...

"I would rather not write anymore today, and I will not mention any more about Iwo Jima ... because I am sick about my friends who died, and so please just tell me about things at home & don't mention this campaign anymore."

Unlike ephemeral e-mail, letters can provide tangible clues about the person who sent it.

In the Civil War, some letters sent home were soaked in mud or blood. In World War II, wives and girlfriends often left lipstick impressions of kisses on letters.

Or consider the letter that Jack McGrath was writing to a friend as he fought in Italy during World War II.

"The purpose of this letter Dick — is not to tell you of the danger that we've got to face — but to tell you how I feel about praying and the results I've had so far. In the future I may not be so lucky, but regardless of whatever happens, I'll never lose faith in the Lord."

His faith may have been rewarded: A bullet struck McGrath's pack and punched a hole in the middle of that letter. He was unscathed.

• • •

Not every letter home is worthy of history texts.

Andrew Carroll has edited several volumes of soldiers' letters, including Behind the Lines, and founded the Legacy Project, a group devoted to preserving wartime correspondence.

Carroll said that during the Civil War a soldier might be more likely to ask about the corn crop back home than provide an epic depiction of battle.

"There is a misperception that every war letter is a piece of poetry," Carroll said. "In the Civil War, they wrote quick, hasty letters almost like e-mail today."

Carroll said some troops are writing beautiful accounts of Iraq and Afghanistan via their laptop computers or on the Internet. And he knows many of those accounts will never be saved.

"It breaks my heart to think about what is being deleted," Carroll said.

Others are less confident of
e-mail eloquence.

"When you write a letter, you are really thinking about what you're going to say," said Sandra Tredholm, curator of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York.

"In a letter, you can tell how the soldier felt when he was writing," she said. "Was the handwriting tense, hurried? You can't get that emotional connection with e-mail. It's cold."

Carroll acknowledged there is something almost magical about pen and paper.

"For whatever reason, there is something about holding that tangible piece of paper knowing a loved one also held it, too. That's irreplaceable," he said.

In 1945, for example, an Army soldier came across Adolf Hitler's personal stationary in Hitler's private Munich apartment.

"He saw this paper on Hitler's desk and wrote a letter home to his parents about the horrors of Dachau," Carroll said. "When you see that golden embossed swastika, it's so horrifying to realize he was writing from Ground Zero of evil. You can't replace that. If he fired up an e-mail from Hitler's desk, it's not the same."

But e-mails have an immediacy lacking in letters. An electronic message tells someone in real time that a loved one is alive and safe.

The military realizes that troops have embraced technology and that fewer letters than ever before are being sent home.

At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, computer classes are offered to military retirees, in part, to help them in communicating with loved ones overseas.

Sheila Murphy, 70, whose husband is retired Air Force, attended one recent class and said she had to learn computer skills if she expected to stay in touch with a grandson and granddaughter who recently served in Iraq.

"The younger generation doesn't know how to write letters," said Murphy, who saves
e-mails on a CD. "Like it or not, we have to learn their ways."

Maj. David Noble, 32, a Tampa resident deployed in Iraq with his laptop, said he doesn't always have the time for letters. With
e-mail, he can write one message and send it to 30 people.

Said Noble: "I couldn't imagine being that guy in a trench (in previous wars) who has just one letter with perfume on it and one picture of his sweetheart and that's only thing to remember them by for six months.""

War e-mails offer immediacy, but sacrifice eloquence 05/24/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 11:12am]
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