A soldier's wartime letters often come closer to heart

SUN JOURNAL

Connection: For all its advantages, e-mail can sometimes seem like a chilly substitute for pen and paper.

April 21, 2003|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just as technology has changed the nature of warfare in Iraq, it has added a new dimension to the way soldiers at the front communicate with loved ones back home.

E-mail, which was barely known during the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago, has enabled soldiers, sailors and Marines to stay in touch with family and friends as if they were in a downtown office instead of a war zone.

By enabling communication in real time, e-mail allows both sides to keep up with the minutiae of daily life, offering a special sense of closeness.

For thousands of correspondents at home, it has brought immediate relief, as each new electronic message confirms that -- for one moment -- a loved one is out of harm's way.

Yet for all its benefits, e-mail can sometimes seem a poor substitute for an old-fashioned letter.

"You can print e-mail out, but there's a coldness to it," said Nancy Pope, a historian for the National Postal Museum in Washington. "It looks like a memo from your boss. Pound for pound, there's more emotional power in letters than in e-mail."

Letters take time to write, so they naturally lend themselves to introspection and thoughtful language. As physical objects, they offer a tangible connection between writer and recipient. And because letters are written less frequently, there is the knowledge that the words a soldier commits to paper may be the last ones read by loved ones at home.

"Letters are the one connection that remains between the front line and the home front," says Andrew Carroll, author of War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars.

War letters have always changed to reflect the times in which they were written. Few understand this as well as members of the Cooley family, a clan that has produced nine generations of soldiers who have served in seven American wars.

During the Revolutionary War, berry juice was often used in place of ink, and cloth stood in when paper was in short supply. The rebels, including John Alden Cooley, had to rely on postal riders to smuggle mail between camps of the Continental Army. Many women weren't literate, so each letter had to be read aloud by a male family friend. Such factors combined to make letters home a rare thing.

By the Civil War, an independent postal service was emerging and writing had become more common.

Gilbert Cooley, a farmer from Strawberry Point, became a captain in Iowa's regular infantry. Notes to his wife, Martha, focused on life back home. The letters would take months to arrive.

As money grew tight, Martha wrote about her struggles to keep the farm running. After reading about an offer to buy some of the land, Gilbert penned a simple warning: Don't sell the farm.

By the time Martha received the letter, 40 acres had been sold.

During World War II, Navy aerial photographer Theodore "R" Cooley spent months flying above the sea battles in the Pacific Ocean, documenting the movements of the Japanese fleet. The family was impatient for updates but happy to wait for a handwritten letter.

"If you got the news quickly, particularly during World Wars I and II, it meant you were getting a telegram," says Carla Kaplan, an English professor at the University of Southern California. "Fast news usually meant bad news and that someone had died."

Technology was already beginning to depersonalize the connection between writer and reader. Eager to free up shipping space for war materiel, the military introduced "V-mail."

After the one-page letterforms were filled out, they were photographed onto microfiche. Then the film was shipped to a central base overseas, where each letter was printed out and distributed as a photograph. Soldiers could read the notes and see their loved ones' handwriting, but they were merely copies of the real things.

During the Vietnam War, GIs dictated long messages into portable tape recorders.

Such personal cues frequently are absent in e-mail, which the military began using around the time Army Capt. Tobalina Cooley Beck was sent to Somalia in 1991.

The Prodigy online service was running a trial program called USA Connect, enabling participants to write brief notes to soldiers in the East African nation. Prodigy forwarded the e-mail to a central military computer server in Mogadishu, where they were printed out, folded into envelopes and distributed.

Her husband, Steve Beck, often typed sentences that were to the point, as in a telegram: Everything is fine. The weather is nice. We miss you and love you.

The e-mail was appreciated, but it was the handwritten letters that Tobalina kept in her uniform pockets. Fingerprint smudges mark some notes, while a coffee ring curls around the edge of another.

"It wasn't just the words," she says. "I could touch him. I could touch home."

For Steve, the letters Tobalina wrote offered clues about what was happening half a world away.

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