Web tributes honor war dead

A range of sites keep updated lists showing U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq




The Iraq conflict is the first Internet war, replete with e-mails, satellite-based 3-D maps and even blogs by troops. But the Web is also playing a sadder role: commemorating the war's casualties through online tributes choked in grief.

From the start of the war, a number of newspapers and television networks have kept up-to-date honor rolls on their Web sites showing the American soldiers who have been killed -- the number passed the 2,000 mark two weeks ago, as coming Veterans Day ceremonies will surely note.

Many of the sites let viewers "drill down" into the lists for more details. Baltimoresun.com has "Maryland's Fallen," an interactive graphic that includes biographical information on war victims with ties to the state. The Washington Post has a zoomable map of the United States that lets you see how many dead are from different cities and towns. At The New York Times, you can sort the war dead by age. There are so many dead in each of the years from 20 to 23 that showing their pictures requires two screens.

You can have a point of view, too; anti-war groups have their memorial sites, as do veterans associations.

These memorial sites pack some strong emotions; even at "thumbnail" size, the pictures have much more impact than simply reading a list of names. But if you want to have your heart not just touched but ripped apart, visit the Moving Tributes section of Legacy.com, a Web business that hopes to become a national online clearinghouse for obituaries. (It also sells flowers, care baskets and commemorative pendants. If building a business from death notices seems unseemly, remember that newspapers have been charging tidy sums to publish obits for many decades.)

Moving Tributes is a free service that allows families and friends of dead soldiers to create short multimedia memorials. The process is similar to that on photo-sharing sites; users upload pictures and pick a soundtrack. The seven pieces of music supplied by the site are all of the traditional patriotic variety: "Torch of Freedom," "Battle Hymn of the Republic." But you can also narrate a personal remembrance and use that as the background, and the narrations are frequently both folksy and heartfelt.

As a result, at Moving Tributes, you see not just formal soldier portraits but, in effect, the living-room photo albums of lives ended early: Eric Freeman playing with his new dump truck as a 3-year-old. Christopher Belchik golfing with his dad. Clifton Mounce posing with his mother on the day of his wedding. The shot under the tree of Juan Venegas and his family from Christmas 2004, which would be his last. Dean Pratt and his Band of Brothers mugging for the camera in an otherwise empty desert landscape. The funeral of Christopher Dill, at which much of the Buffalo Fire Department served as honor guard. And the smiling toddler, now fatherless son, of Damian Bushart. "This is little Damian," says the caption. "He misses big Damian so much!"

What a break from the slick hipness so many Web pages strive to deliver.

And since Americans are divided about the war, people will surely bring those opinions with them when looking at these online tributes. The war's supporters will see noble and necessary service; opponents will see an appalling waste of life.

Because the Internet is a global phenomenon, and because not only Americans and not only military troops are dying in Iraq, similar memorial pages have cropped up for the conflict's other victims.

The Guardian newspaper in England, for example, has a site for Iraqi civilians. A typical entry: "Ali Nasaf was killed in a missile attack on the Bab al Muadan telephone exchange in Baghdad on March 31. His mother, Lamia, 31, told the Daily Mail: 'Even the doctors and nurses cried when he died. They remember him as the boy who played football in the streets and always laughed.'"

No one knows how long these tribute pages will be around. Web sites tend to come and go, and while there are some people in technology who are beginning to think about the problem of archiving today's Internet for future generations, there is always the chance these sites will end up a decade or two hence as dead bits on a hard drive lost in some dusty warehouse.

Families intent on preserving a Web tribute for their children's children should print it out and put it in a scrapbook. The Web is best at amplifying and articulating current concerns and preoccupations ... before moving on to the next thing.

But if ephemeral, the Web is also extremely personal. The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial lists the name of every soldier who died in that war. These Web sites go the next step, telling us not just the soldiers' names but what they, their families and their friends looked like, the clothes they wore and the rooms they lived in.

Traditional monuments, those made with granite, seem so cold and impersonal by comparison. Perhaps they will be designed differently from now on because of the manner in which people are grieving today on the Internet. It's yet another example of how the Internet changes everything.

Baltimoresun.com staff contributed to this article.

[ ][ ]Copyright ` 2005, The Associated Press

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