News: V-mail and Gmail
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan - On April 28, 1941 – 71 years ago today as I write this – Leo Morgenstern, my great grandfather, wrote a letter from Nazi-occupied France to his son in America, asking for bribe money to facilitate his escape. The letter arrived in January, 1944, having been held up by a British censor due to concerns over its origins behind enemy lines. If only he could have sent an e-mail, he might not have perished at Auschwitz.
Not being an American GI, though his son was, he could not have taken advantage of V-mail. V-mail (V for Victory) was an ingenious system that converted letters into microfilm, shrinking over a ton of mail down to a mere 45 pounds for shipping. The letters were reprinted on the receiving end.
V-mail may have saved precious cargo space but it’s impact on delivery time was limited since it was still shipped by boat, to say nothing of the privacy issues involved in having one’s letters read and photographed by strangers.
Today the majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan have daily access to the Internet (albeit slow and clunky), including Skype, Facebook and e-mail. They also can use “morale lines” that facilitate free phone calls through the switchboard of a local U.S. military base back home. Others have more limited amenities, but we’re still able to keep in touch with loved ones back home on a regular basis. For units pushed out to more austere outposts a satellite phone is often the only form of communication with the outside world, sometimes for months at a time.
Needless to say, most of us would hardly trade our Gmail for V-mail or even its modern reincarnation, MotoMail, which allows e-mails from home to be printed and delivered as regular mail for those without Internet access. Still, like most technology the instant communication from battlefield to living room can be a double-edged sword.
Yesterday, an American was killed in another “green-on-blue” incident. As I’ve written previously, we take note every time this happens (to put it diplomatically). But this one occurred over 300 miles away in Kabul, so it didn’t occur to me to send out one of my many “I’m OK” e-mails to my family. Sure enough, as soon as the news broke I got an e-mail from my brother checking on my well-being.
It’s not that I mind sending out those quick notes (as long as I’m still able to, I’m among the fortunate ones), though needless to say I can hardly do so every time there is a friendly force casualty. But for my family, any span of time over, say, 24 hours or so without some form of communication from me can become in itself a cause for worry – perhaps unreasonable (perhaps not) but nonetheless understandable. A much-appreciated capability can turn from an option to an obligation.
Then there’s the actual conversation. As benign a question as “so what’s going on” or “what did you do today” can be difficult to answer. By its nature, what we do here can’t be discussed in much detail with those back home. For some, doing so might be more disturbing than reassuring. Much of it doesn’t even make the news and when it does, the press accounts can sometimes be incomplete or mistaken.
So I answer the questions with “today was a quiet day” or “today was a busy day.” I want to say more, to boast about successes or share the pain of losses, but I can’t. I have to be very careful whenever I communicate following the death of an American, to avoid saying anything that could get “out there” and cause the family of the victim to learn about their tragedy “through the grapevine.” If the casualty is someone in a nearby unit, someone whose family we might know personally, we usually go into a communications blackout anyway.
Even when talking to fellow Marines back home – the people who would most understand what we’re experiencing out here – we have to be cautious, since we’re speaking or e-mailing over unsecured means. The technology permits the conversation, the blog, the status update, even this column, but it imposes its own set of constraints and frustrations as well.
Additionally, while I personally haven’t dealt with this issue, for many troops the ability to communicate regularly to the rear can bring the troubles of home to the battlefield – family issues, financial problems and so on. Without a solid support structure at home, these can become distractions in a combat environment that demands 100 percent focus. On a brief lay-over en route from the U.S. to Afghanistan, a friend and I overheard a Staff Sergeant from another unit having a bitter argument with his wife over Skype. It seemed she was upset that he hadn’t called sooner. Comparing notes afterwards, my friend and I wondered how on earth those two would make it through a whole deployment if they were fighting after only six hours.
In today’s always-connected world, a camping trip into the remote wilderness or a vacation to the beach, where the gadgets stay in the room, can be a welcome respite. In country it’s different. With most of our human contact limited to our colleagues and with little to do socially or in our down time other than work out, read a book or turn on a movie, we hunger for contact with our friends and family back home. None of the issues I touched on above would be enough for us to give that up.
But it is interesting, isn’t it? Even the ability to talk or video-converse on demand with loved ones half a world away, a capability that would likely have saved my great-grandfather’s life in an earlier era, can still have its down sides. Meden Agan, as the Greeks said. As in everything else, it seems, the best way to enjoy the benefits of this welcome technology is in moderation.
Date Posted:05.07.2012 06:23
Location:LASHKAR GAH, AF
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