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Joan Wickersham

War stories in real time

Technology brings an immediate link, but also a surreal barrier, to the front

Lewis Scott for The Boston Globe

“IT’S COMFORTING to be in close touch with my family when I’m deployed,’’ the Marine Corps officer told me. “But the person they’re talking to on the phone isn’t really the person they know.’’

A friend had found me a couple of Marines to interview, because I was curious about what it’s like to be in combat on the other side of the world and yet to be able to communicate instantly with your family via e-mail, cellphone, or Skype. In previous wars, soldiers relied on letters. How have electronic media affected what soldiers and their families can say, hear, and understand?

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The officer emphasized the paradoxical nature of calling home from a war. “My most recent deployment was in a very violent situation. With the satellite phone I could communicate a lot, but I couldn’t share details, so it felt quite superficial.’’ He was required to keep certain things confidential - but he also didn’t want to alarm his family.

“The vehicle I was in sustained a full blast from an explosive device. I knew I should not communicate with home for at least 24 hours. I needed to let my head clear. I didn’t want to scare my wife.’’

He spoke of the challenge of commanding a generation of young soldiers accustomed to posting their every move on Facebook. “They’re 18 to 20. They want to throw things up there instantly, without reflection and without context.’’

He described the dynamics of instant communication as “surreal.’’

“You go out on patrol, make contact with the enemy, possibly take a casualty, set up a position. Then you turn on your phone and you’re asking, ‘Hey, how’s my nephew? How was your day at the office?’ You don’t talk about combat.’’

Another Marine told me, “You see the world differently when you’re deployed.’’ She acknowledged that calling home could be both a huge source of support and a challenge. “They tell you they’ve had a bad day, and you think, ‘Well, nobody died.’ You feel very detached.’’

What is it like for family members at home? A mother whose son has been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan told me that she would sometimes walk around with the portable landline phone in one pocket and the cellphone in the other. “With letters, you know you might not hear from someone for weeks. But with the phone, there’s this intensity, the possibility of immediacy. You know they’re OK, right in the moment.’’ She added: “But there are also expectations. You can be primed for the phone call to come at a certain regular time - and then it doesn’t come.’’

She worked to keep a lid on her own anxiety, so as not to burden her son. “I don’t want to take from him whatever he needs to keep himself feeling sound.’’ She was aware that for all the apparent spontaneity of the phone conversations, she and her son were engaged in a complicated minuet of protecting each other. “As much as I knew, there was so much I didn’t know. For instance: he never told me he was in the lead vehicle.’’

She pointed out that even when a son or daughter is not in danger, phone calls can both alleviate and intensify the sense of separation. Once her son called from Afghanistan, from his sleeping bag in the desert, under the stars. As they spoke, a wild dog - one of a pack that was roaming around - came up and started licking the salt off her son’s back. “It makes you realize how separate his life is. This otherworldly thing is happening while we’re on the phone.’’

Paul Fussell, in his brilliant and moving book “The Great War and Modern Memory,’’ wrote about the “ridiculous proximity’’ of British World War I soldiers to their families back in England. People at home could hear the guns in France; a letter or newspaper from London took only a day or two to reach the front. The soldiers were aware of the irony of being at once so close to home, and yet in many ways on another planet.

Today the ability of soldiers to keep in touch with their families depends not on the location of the conflict, but on technology. The “ridiculous proximity’’ is virtual, not actual; and it is common to all wars. Technology may appear to erase distance, but the experience of war still creates distances that can never be erased.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.
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