Soldiers’ letters written during the Civil War are perfectly preserved in museums and private collections. World War II writings from the front are the stuff of books. But 100 years from now, will our descendants be able to read e-mails from soldiers who fought in Iraq?
Organizations that specialize in archiving memorabilia from U.S. wars are emerging to do just that, collecting these transmissions to and from the Iraqi conflict by American soldiers and their families.
Early this year, when it was clear war with Iraq was likely, Beth Inman, curator of history at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Museum, and her colleagues began a project called “Write from the Front,” asking military families to copy the museum on e-mails sent during the war (see more at www.state.sc.us/crr/write_from.htm).
“We knew if we waited until the war was over, a lot of the messages would be deleted,” Inman says. So far, 90 families have shared their e-mails, with some family members “cc’ing” the museum on their e-mails.
Writer and historian Andrew Carroll of The Legacy Project (www.warletters.com) also began seeking e-mails from soldiers in Iraq as soon as the conflict began. Carroll, who edited the book War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (Scribner, 2001), directs The Legacy Project, a national, all-volunteer effort that seeks to save the wartime letters of American soldiers.
“The best understanding we have of what it’s like to be in a war is from letters from people who are in the eye of the storm,” Carroll says. (Above is an excerpt of an e-mail in The Legacy Project, from Capt. Scott C. Smith of the 101st Airborne to his wife, 1st Lt. Kelly Smith of the 568th engineering company.)
Carroll says the irony in communications advances is that technologies that followed paper and ink are harder to save for posterity. Many Vietnam War soldiers taped audio messages, and Gulf War soldiers from the early ’90s made videotapes for loved ones. But few are accessible today, either because the formats to play the recording no longer exist or the tape media has disintegrated.
Carroll acknowledges that e-mail is a valuable way for people across the world to communicate quickly and to share messages with many family and friends. “Yet we have handwritten letters from the Civil War that are as bright and clear as the day they were written,” Carroll adds.