Peaceful Postcards From the War Zone

FOR the past few weeks, TV newscasts from the Middle East have been punctuated by the latest novelty in network journalism - video ``postcards'' and ``letters'' from American troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. ``I want to tell my little girl that Daddy loves her,'' a young soldier says as he delivers one of NBC's ``Desert Dispatches.'' Another young man tries for a touch of humor: ``I want to say `Hi' to my family in Texas and my friends in North Carolina. Send water.'' And on ABC, a woman jauntily decked out in sunglasses and a desert hat to shade her from the searing sun tells the camera, ``I'm from Battle Creek, Mich., and I'd like to say hello to my mother, my husband, and my little girl Coretta.''

If it were not for the rifle slung over the young woman's shoulder and the tank parked ominously behind her, a viewer might think she was a tourist heading for the Pyramids. Although these ``desert dispatchers'' have not yet delivered the standard postcard greeting, ``Having a wonderful time - wish you were here,'' their video postcards convey a blitheness, an innocence more suggestive of students on a summer vacation than of soldiers waiting for a possible war.

For the networks, these cameo appearances probably began as the brainchild of a producer desperate to fill air time in the absence of military action. For viewers, the brief greetings can have a curious dual effect. On the one hand, there is something touching and humanizing about these affectionate ``Hi Mom'' messages. On the other hand, they run the risk of trivializing the crisis - of oversimplifying what war is.

As if to imitate the American networks, Iraqi television has started a program called ``Guest's News,'' featuring messages from hostages to families back home.

``Tell my husband I'm fine,'' a woman from Britain says. ``The food is all right - it's a bit like Greek food. ... I hope Mom and Dad are fine, I hope the kids are OK.'' Another British woman who has just given birth to a son named Omar says, ``Tell [my family] I am safe and not to worry too much.''

American images of war have come a long way since Matthew Brady's photographs defined for a nation what the Civil War looked like - its soldiers, its battlefields, its smoking cannons. At that time, before radio and TV, families and friends back home depended heavily on letters from soldiers themselves to supply information about the war.

``I have only my cartridge box to write on, and that's good enough,'' wrote 17-year-old soldier Hugh Perkins of Wisconsin in 1861. He was writing to his best friend, my great-grandfather, at the beginning of a correspondence that lasted through the war.

By the time of Vietnam a century later, simply having a cartridge box to write on was no longer ``good enough.'' Tape recorders and Polaroid cameras gave soldiers and their families new ways to keep in touch. My husband, then an Army chaplain, occasionally sent home color slides that included photos of young children at a local orphanage and off-duty GIs water-skiing on a lake in the highlands. Those unofficial images of war remain as firmly fixed in my memory as all the official photos of carnage and devastation that appeared on TV and in newspapers.

From the pictures of battles on ancient Greek vases to the latest video postcards transmitted by satellite, there have been vast technological changes in the way war - or near war - is recorded. But what doesn't change - much - is the face of the soldier. Except for the relatively new presence of women - as poignantly captured in newspaper photos last week of a young medic at Ft. Bragg kissing her 7-week-old daughter goodbye - the sweaty troops waiting in the 115-degree desert reflect the same eagerness and innocence, fears and hopes of soldiers a generation ago in the jungles of Vietnam and a century and a quarter ago on the rolling plains of Gettysburg.

If these sun-drenched video postcards of neatly dressed troops talking about their private lives back home can make us realize what is at stake in the Middle East, they serve a purpose the TV producers may not have intended: making viewers aware of what a tragedy it would be to have the images of military preparedness turn into portraits of death and destruction in the desert.

May these peaceful postcards keep coming.

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