For almost as long as there has been war, there have been letters home. The image is usually of a weary soldier, huddled over a light, scribbling words to his family or fiancee, trying to be brave.

You can find these letters almost anywhere: in books, in libraries, on the Internet. A quick search as I’m writing this found one from the Civil War, sent from a soldier in Iowa to a woman named “Miss Hannah M. Cone.” It reads, in part: “Indeed, dear Miss, there is thousands of poor soldiers that will see home and friends no more in this world. If you was (here) and see the number of sick and disabled soldiers it would make your heart ache. . . .

“If we had our choices of course we would be home for we are not in the Army for fun nor money, and furthermore we wish never to fill a coward’s grave. . .
.

“Ere long may we all be permitted to return to our homes and live a quiet and peaceably lives.” That’s a pretty typical letter, bad grammar and all. And, regardless of its contents, the one thing you don’t doubt is that the soldier whose name is on the bottom is the soldier who wrote it. That’s a given, right?

Not in warfare, 2003.

Letters from the commander

In recent weeks, letters have been popping up in “Letters to the Editor” sections of American newspapers. These letters are from troops in the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, stationed near Kirkuk, Iraq. They speak of good news, rebuilding infrastructure, smiling Iraqi children, running up saying, in broken English, “Thank you, Mister.” They are signed by individual soldiers. They begin with the word “I.”

Only none was written by the soldiers whose names are on the bottom.

The letter actually was written by the battalion commander, who encouraged his men to sign — or sign off on — them. No one will say if they were coerced, strongly urged or simply nudged. Suffice it to say, when a senior officer talks, your first inclination is not to tell him to get lost.

In all, 500 such letters were sent to hometown newspapers. Some soldiers later claimed they didn’t even know about them. One father was so proud of his son, he congratulated him on the letter, to which the son said, “What letter?”

Amazingly, the commander defended his actions, saying it was “a good idea” to share our “pride with the people back home.”

Now, I know some folks think the ends justify the means. One mother I spoke with knew right away her son didn’t write the letter, but it didn’t matter.
“We need to hear some good news,” she told me. “The media distorts things all the time.”

I can understand a mother’s pride. But one distortion does not justify another.

Spinning the war news

Let’s be honest. This was nothing more than a lie that went undetected, or unstopped, until a media service figured it out. Even then, it took several days for the Army to admit it. This at the same time President George W. Bush was dispatching members of his administration to spin more positive news on Iraq.

Said Bush: “I’m mindful of the filter through which news travels. Sometimes you have to go over the heads of the filter and go directly to the people.”

Filter? Who’s filtering whom?

Apparently the president thinks, if hundreds of reporters from around the globe, all working for different organizations, somehow report that things are violent in Iraq, that Americans are being killed, that Saddam Hussien is still loose or that the political structure is like a henhouse squabble, then news is being filtered.

But if an Army commander writes an upbeat, good news letter and lies about who wrote it 500 times, that’s bringing the truth to the people.

The tradition of Army letter writing is a long and noble one but only because the words come from the heart — and the pen — of the soldier who signs his name. Anything else is just propaganda, filtered propaganda, and we Americans like to leave that to our enemies.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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