This is the first war in which an American stationed many thousands of miles from home has been able to shop for a used car online, consult with his dad back in Southern Maryland and settle on a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta for $14,975 -- all negotiated in a flurry of e-mail flying from Baghdad to Waldorf and back.
Edward Erslev and his 19-year-old son, Todd, are in closer contact than most fathers and sons, sometimes e-mailing several times a day about the ordinary -- unpaid bills, Girl Scout cookies -- and the heart-stopping -- booby traps that rip off a buddy's limb, a routine drive interrupted by the sight of two Army women whose fuel tanker has rolled over.
Ed Erslev is a retired Air Force man who works in computers. One son, Brian, has been to Iraq and back. The other, Todd, an Air Force fireman, is in Baghdad now.
The whole notion of distant wars has entered the realm of cognitive dissonance since computers became ubiquitous. In Iraq, hunched over a laptop in a tent, a son shifts between the challenges of suburban life and the vagaries of survival against insurgents who want to kill you because of where you're from.
The father writes: "Went shopping and got your underwear and basketball shorts and boxers. Also Nike size 11 running shoes."
Hours later, the father switches to a different tone: "Remember, Stop, Look and Listen. I know how you are: Hurry up and help. But situation is different now. It could be a setup or a booby trap. I am not going to Arlington and neither are you!! I want you home in one piece safe and sound! I know it is great to save and help people but there are a lot of people back here that want to see you in one piece and walking again. Love, Dads."
Both missives of love, of course, and neither filled with much that passes for news in the wider world. But the torrent of e-mail that connects U.S. service members with their parents and friends has altered the character of war. The easy exchange of everyday tidbits makes those stationed oceans away feel at once closer and more detached. It's surreal, they say.
Ed Erslev is an electronic hub. He's the guy who passes along funny photos, first-person accounts, screeds about the truths that the powers that be won't tell us. He has organized e-mail networks to send cards and photos to boost the spirits of the forces in Iraq. He's up at all hours, keeping the patter going with his boy.
Todd's inbox fills quickly. An older friend, Rick Samara, writes: "I've kind of been where you are, but not at the same threat level. I remember being in Iceland as a E-2. Boy was I lonely. If only I had e-mail back then. Rocks and more rocks on a small Air Force radar site. . . . Not a girl in sight. It's gotta be worse in Baghdad. I had one advantage in Iceland. There was no one shooting and planting bombs outside the gate."
Then the e-mail runs through news of Todd's friends, of the guy who's working at Target and will soon learn that $7 an hour won't get him anywhere, of going out to a ballgame.
Todd's replies dutifully relay his daily doings. But his chores belong to a different world. Driving along, he comes upon an Army convoy in which a 20-ton fuel tanker has rolled over. Two women are cut and bruised; Todd and two colleagues tend to the injured.
The e-mail trail of this war may survive only in random threads, leading historians to worry that their main tool for understanding past wars, letters from grunts in the field, have no analogue in the electronic era. A more permanent record of this war has been available on milblogs -- Web logs kept, generally anonymously, by service members. But the brass have been cracking down on blogs of late, arguing that raw, often searingly critical blog items may endanger security.
The writer of one milblog, This Is Your War, closed shop recently rather than comply with an order to register his site. "I've been a soldier long enough to understand the need for action like this, but I'm also disappointed," the blogger wrote. "Mass punishment . . . is a sign of poor leadership skills."
E-mail flies over the brass, creating an alternative to the government's official version and to the news media's more detached accounts.
In the e-mail war, Ed and Todd Erslev can consult the Blue Book about the car together. They can tell each other what made them laugh and why they cry. But, as in any war, a Father's Day hug must wait.