Most Americans, when thinking about soldiers' letters home, probably think of wars from the past: the letters our parents or grandparents sent from Europe or the Pacific during World War II, for instance, or the ones you hear read dramatically aloud in documentaries about the Civil War. Because of their vintage, it seems rather quaint, but when you think about it, the ability to communicate with a soldier in a far-off war was really quite an impressive feat, of logistics if not engineering. In more bygone days, a soldier would leave for a war and not be heard from for years, with his fate perhaps unknown to the people back home.
More than anything else, what's made that sort of letter-writing seem quaint in America's current conflicts is Skype. The now Microsoft-owned company first got traction in allowing cheap international calls, and since the U.S. has many networked computers in war zones, soldiers can communicate back with friends and family back home easily; it's actually cheaper to Skype from Afghanistan than it is to make an ordinary phone call from Germany. The service has provided any number of dramatic connections.
When Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a secretive raid in 2011, the Obama Administration released a picture of the President and his top aides, watching the action unfold from the White House Situation Room. While there were plenty of instant analysis pieces that told us what the picture meant about politics, race, and gender in the 21st century, the eyes of many techies were drawn to the table in the middle of the picture, and the seemingly ordinary laptops sitting on it. Never mind that mysterious pixelated document sitting in front of Hillary Clinton; what's the make and model of the laptop it's resting on? It appears that they're specially built Hewlett-Packard machines, probably delivered as part of a contract HP has with the military. Not entirely off the shelf, but not an elaborate piece of custom hardware either.
But of course the real story is that they're there at all. One imagines the Situation Room to have walls covered with huge monitors controlled by futuristic Minority Report-style UIs. (The huge monitor part is true, anyway.) But the truth is that the White House for much of the last 20 years has been behind the times when it came to personal technology. Bill Clinton famously only sent two emails the entire time he was in office (though he did order a Christmas ham online once). George W. Bush also wasn't much for email, giving up his AOL address when he came into office. In pictures of the Situation Room on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, there are no laptops in sight. The tech-savvy Obama crowd has made some changes, though Obama himself doesn't seem to have a laptop.
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