Monday, May 26, 2008
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
RALEIGH, N.C. — A decade ago, it was enough to carve their names in granite or freeze their likenesses in bronze to stand against time. Now, the fallen of America's military are also being memorialized in electronic ether.
Since the war in Afghanistan began, traditional monuments have been joined by dozens of Internet sites that offer new ways to remember, honor or simply learn about fallen troops. Some sites are elaborate, offering not only individual stories culled from the media about every U.S. service member killed, but even the ability to do things such as figure out how many were lost in each province of Iraq. Others are simple lists of the names or a tribute to a single dead service member.
Memorials are, essentially, a response to fears about the fragile nature of human memory, said Edward Linenthal, editor of the Journal of American History and an author of books on the Holocaust Museum and the cultural aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.
In theory, the digital format could preserve those fragile memories forever, or at least much longer than monuments of stone. The information is also perilously delicate, vulnerable to deletion with a keystroke.
The sites are part of a growing pantheon of memorial sites to the dead of conflicts, natural disasters and other causes. Memorial Web sites about U.S. military casualties starting popping up well before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A Vietnam site called The Virtual Wall was started in 1997, for instance. The latest wars, though, coincided with rapid growth in the popularity of the Internet and a trend toward online grieving led by digital obituaries.
The phenomenon reflects a growing desire to not only observe memorials, but also to shape and interact with them. For years now, visitors have left mementos at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and taken rubbings of names from it.
"People are making memorials their own, and a perfect way to democratize it is on the Internet," Linenthal said. "You can do it with a personal touch, but the reach is infinite."
These new forms of remembering probably won't replace more traditional monuments, he said, but will complement them.
Some are little more than lists of names or a MySpace page; others are elaborate digital shrines with touches including media stories about the dead and ways to post eulogies, notes of condolence, photos, even audio recordings. Some include entries for all the dead, and the ability to search by things like name, home state or rank.
The tribute page at Legacy.com's memorial site for the dead of the two wars is one of the most elaborate.
The section there for Gunnery Sgt. Darrell W. Boatman, 38, of Fayetteville, N.C., has attracted than 170 entries in his guest book since his death in late 2005. He was fatally injured by a bomb while serving with the Marines west of the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
There is a biography page with a photo of the handsome Marine in a suit, basic information such as his age, rank, unit, hometown, and when and where he was killed, as well as an excerpt of an Associated Press story about his death.
The story quotes a neighbor about what a great dad Boatman had been. Then, in what makes for a kind of circular tribute, it includes a comment from his daughter she posted on the digital guest book.
"Just knowing that you died doing something you loved makes me feel a little bit better," she wrote. "Anyone who knew you could tell that you were a great person and a great father. My dad could just walk into a room with his great, big smile and soon everyone would be smiling too. I know my daddy loved me."
There are several slide shows of photos, including one that shows him with his son, Jacob, and daughter, Lauren, beginning when they were babies and ending with a photo of two teenagers flanking their dad, Jacob looking as tall as his father, and flashing his father's bright smile. The photos are accompanied by music, an instrumental version of "Amazing Grace."
Some Web sites about the wars weren't intended as memorials at all, but began to serve that function almost by accident. One of the most popular, icasualties.org, was started to fill an information gap.
A few months after the Iraq war began, computer software expert Michael White of Stone Mountain, Ga., got frustrated that the Associated Press casualty count lagged a few days behind the actual count. He decided to compile his own totals, using every available source of current information.
The site became iconic. It continually added and refreshed links to stories from the war zones, and its methods of analyzing casualties became so useful that it is now a crucial source of information for journalists and even the military itself. When action peaks in Iraq now, White's site can get more than a million hits a day.
No other site offers such an extensive analysis of the casualties. So it was inevitable that grieving relatives or friends found their way to it. White often gets e-mail thanking him or offering a correction to the basic information on each casualty that he collects directly from the Pentagon.
Hayes Ferguson, the chief operating officer of Legacy.com, said it is committed to maintaining its online guest books and memorials, including one for military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, as long as the company exists. It doesn't charge for maintaining guest books associated with the military memorial site, and every service member killed gets one there.
Legacy.com is the world's largest provider of online memorials and hosts Internet obituaries — each with a guest book — for more than 650 newspapers, including The Raleigh News & Observer. That means it now handles obituaries for about 60 percent of the people who die in the United States and has posted about 10 million since the company was founded a decade ago, Ferguson said.
In theory, at least, the digital memorials could easily outlast the ones of stone and marble. White, though, said that he wouldn't be surprised if many vanish quickly after the war's end. He has been tempted to shut down icasualties.org because of the time and expense, though he now gets enough donations to pay the $5,000 a year it takes to run it. What probably will happen, he said, is that if the number of hits tapers dramatically at some point, he would move be able to move it to a host that charges perhaps $200 a year.
Sites that have at least some element of honoring the fallen don't always fit into neat categories, but the ones obviously intended as memorials included more than half a dozen hosted by large newspapers such as the Washington Post, one by Fox News and others by a host of groups or individuals. Some have no obvious cause other than to honor the troops; others lean one way or the other politically. One memorial has short videos of the dead hosted by an anti-war film making company.
Legacy.com hosts its military memorial site at its own expense, and also provides guest books to casualty memorial sites run by seven major newspapers.
The company got the idea for a memorial site after Sept. 11, when the New York Times asked it to host guest books for the small profiles it was doing of everyone who died in the attack on the World Trade Center.
The idea was to offer an opportunity for people to leave messages similar to those in traditional guest books at funerals, Ferguson said. The messages, though, quickly evolved in other directions.
The global reach of the Internet means that many who leave notes are strangers. Others who post, usually friends or family, now treat the guest books almost as journals, sharing daily details of their lives with deceased love ones. The postings can also include photos.
The digital guest books do things the paper ones couldn't. For one thing, they can be accessed from any place in the world, so it's easy for any member of widely scattered families to add an entry.
Also, since families move so much these days — particularly military families — the guest books are a way for long-forgotten friends to check in with the family. A former neighbor who hadn't seen the family for 20 years might leave a note after discovering the memorial while Googling.
The company even provides hard copies of the guest book for people who prefer to read them that way. It has also begun hosting custom Web sites honoring individual people. And it is testing a new web site, http://www.connect.legacy.com/, that lets survivors and other users connect via discussion forums and other social networking tools. The site also includes information and advice from grief experts.
(c) 2008, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
Visit The News & Observer online at http://www.newsobserver.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.