Rosenberg: In war zone, yearning for home

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — I remember as a teenager watching countless episodes of the TV show M*A*S*H and always having a peculiar attraction, apart from the blood and gore of the operating room, for the austere conditions, challenges, and camaraderie of the doctors and support staff of the 4077. One thing that always struck me was their longing for anything from home — letters from loved ones, Armed Forces Network broadcasts of the Army-Navy game, or ribs and coleslaw from the Adam’s Ribs restaurant in Chicago.

Years later, during multiple assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I more fully understood that longing. However, since the Korean War, technology has dramatically transformed the way individuals in forlorn locations interface with the outside world.

On this, my third long-term assignment to the Afghan theater, I have stumbled upon a service where I can view my home cable television from anywhere. All I need is an Internet connection.
So there I was, 6,930 miles from home, clicking through more than 200 channels, and what do I end up watching? M*A*S*H.

Of all the communications tools that I’ve used while on these assignments, accessing my home cable service is the one I’m embracing the least, though I enjoy catching the Sunday morning talk shows or the occasional movie.

However, I find that the annoying aspects of cable TV amplified in-theater. I keep the news on as background noise at home, but here it grates on my nerves. And the dearth of watchable channels, scattered like an archipelago across a sea of infomercials, religious programming, and cartoons, seems even more pronounced here than it does from the comfort of my couch at home.

Fortunately, cable isn’t the only technology available.

E-mail is omnipresent, and my LinkedIn contacts list continues to grow. I log on to Facebook daily, though the frequency of my attempts at posting droll, ironic humor are fewer and further between when contending with day-in, day-out reports of suicide bombings, endemic corruption, and Taliban acid attacks on schoolgirls.

And just as the unreality of reality programming is more pronounced in the trenches, the disconnect I feel from friends’ Facebook postings is like that of a convict looking at Virgin Islands vacation brochures.

One of the most-used social-media devices here is Skype. After work, some of my colleagues vanish, Skyping late into the evening with family and friends. With a functioning webcam and decent connection, it’s the closest thing to the vision of the future depicted in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey — released the same year, 1968, that MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors was published.

It was also the year that my parents and I received an astonishing phone call from my brother in Vietnam. He was using the Military Affiliate Radio System, which allowed service members to call home. I remember the awkward conversation: I was standing in my Batman pajamas, flubbing procedures such as uttering “Over” at the conclusion of each statement.

The most important application for me remains the instantaneousness of text messaging. This was never more cherished than on those occasions in Iraq when, pressed to the floor in my living quarters during frequent rocket attacks, I would pound out vital affirmations to my girlfriend, with the subsequent vibration of her reply bringing tremendous comfort.

Even keeping up with the news is as easy as logging onto the Internet. That’s quite a contrast from one of my favorite M*A*S*H episodes, in which Maj. Winchester, caught hoarding Stateside newspapers, was shamed into distributing them to a news-hungry camp, one section at a time. With notions of replicating this during my first tour in Iraq, I went to the trouble of taking several newspapers with me. However, instead of being eagerly passed from one enthusiastic reader to the next, as I had envisioned, they were instead relegated to packing material.

John M. Rosenberg is a political and foreign-affairs writer from Virginia. E-mail him at