In the end, it won't be the news correspondents or the politicians who are the truest chroniclers of the Persian Gulf war. It will be the soldiers.
In dispatches to the home front, U.S. troops are writing to those closest to them of their fears, loneliness, hopes, anger. In their hands, the ordinary can become extraordinary.
Dear Mom, I've been gone almost two months now. Has it become any quieter or have you noticed? I'm real tired right now but I can't sleep. Whoever said it was hot in the desert lied. I'm sitting in the back of a truck, hold on, now I'm in my cave. It's not so cold here because the wind can't get to me. It's pretty uncomfortable though.
Well, all these years of playing war will hopefully pay off. By the way, Mom, happy birthday. I'm feeling pretty depressed right now. I feel as if all this is in my imagination, almost like I'm losing touch with reality, like an extended dream. I just want to wake up and be 12 or 13 again. Then the biggest fight I had to worry about was you letting me pick out my school clothes.
. . . Do all the people I know think of me as being brave? I almost feel like crying. I don't know why, really. I guess it's because I'm being forced into manhood and I'm having to lock up the little boy that I am away somewhere in my mind, not knowing if in the days ahead I'll lose a key to the lock and never see or hear from him again.
I played brave all my life but now it's not play so the little boy goes away and a man that is so full of self-doubt appears. I've got to go. I love you.
In her mind's eye, Evelyn Zehm watches her son play war.
Sometimes she gets them confused -- the boy who always wanted to be a soldier, the man who now is one.
For the 45-year-old Mrs. Zehm, a dog groomer who lives in a suburb of Oklahoma City, the letters from her son, Rob, a handyman and third-year Marine reservist, are, for now, what she holds most dear: the texture of them in her hand, the look of them -- 10 in all -- as they sit on the wood-and-Formica bar in her living room.
This last letter, dated Feb. 12, arrived Wednesday.
"As long as those letters keep coming in," says Mrs. Zehm, "it means he's safe."
Rob Zehm, a 21-year-old lance corporal attached to an artillery unit from Fort Sill, Okla., was never the kind to express his feelings -- until now.
War, his mother says, has done that to her boy.
Home, home -- the letters always speak of home.
"It is a clear, starry night," Sgt. 1st Class Danny Hayden wrote recently to his wife, Jane, back home in Hinesville, Ga. "I sat out front till after dark. I wished upon the first star I saw. I wished that I would be home soon.
". . . After living in this hole for so long, home with you will be heaven. God, to taste a pepperoni pizza from Domino's or a taco, or to just cook on our grill, and sit down at the kitchen table across from you. To talk and see you at the same time. To reach out and feel your cheek. . . . To kiss you and hold you in my arms. That is to be home.
". . . I am not under fire. I can't say I am not in danger now. We just don't know what or where we will end up. . . . I will be alright and I will be coming home safe to you."
* Last week, U.S. troops sent 40,000 pounds of mail a day back home, according to postal authorities.
By contrast, 330,000 pounds of mail a day was posted to troops in Saudi Arabia, twice the amount sent to about the same number of troops during the war in Vietnam.
In their letters, the troops describe the texture of their everyday life: the joy of seeing two birds flying over the barren desert; the roar of planes returning to ship after a bombing raid; after three days, the intense longing for a shower; worry over a pilot friend who has just been taken prisoner of war; pride of duty; and -- perhaps most of all -- the yearning for absent loved ones.
"I am thinking about you often, almost every hour," Army reservist nurse Rita Lyman wrote to her 9-year-old daughter, Rita Lynn, from a battlefield hospital on the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
"I sit and close my eyes and imagine you at your desk in school. I smile when I think of you at play in the schoolyard or in line or at mass at St. Raymond's. Then I imagine I am at home when you get there. My thoughts of you are a joy to me.
". . . To me, you are like a beautiful golden bird," wrote Mrs. Lyman, 39, of Cape May County, N.J. "And Mommy is happy you are spreading your wings and flying while she is away."
Ganson Chambers, a 52-year-old policeman from Brooklyn, N.Y., sent his two eldest sons to war, and a son-in-law, too. Both sons joined the service right out of high school.
Mr. Chambers doesn't save their letters. He doesn't have to. He can recite them from memory.
"Willie writes the most," said Mr. Chambers about 27-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Willie Chambers. "His fear is mostly for his family and how are they going to survive if something happens to him. It's not that he's afraid of going into battle himself.
"My fellows have never been in a situation like this," Mr. Chambers said. "The letters mean everything. At least I know my boy's still functioning. I know he's still there. I know my boy's still alive."
On Christmas Eve, National Guardsman Carl A. McNeece called home to Alabama to his girlfriend, Leslie. That same night, he wrote his mother to explain why he hadn't called her instead.
"It's hard to split phone calls between two people you care so much about," the 25-year-old guardsman wrote to Billie McNeece, an upholsterer in rural Camden, Ala. "I figured you can handle it better. I know what a strong and deserving lady you are and I'll never forget it as long as I live. I am so thankful for parents like you and Daddy."
Carl McNeece and his father, 51-year-old William Tommy, are both attached to the 440th Ordnance Battalion, now in Saudi Arabia. A week after they arrived there, the elder Mr. McNeece was assigned to a post in Dhahran, while the rest of the unit -- which includes five McNeece cousins as well as his son -- was deployed to a desert outpost.
"I hated to leave his side," Carl McNeece wrote his mother.
While the weapons of war have grown more sophisticated, the wonder at war seems to have remained the same in the telling.
In a dispatch the day after war broke out, the young guardsman wrote: "Well, Momma, we spent the night in the bunker last night waiting on the war and we got it. It's a feeling hard to express in words. Maybe, one day after it's all over I'll be able to explain it."
As long as there have been wars, men -- and now women -- have been writing home. To a lover, a child, a parent, a friend.
Last week, Andrea Wallenberger, a 28-year-old legal secretary studying opera at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, received a letter from Army nurse Capt. Rebecca Roberts-Danelius, a childhood friend stationed at the 41st Combat Support Hospital in Saudi Arabia.
The Wallenberger and Roberts families, living side by side in Wilmington, Del., when the two young women were growing up, each had four children. At one point, one of the Roberts children got the chicken pox. Soon all eight had it.
Such were the stories Ms. Wallenberger recalled as she read her friend's letter:
"I alternate between not being able to sleep and then falling victim to complete exhaustion," wrote the 26-year-old nurse.
". . . I work in our emergency medical tent, the equivalent of an emergency room. I feel prepared skillwise . . . for the types of things we may see. I'm not prepared for the emotional trauma of seeing my fellow soldiers hurt or sick.
"I've already cried with a 59-year-old reservist we sent home with a heart attack. He cried and said, 'I can't leave my unit.' These soldiers are so dedicated.
"We're hearing about the protests at home and I wish the protestors understood the message they give to us is that what we are doing isn't worthwhile. I wish they'd find a different cause. We are only doing our job and we have to believe in it."
Last week, Joan Mikelatis, a secretary from Montdale, Pa., received a Valentine card from her 30-year-old son, Air Force Staff Sgt. John Mikelatis, who has been in the gulf since mid-September.
It was a simple enough gesture, but not to Mrs. Mikelatis.
"It's funny," she says. "I don't think I've gotten a Valentine from him since he was a little boy. Can you imagine that?"