Instant messages

Some news should be delivered with great care

The families of soldiers have always feared bad news from the front: word delivered by someone who witnessed the fighting, casualty lists in the newspapers, a telegram from the War Department, a knock on the door by notification officers.

This week, one woman received the first hint of her husband’s death in Afghanistan through Facebook, and now everyone who loves a deployed member of the military is at least slightly afraid to check Facebook.

There’s no good way to receive such news, although the men and women who deliver it professionally are trained to help the newly bereaved deal with the consequences. Such work is considered a specialty, just like expertise in various weaponry or other forms of communication.

Technological progress has always been a double-edged sword. The military long has had means of communication that the public did not possess. It still does, of course, but now nearly everyone has access to almost instantaneous communication. Ariell Taylor-Brown, whose husband was killed in Afghanistan on April 3, said the couple was talking via Skype (an Internet voice, video and messaging service) just hours before he died. For families separated by war, that is a tremendous blessing.

But the same technology allows bad news to travel just as quickly, not only through official channels but to everyone else. When a new widow can learn the news at the same time that military officials do, grief arrives before support.

Communication is not going to slow, and even the United States military will not be able to suppress it — any more than it could suppress Wikileaks, this week’s offensive and damaging photos of soldiers posing with the bodies of Afghan insurgents, identification of “friendly fire” as the cause of specific individuals’ deaths, or the various other leaks that have caused both heartache and serious danger. Loose lips still sink ships and harm morale. That doesn’t mean that truth should be suppressed, but it should be delivered with great care for the consequences.

The disintegration of discipline that allows unofficial information to outstrip official action may itself be a consequence of the long and arduous wars in which the United States has engaged during this century. For all the hard work done there, Afghanistan has remained a feudal country, and no one believes that all of the progress for which American military personnel paid such a price will be maintained after the U.S. withdrawal.

Etiquette always takes a while to catch up with “progress.” When new activities are not only possible but easy, the idea that they aren’t always the best way to handle a situation isn’t always fully developed yet. Even the military cannot anticipate and prevent every possible problem; like the private sector, it often must respond after something has gone wrong. The Golden Rule is still a good guide: “How would I feel if I were on the other end of this communication?”

The person who contacted Taylor Brown — a soldier in her husband’s platoon — may have had good intentions. She may have wanted to convey the platoon’s support and shared grief. She may not have known that the official notification had not taken place. She simply may not have thought things through.

That’s probably the best lesson to take from this, and it translates into many other walks of life: Think things through. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.