WASHINGTON—According to a Pentagon report leaked to the press Monday, love letters written by U.S. troops have nearly tripled in their use of disturbing language, graphic imagery, and horrific themes since the start of the war.
The report, which studied 600 romantic notes sent over a period of two years, found a significant increase in terrifying descriptions of violence and gore, while references to beautiful flowers, singing bluebirds, and the infinite, undulating sea were seen to decrease by 93 percent.
"Not only are U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq less likely to compare their lover's cheeks to a blushing red rose," the report read in part, "but most are now three times more likely to equate that same burning desire to the 'smoldering flesh of a dead Iraqi insurgent,' and almost 10 times more likely to compare sudden bursts of passion to a 'crowded marketplace explosion.'"
According to detailed analysis of the letters, the longer a U.S. soldier had been stationed in Iraq the more macabre the overall tone of his correspondence became. Troops who had been fighting for less than a year lapsed into frightening allegory only 15 percent of the time, while those who had been serving between two and three years described their affection for loved ones back home as more vibrant and alive than any of the children in the village of Basra.
Troops stationed in Iraq for four years or longer composed their letters entirely in blood.
"The more often U.S. soldiers are confronted with images of carnage, the more these elements become present in their subconscious and, ultimately, in their writing," said Dr. Kendra Allen, a behavioral psychologist who reviewed the Pentagon's findings. "This is precisely why we see so many passages like, 'Darling, I miss the way your bright green eyes always stayed inside your skull' and 'Honey, how I dream of your soft, supple arms—both of them, still attached as ever, to the rest of your body.'"
Allen went on to say that many of the harrowing details found in the love letters were linked to specific events in Iraq. A bloody clash with Islamic extremists in late March resulted in more than 40 handwritten notes from a single battalion, all of which contained some version of the message "My love for you spills out of me like my lower intestine, my gallbladder, and my spleen."
The most noticeable change came after a violent border skirmish in May that left four U.S. soldiers dead and dozens more severely injured. Since the incident, a number of letters, which had previously signed off with "Yours forever," instead ended with "Please God, deliver me from this nightmarish hellhole! The screaming—it never stops! Christ, I beg you, make it all go away! Make the parade of blood and pain and tears go away!"
A number of wives and fiancées of servicemen in Iraq, many of whom are now unsure how to reply to their partners abroad, provided personal accounts of how the tone of their correspondence has changed.
"Getting love letters from my husband used to be my favorite part of the week. But these days, they're almost impossible to get through," said Sheila Miller, whose husband, Michael, has been in Iraq since 2004. "Yes, it's still flattering to be told that you're as beautiful as a syringe full of morphine, or that you're as much a part of his being as the shrapnel near his spine. But I'm really starting to worry about him."
"My husband has never really been the romantic type, but even this is strange for him," said Margaret Baker, the wife of Sgt. Daniel Baker. "How am I supposed to react to hearing that my name is the sweetest sound in a world otherwise filled with desperate cries of anguish? I made the mistake of showing [daughter] Gracie the birthday card her father sent her from Tikrit and she hasn't spoken for a month."
In response to the damaging report, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke on behalf of the thousands of soldiers on active duty in the Middle East, saying the study's findings were "misrepresented" and any rise in horrific metaphors and similes was in no way related to the situation in Iraq.
"I've been to our bases overseas and let me be the first to tell you that conditions in Iraq are the best they've ever been," Gates announced at a press conference Friday. "In fact, I would go so far as to say that we're making as much progress here as, say, an army private who accidentally falls on a land mine, and instead of choosing to die in the middle of the road like some dog, drags his bleeding trunk—inch by throbbing inch—to the side of a nearby ditch."
Added Gates, "It's that good."