Land Navigation: Declination

declination in the united states
Declination: “It’s a real thing.”

There are some things in life I feel strongly about. No Super Bowl will be greater than Super Bowl 42. Reality television is simultaneously everything that is great and terrible about America. And you must adhere to the declination diagram of a given map! Here at Fort Benning, declination is usually glossed over as unimportant.

“It’s only 4˚ gentlemen, you don’t even have to use it.”

At its worst, I sat dumbfounded in a land navigation class as the instructor said that to get a magnetic azimuth you SUBTRACT the G-M angle from the grid azimuth. After the class, I spoke with him, confident that to get a magnetic azimuth at Fort Benning you add 4˚ to the grid azimuth. I was told I was wrong, because “General (Grid) to Major (Magnetic) is a demotion, so you subtract.” I’m sure that he learned that somewhere, at another post, where that mnemonic worked. It doesn’t work at Fort Benning, and if you did indeed subtract, you would be off azimuth by 8˚, which is certainly not negligible (double the numbers at the diagram I have at the bottom).

What is declination? From FM 3-25.26 (Map Reading and Land Navigation):

Declination is the angular difference between any two norths. If you have a map and a  compass, the one of most interest to you will be between magnetic and grid north. The declination diagram shows the angular relationship, represented by prongs, among grid, magnetic and true norths. While the relative positions of the prongs are correct, they are seldom plotted to scale. Do not use the diagram to measure a numerical value,. This value will be written in the map margin (in both degrees and mils) beside the diagram.

Fort Benning Declination Diagram.

In more basic terms, any azimuth you get using a protractor is not useable on the ground until it is converted using the declination diagram. At Fort Benning, to get a magnetic azimuth from a grid azimuth, you add the G-M angle which is 4˚ (70 mils). If, for example, you plotted an azimuth of 90˚ to a point, you would have to shoot a magnetic azimuth of 94˚ in order to walk the actual azimuth you plotted.

I’m assuming that most instructors advise students to ignore the G-M angle for simplicity. It might be too confusing to add 4˚ to a grid azimuth.

I’m a firm believer in using the G-M angle because it is the actual correct azimuth. To ignore it is accepting that you will not walk exactly where you intend to. When navigating, it seems most people tend to drift to the right. That might explain why so many people swear by ignoring the G-M angle – their drifting right actually puts them on the right azimuth!

From Left to Right (top): Start Point, 50m, 90m, 130m, 200m.
From Left to Right (bottom): Start Point, 300m, 600m, 1000m, 1500m.

The map above shows how declination works at Fort Benning. From the start point (SP) at the road on the left I plotted a 90˚ azimuth to the road on the right. If you added the G-M angle (4˚) and walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 94˚, you would walk along the bottom line. If you did not add the G-M angle and instead walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 90˚, you would walk along the top line. The numbers on the bottom line are the distances in meters and the numbers on the top line are the approximate distances off azimuth a navigator would be at the given ranges.

So, for example, by ignoring the G-M angle, you would be off by approximately 50 meters after walking 300 meters. Not a big deal if you are looking for something big, like a house. But if you’re looking for a small orange and white box on a six foot stake in the woods, obscured by foliage and sadistically placed in the most out-of-sight-spot, at night, it might be hard to see that from half a football field away.

As you move further along your un-declinated azimuth, the distance only widens. At 600 meters, you are just under 100 meters off azimuth. At 1 kilometer you would be about 130 meters off. 1500 meters: 200 meters off.

Of course, a good way to compensate for this is to understand the terrain you will be traversing. If I was walking the 94˚ azimuth in the diagram, I would know that to get from one road to the other I would be crossing the creek at just over 1000 meters and then crossing a second creek at about 1500 meters. If I chose not to add the G-M angle, I would still cross the creek, but that would happen at about 600 meters. Coming up to the creek 400 meters too soon should give the navigator pause and he should stop to figure out what is going on.

The “oh by the way” of this is I have plenty of friends who have successfully completed land navigation courses here without using the declination diagram. They may have drifted into their correct azimuth or used a combination of land navigation techniques to improve their chances of finding their points. The point is, at Fort Benning it is possible to ignore the G-M angle and still do well. But why knowingly handicap yourself when all you have to do is add 4˚?

Declination. It’s a real thing. When it comes to land navigation, I’ll take any advantage I can get it.


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Running around like a maniac in the woods, and winning

The last couple of times I’ve been on a land navigation course, I didn’t do so well. The first time, I tried to “take it easy” and walk the course (I normally run a lot). I wasted a lot of time slowly traversing the course, and then because I had it in my mind that I was “taking it easy” it was more difficult to get amped up to crash into the woods and destroy the homes of hundreds of Fort Benning spiders.

Then, at Ranger School, I made a couple of bad decisions at the start of the course which threw me off.

This past week I had another go at a land navigation course for IBOLC’s mini-RAP week. Excited for the chance to get back on a land navigation course and “get my groove back” I put in a little more preparation than usual. One of the problems I had during RAP week land navigation was poor fieldcraft. I didn’t have a clipboard or flat writing surface and I placed my map haphazardly in a zip-up map case. I wasted lots of time digging it out for map checks. Precious minutes spent standing around on a land nav course messing with gear can add up and work against you.

Eager to not make the same mistake twice, I dug through my giant box of old Army gear from my enlisted time and fished out a plexiglass map case I made. It’s something I picked up from watching officers on the drop zones of Fort Bragg. Many of them would pull out these hard map cases with all of the key information they needed already plotted. The case was easy to handle, flat, and protected the map (see here for instructions on how to make one).

After making a few minor repairs to the case, I headed out to the land navigation course with the other post-IBOLC students for the land navigation course (a painful day, wake up at 0030). Surprisingly, we did not go to the usual Red Diamond course I’ve done almost a dozen times since being here at Fort Benning. It was some other course that I’ve never been to before, just south of the Ranger School land navigation site. It was exciting to have to do a new, unfamiliar course.

The map we got for the course was pretty bad. The contour lines were difficult to make out and everything was blurry. I slipped the map into my case and began plotting. Lesson learned: it would probably be better to plot directly on the map and then put the map into the case. The map case is tight, but the map tends to slide around a little bit, and I had to ensure that the map was correctly lined up each time I pulled an azimuth. Also, the parallax caused by the thickness of the plexiglass can effect grid plotting and azimuths if you are not looking directly down at the map case.

I don’t plot out my exact route or course of action for a land navigation course. After plotting my points (and checking!) I usually move myself to the furthest point first, using the night hours to erase the distance. I’ll have a general route plan in mind, but I don’t lock myself into it because I don’t know how the course is going to treat me. I choose my first point, and move out. After getting it (or not), I’ll look at the map and choose the next point. I repeat this until I finish.

After pinpointing my location, I began the course. I used the trails to get myself to attack points. Most of the course was done during the night, so I kept my attack points within 300 meters. While moving along the trails, I jogged. Time spent traversing the course is time wasted. I want to have as much time as possible to locate the little orange and white boxes in the woods after navigating to the general area. The way to get more of that time is by moving swiftly from point A to B.

On this particular lane, I had three points close to the start point, so I snatched those up first. Then I moved to my two furthest points and got those before bringing it back to the start point, grabbing the last two points along the way in my lane.

At the end of the course I was soaked in sweat, but hadn’t actually broken too much brush because I used good attack points. Going with what I know worked (moving quickly, especially at night) and doing well on the land navigation course provided a much needed shot of confidence. Bringing out the map case was helpful, and I learned some lessons on how to use it effectively.

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Joining the insurgency because it’s fun!

al qaeda militants standing around

In my college classes and in think-tank papers, really smart people peel back layers to try to figure out why insurgencies happen, or why regular people engage in political violence. The result is often this ornate collage of factors that lead people (usually in groups, not as individuals) to join the rebellion. Complicated lines are drawn from economic/social/political conditions to the end result which is violence. The research is there and the data often works. Vindicated. Done.

I’ve always been more curious about the human dimension. Is it really a hodgepodge of factors that leads a person to violence like a lemming, or is there something else? I joined the Army, after all, mostly seeking adventure. The other stuff was there, too (service, patriotism, benefits) but the chief reason that the 19-year-old version of me stepped into the recruiter’s office was to do something exceptional. Is it too much to think that our adversaries aren’t doing the same? In many places in the world where you find American troops, our adversaries are living the Red Dawn scenario that Americans often fantasize about.

A few years ago, I was at a seminar where David Kilcullen was giving a talk on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. I had recently read The Accidental Guerrilla and was familiar with his research and his work. At the end of his talk, I asked him my question about what motivates individuals to join an insurgency, and could it not just be for the simple thrill of it – to be part of something exceptional? He didn’t really give me a good answer, but he directed to me to “an Army pamphlet called ‘Human Factors of insurgencies’ or something that was written in the 60s.” I quickly scribbled it down.

Later, I did a cursory search for this on the internet which turned up nothing. I typed it up as a task and tucked it away in my Things to look at it another day. And there it sat. For three years.

Yesterday, I was poking around and came across that task and decided to give it another search, and boom! First hit. Downloadable as a PDF: “Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 550-104: Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (1966).

I haven’t read through it yet, but it looks like just what I was looking for. For anyone who is interested in insurgency and the human dimension, this looks like a great resource.

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Injury Management

a doll with pieces of paper attached to it

Soldiers – infantrymen especially – are going to collect injuries throughout their careers. Human bodies are fragile, and the nature of the job means that those fragile bodies are going to come crashing against a world of hurt. As I get older, I’m discovering that part of a good physical fitness regimen is having an injury management plan. At any given time, I’ve usually got one to three injuries that I’m dealing with. These aren’t show stoppers -nothing that I’d need to go to sick call for and take a profile. Rather, these are nagging injuries that could develop into something worse if not addressed.

I’ve always had a nasty habit of ignoring my small injuries and training through them or around them. While I was out of the Army and just going to college, this didn’t matter much, because I completely controlled my personal training. Now that I’m back in, I don’t always have control over my physical fitness regimen – I’ve got to do what the Army asks me to do. If I hurt my ankle or shoulder, I can’t just stop training until it gets better. Instead, I have to find ways to continue to train while doing the best to 1) prevent further injury, and 2) heal and rehabilitate the injury.

The biggest problem I’ve faced in trying to manage my injuries is remembering which injuries I need to manage. I need a constant reminder of what I’m working on. My solution was to buy a wooden doll from the local hobby shop. These are used as models for artists. I keep it on my desk and I attach little slips of paper onto the doll with a note on the injury. I see this thing every day, and it serves as a reminder to go easy on those areas.

Reminding myself that I am carrying injuries isn’t enough though. As part of a weekly review (if you’re not GTDing, you’re missing out) I ask myself “what are my injuries and what have I done to mitigate them?” I should be able to answer that question with concrete responses. The goal, is that over time, I will be able to remove the slips of paper from the injury doll.

Injuries are a part of training. Managing injuries is just as important as following a good workout routine and eating a healthy diet. Unfortunately, too often we only address the injury when it reaches a point where it hinders performance.

All that said, if you’re hurt, go to a doctor and get fixed. But if you have a manageable injury, do everything you can to manage it. Research it. Talk to buddies. Actively do the things that will make it better. Otherwise, that injury will nag and grow and eventually win. Don’t let it win.

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The things I carried (in the field!)

a big rucksack

Last week, I had my first “real” field experience since being back in the Army. The field time at OCS wasn’t bad at all. We slept on cots in heated tents each night – so that didn’t really count.

Like always, we had a pretty standard packing list, designed to meet a certain weight threshold and provide the soldier with the minimum stuff he’d need for a week in the field. There are a few things that I packed in my ruck that I knew would be good to have based on prior experience. And then there were some things that I forgot to bring, based on a faulty memory. I won’t forget again.

The things I remembered to bring:
Vaseline: Chaffing happens in the field. It didn’t happen to me this time, but it happened to some friends and they came begging for it.
Gold Bond Body Powder: When you can’t wash, you can at least get dry.
Foot care kit: Moleskin, gauze, tape, and band-aids. Only needed the band-aids this time.
Dust brush: A barber’s brush, for weapons maintenance. There is nothing more annoying than people constantly asking to borrow your dust brush.

The things I forgot to bring:
Watchcap: How I forgot this, I don’t know. My bald head is the only thing that pokes out of a sleeping bag, and we lose a lot of heat from the head.
Bug juice: As in, insect repellant. I suppose I thought it was still Winter. It’s already Spring here in Fort Benning. My face, head, and neck have the bug bites to prove it.
Canteen cup: It wasn’t on the packing list, so I left it out. I could have used it for hot water.

I usually err on not bringing extra stuff to the field. When I was in the 82nd, everything extra that you packed would be strapped to you for the jump in, so getting as light as possible was the goal. A watch cap and insect repellant are light enough to warrant bringing to the field for the added comfort.

What else is good to bring?

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Self-preservation mode

a soldier shamming

After branching day at OCS, the BN CDR and BN CSM grabbed all of the new infantry guys and gathered us outside to give us a quick pep talk. The BN CDR spoke about the pride of being an infantryman and the importance of going to Ranger School as a new 2LT.

The BN CSM reinforced what the CDR said, and then delved a little deeper on what to expect going forward in the infantry. He talked about what he called ‘self-preservation’ mode. As a prior service infantryman, I knew what he was talking about, but never heard it put that way before. He described the suck of being in the infantry; the cold, the hot, the wet, the fatigue, the bugs and on and on and on. Life in the infantry can suck. As humans, our bodies naturally try to protect us from these things. This protection manifests itself in the shamming soldier (the ultimate of which is embodied in the soldier in the above pic). The soldier who shuts down, stops volunteering, stops being motivated, stops talking and on and on and on.

Self-preservation mode. The goal is to preserve yourself by shutting down. Anyone who’s been in the field for a few days or has been ground down by tough training knows the feeling or at least have seen others experiencing it. I felt it at the end of last week as the culmination of a weeks’ training took hold late at night.

What I found interesting, is that since hearing the CSM describe that feeling as ‘self-preservation,’ I’ve been able to identify it when it settles on me. Before, I just thought I was “tired” which seems natural enough. There’s something about labeling this thing as ‘self-preservation’ that makes it especially repugnant. Heading towards self-preservation mode isn’t weak, though – it’s natural. Your body and mind are going to push you in that direction. By acknowledging it, however, I’ve found that I’m able to reclaim it, and choose to fight it.

Fight fatigue with action. That’s been my motto when I feel myself going into self-preservation mode. The more I sit and think about how much it sucks, the deeper I go into self-preservation. If I fight it, I stand a better chance of staying out of the trap. Granted, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes things just suck and the best you can do it grin and bear it.

My hope is that by making a habit of fighting off self-preservation mode, it will become easier and easier to do. We’ll see how it goes.

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The ‘I Love Me’ Book

Originally published in 2012.

Now is a good time to talk about managing Army records. Coming back into the Army meant digging out my old paperwork so that I could properly update my personnel file. Graduating OCS meant getting a whole bunch of new paperwork that needs to be added to the pile. Then, I read this article from the Army Times (‘As drawdown looms, mind your personnel file, February 5, 2012).

It seems like the Army does a better job digitizing records than it did a few years ago. Most of the important paperwork I’ve received has already been uploaded to iPERMS – the Army’s digital file. That’s good, but sometimes paperwork doesn’t make it online and all you have is the physical paperwork.

That’s where the ‘I Love Me’ book comes in.

My first team leader in the Army told me that I needed to start putting together a book that has all of my important paperwork. He called it his ‘I Love Me’ book because it was his personal “paperwork shrine” to himself. All of his military accomplishments in one place. Basic training certificate, MOS orders, orders to report to Airborne School, Airborne School certificate, orders for the parachutist skill identifier, orders to report to the 82d Airborne Division, et cetera.

His binder was pretty elaborate. It was tough, and he had glued the 82d patch with a Ranger and Recon Tab on the side of it as decoration (we were in a Scout Platoon). I followed his lead and built an equally elaborate binder (which I’ve since lost track of – not the paperwork, just the binder). My current binder is pretty plain. It’s a floppy, blue binder with sheet protectors on the inside. I like the floppy binders better than the hard binders because they are easier to transport. They’re only as large as your important paperwork is thick.

Pretty much anything that authorizes the wear of any badges, tabs, or ribbons goes in the book. Orders to report anywhere goes in the book. Graduation certificates, ERBs/ORBs, NCOERs/OERs, they all go in the book. Any other paperwork I put in another folder and tuck it away in a closet. I’ve never had to retrieve that “other” folder for anything. If you do it right, you should only ever need to grab the ‘I Love Me’ book.

I like to organize it chronologically, from day one in the Army to the present. You can also put in other important documents that you might need, like college transcripts or civilian certifications.

Going Digital

Having an ‘I Love Me’ book is the first step in managing your own personnel file. The next step is digitizing it. Today, scanners are cheap. Scanning all of the documents in your ‘I Love Me’ book into PDFs ensures that in the event that the Army loses track of your paperwork and you can’t get ahold of your physical ‘I Love Me’ book for whatever reason, you still have the files stored digitally on your own computer. In the smartphone era, I can get access to a file I’ve stored digitally in a matter of seconds. And when people need your paperwork in the Army, they need it now. It’s pretty cool to be able to provide it just as fast.

So what?

Having all of your paperwork neatly tucked into a binder and stored on a computer is great, but it means nothing if the Army isn’t tracking that paperwork. It is a skill level one task to ensure your own personnel file is updated. Luckily, if you keep an ‘I Love Me’ book, you can grab it and head over to S1 to update your ERB/ORB with relative ease. Keeping records updated with Big Army ensures that when they look at you for promotions (or whatever else) they are looking at the most accurate reflection of your history and skills. Being a steward of your own file is going to be more important than it has been in recent years, and maintaining an ‘I Love Me’ book is the first step in making sure your records are straight.

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My new training ruck

Once I realized that I was going to rejoin the Army, I started reaching out to old Army buddies to help me develop my training program. Specifically, I wanted to concentrate on foot marching, something I had trouble with when I first joined (I’m going to write a longer post about foot marching soon). A friend of mine from the 82nd Airborne who went on to Special Forces recommended I ditch the giant North Carolina tick and instead attach a 45lb plate to a rucksack frame and go with that. True, it’s not the same as having a giant ball on your back that you can stuff the world into, but it is easier to pick up, put on, and go than the alternative.

When training, I’ve found that one of the easiest excuses to pick up and walk on an early morning is not having an adequately packed ruck. “Oh, man, I forgot to pack my ruck last night. Ah well, I’ll just ruck next week.” With this, there’s no excuse. I never have to pack it or unpack it. It’s always the same weight.

What do you think? Am I missing out by not being able to cram in more weight?

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What can ‘Leroy Jenkins’ teach us about Troop Leading Procedures?

I haven’t written much since starting OCS. As would be expected, things are busy here. I’m having a lot of fun and I’m still soaking it all in. Five years out of the military is a long time. Slowly though, things are coming back to me.

One of the things that has me really excited about the Army right now is how open it is to new ideas.

Today, after hours of classes on combat orders, Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs) and developing Courses of Action (COAs), the class was closed with this famous internet meme:

Here, you have what looks like a raiding party at an Objective Rally Point (ORP) preparing to launch an attack. The leader is talking through the Execution phase of the Operations Order (OPORD). Each member of the raiding party is being tasked with different responsibilities. Survivability is even calculated (32.33%, repeating, of course).

Then, Leroy Jenkins happens.

In the military world, Leroy Jenkins is the equivalent of Murphy’s Law. That is, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While the leader of the raiding party had not even finished his brief, it is doubtful that he could have planned for the contingency of one of the members of the raiding party going rogue and rushing the objective (OBJ) alone. After Leroy rushed in, the rest of the party immediately followed. Now, their half-baked plan was ruined, resulting in the complete annihilation of the team.

What makes this video funny, besides the nerd factor and the strange voice of Leroy Jenkins, is the fact that the team blindly rushes behind him. I’m sure it was probably out of loyalty to their friend or sheer adrenaline, but it is the thing that stands out as the prime mistake. Had the raiding team developed internal Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), they may have had a way to deal with rogue party members. In this case, a sound SOP would probably be to ignore rogue party members and let them go it alone, as rushing behind them blindly is extremely dangerous.

Now, the instructors didn’t use the Leroy Jenkins video the way I am using it here – breaking it down and analyzing it. They just played the video after soaking in hours of classroom instruction on combat orders. Putting the two together, I can’t help but make the connections.

I just think it’s cool that someone in the Army thought to pair combat orders up with Leroy Jenkins.

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The last letter war

One of my happiest deployment memories is receiving mail at a train station in As Samawah, Iraq in 2003. Our unit had been in Iraq for about a week, and we had just experienced combat for the first time – a liminal event, if there ever was one. Lounging at As Samawah, we were resting before moving on towards Baghdad. We were covered in dirt, exhausted and exhilarated. Shortly before moving out, the company XO appeared, zig-zagging in-between sleeping bodies along the train platform, dragging OD green bags of mail. Santa Claus in DCUs and body armor.

Unless you didn’t get any, or the news was bad, the appearance of mail always lifted morale. Mail was distributed with a hint of bitter anger. Senior NCOs called out last names, then irritably handed over that short respite from reality. Soldiers that received “too much mail” were met with jealousy covered by suspicion.

Quiet blankets the platoon area as everyone rips open their letters, reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading. Silence is interrupted only by someone exclaiming some piece of exciting news that no one cares about. “Ha! My wife won $5,000 in the lottery.” “Oh, that’s cool” someone responds without paying attention, turning back to his own letters.

Those who got nothing congregated like laughing hyenas. Not receiving mail somehow made them harder than the others.

Waking up to packages organized by platoon. Like Christmas morning in Habbinyah.

Better than letters (but not always) were packages. Fat boxes of happiness. Candy, cookies, dried meats, protein, baby wipes, games, magazines (the best!), DVDs, newspapers. A friend sent me a long combat knife. My parents loved sending care packages. Once they mastered the basics (the essentials listed above), they moved onto the exotic. One hot summer day, I received two large brown packages from my dad. The bottoms were slimy. I opened up the packages to find rotting pineapples. My dad thought pineapples might be refreshing. And they would have been if they survived the five week trip from New York to Baghdad in temperatures that reached 130˚ F.

A little more than halfway into the deployment, we got access to an internet tent at our battalion headquarters. I used to take small teams there in the early morning, waking up before anyone else and making the short walk from our compound to the nearby battalion compound. There, we’d write emails and talk on AOL Instant Messenger with anyone online. Soon, the company got access to a cell phone that could be used to call home. Time was rationed out to about 20 minutes per soldier. The phone was used nearly non-stop, only resting to recharge.

The arrival of email and phones replaced written letters. As food and supply got better and the mail became more reliable, even care packages became less important. Soldiers ordered online what they wanted.

It’s with foolish nostalgia that I fear we’ve seen the last letter war. There is something heroically romantic about soldiers’ letters. Yet, we all ditched letter writing when email came along. Some of us, myself included, tried to keep writing. The emotional attachment was there, but was quickly broken by the promise of now.

I don’t think I wrote a single letter during my second deployment.

I have not deployed in the Facebook era, but I can only imagine that with it, letter writing in war is that much closer to dead.

It’s possible that future wars may come accompanied with a short period of time that makes letter writing necessary because of limited supply, speed of movement, and a degraded communication grid. But technology has improved dramatically since 2003, and it’s hard to imagine the internet being far from anywhere. For troops tucked away in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan, letter writing might still exist, like an endangered species kept alive artificially by a dedicated bunch of conservationists.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about letter writing. So much of our romantic literature revolves around letters and letter writing. And we tend to think that some of our heroes from “the old days” would scoff at email, Twitter and the rest. I often have to remind myself that more likely, they would scoff at us for waxing nostalgic for an ancient system that moves glacially, and sometimes not at all. Letters never received. Letters that sink to the bottom of the ocean on freighters. Letters that burn in uncontrollable fires. Letters that are stolen. Letters that arrive in bunches in tightly packed wrapping, years after being sent.

No, I’m fairly certain most would agree it is better to have certain and quick communication.

But still.

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