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Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

Donald Rumsfeld – who’s known as a people-eating systems man – has a long history that shows he prefers technology to humans. Certainly as SecDef he’s always gone for high-tech military gear rather than giving the boots on the ground max priority when it comes to the basics: armored vehicles and vests, sufficient ammo and all the other vital stuff that helps soldiers make it through the Valley of Death.

His beloved shock-and-awe whiz-bang wonder weapons worked well enough initially in Afghanistan and Iraq, but as we saw on the tube last week, we’re once again back to the age-old struggle of man against man – with grunts, not machines, taking and holding ground.

And now, apparently, Rumsfeld’s obsession with machines and their efficiency has translated into his using one to replace his own John Hancock on KIA (killed in action) letters to parents and spouses. Two Pentagon-based colonels, who’ve both insisted on anonymity to protect their careers, have indignantly reported that the SecDef has relinquished this sacred duty to a signature device rather than signing the sad documents himself.

When I went to Jim Turner, a good man saddled with a tough job as one of Rumsfeld’s flacks at the Pentagon, for a confirmation or a denial, he said, “Rumsfeld signs the letters himself.”

I then went to about a dozen next-of-kin of American soldiers KIA in Iraq. Most agreed with the colonels’ accusations and said they’d noticed and been insulted by the machine-driven signature. One father bitterly commented that he thought it was a shame that the SecDef could keep his squash schedule, but not find the time to sign his dead son’s letter. Several also felt compelled to tell me that the letter they received from George Bush also looked as though it was not signed personally by the president.

Dr. Ted Smith, whose son Eric was among the first 100 killed in Iraq, notes that the letter he received “from the commander in chief was signed with a thick, green marking pen. I thought it was stamped then and do even now. He had time for golf and the ranch, but not enough to sign a decent signature with a pen for his beloved hero soldiers. I was going to send the letter back, but did not. I am sorry I didn’t.”

Sue Niederer, whose son Seth was also killed in Iraq, sums it up:

My son wasn’t a person to these people, he was just an entity to play their war game. But where are their children? Not one of them knows how any of us feel, and they obviously aren’t interested in finding out. None of them cares. And Rumsfeld depersonalizing his signature – it’s a slap in the face, don’t you think?

Probably. I have devoted so much of my later life crusading to save soldiers from uncaring generals and politicians and bureaucrats, who tend so easily to view these kids – who are rarely their own flesh and blood – as abstract pawns in a virtual game of chess, because I was there. I stood and was counted, and I will never forget the pain when I signed KIA letters in Korea and Vietnam. I would choke up as I signed them – I could see the boys’ faces, their cocky smiles, their muddy soldier suits. Each signing reinforced the awesome responsibility I carried as a leader to be as protective as possible about the young lives entrusted to me.

After I talked with the nearest and dearest of the KIA, I called Turner back and told him there was evidence that Rumsfeld’s signature was in fact machine-produced. I asked him to double-check, and he promised to get me the straight skinny by my deadline. But late Friday, I received a typical Pentagon duck-and-dodge e-mail: “Regret to say I have not been able to get a response as of COB (close of business) today …”

Throughout World War II, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall made sure that President Franklin Roosevelt was briefed in detail on the number of soldiers who had fallen. FDR, incidentally, probably wanted to know. He had sons who were serving.

I suspect that Sue Niederer and the other kin are on target about how not signing the KIA letters helps keep the commander in chief and the SecDef detached from the consequences of a nasty war and its messy human fall-out.

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