Lisa Silvestri on Social Media in the Combat Zone

Our ‘Friends’ at ‘the Front’

Today many US troops are staying culturally connected to the home front through mobile communication technologies. Constant and immediate access to home marks a revolutionary change from how we once imagined combat deployment; a lonely soldier suffering through months of desperate isolation. Now an individual warfighter can chat with his mother from a forward operating base and receive the dreaded “Dear John” instantly via status update.

At first glance social media appear to be a morale boost for the troops since they can stay in touch and receive emotional support from loved ones back home. Yet even as social media present opportunities to create digital intimacy, doing so requires a great deal of time and attention. Platforms like Facebook depend on our active participation. Users are the content. Having a presence on Facebook, for example, requires that a person posts many pictures, has active discussions with friends, and shares personal interests and information.

In 2010 I began conducting interviews with “boots on the ground” to understand what war is like for this generation—how does constant and immediate access to home impact deployment? I traveled to Marine Corps bases in Okinawa, Japan and San Diego, California to conduct interviews with men and women who were “fresh” from deployment to find out how they used social media in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I also followed the Facebook activity of deployed personnel, making notes about their wall posts, video posts, photo posts and accompanying sidebar commentary. What I found was that, in a warzone, social media present a problem familiar to most of us. It is distracting.  The context of war, however, raises the stakes on this dilemma. Service members in a zone of combat cannot afford an attention deficit on their mission focus.

Social media’s potential to be a distraction caused a senior enlisted non-commissioned officer (NCO) in Okinawa to make a seemingly counter intuitive claim. He said he felt happiest and most secure on a small patrol base outside the wire because his men did not have access to the internet. “As bad as it may sound,” he said, “there are a lot of issues that arise when young guys have unlimited communication access to their loved ones…I needed the Marines to remain focused on their mission and not left wondering what their young, newly married wife may be doing.” One could imagine that warfighters always wondered what was going on back home, but now, social media access from the battlefield provides a tempting opportunity to find out.  And beyond the opportunity, there is an underlying social pressure from the civilian side to remain in contact.

One Marine told me that he got into “big trouble” with his wife after he lost contact with her following a serious accident in Afghanistan.  An 18-wheeler struck his Humvee throwing him from the vehicle, knocking him unconscious and causing serious injuries. As he tells it, “I wasn’t able to contact her for the better part of a week while in the hospital and when I finally did, she was more a wreck from wondering why I hadn’t mentioned anything than from me actually being injured.” This Marine’s wife was operating by a new set of communication norms ushered in by social media. For the most part, because it is possible, we have come to expect frequent and regular “status updates” from everyone in our social network, including deployed service members. The context of war emphasizes how egregious these demands have become.

The contemporary warzone represents a collision of cultures—the civilian culture of perpetual contact collides with combat culture that is quintessentially associated with a lack of contact. During my online observation, two Marines wrote posts to reassure their family and friends of their safety after word got out of an attack near where they were stationed.[1]

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In his book, What It Is Like To Go To War, former Marine and Vietnam Veteran, Karl Marlantes, describes how too much access with the home front can be confusing for the warfighter in a combat zone.  He writes:

Today a soldier can go out on patrol and kill someone or have one of his friends killed and call his girlfriend…and talk about anything except what just happened. And if society itself tries to blur it as much as possible, by conscious well-intended efforts to provide ‘all the comforts of home’…what chance does your average eighteen-year-old have of not becoming confused?[2]

Indeed, the lines distinguishing the contexts of war and everyday life are blurring. Perhaps most notably, advancements in drone technology have introduced a number of important questions in this regard. Psychologists, technology researchers, and legal experts have recently begun paying attention to the emotional disturbances drone pilots experience as they shoot at targets 7,000 miles away and return home a few hours later to eat a lasagna dinner with their family. The context of war, it seems, is bleeding into everyday life.  My research takes up the inverse of this phenomenon. What happens when everyday life becomes the context for war? And what will the transition home be like for a generation of troops who never fully left?

Lisa Silvestri, PhD teaches about communication and digital culture at Gonzaga University. She is the author of the new book, Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone.

[1] A major concern for public affairs officers is that sensitive information such as deaths or injuries can pass to families and friends via Facebook before the military has the opportunity to inform them according to procedure.

[2] Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War (New York: Grove Press, 2011), 19.