In Conversation with Lisa Silvestri, Author of “Friended at the Front”

9780700621361Q:  What inspired you to research social media’s role in the American war zone?

A: My brother was on his first deployment in Iraq while I was in graduate school studying communication. At the time, he and I mostly wrote letters back and forth. But I began paying closer attention to advancements in digital communication technologies, especially when the infamous Abu Ghraib photos emerged. At the time, it seemed like new communication technologies (MySpace, YouTube, Facebook) were becoming available at the same time we were becoming increasingly entrenched in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I was personally and academically invested in keeping a close eye on both of these “fronts.” I wondered how all this connection would change what it’s like to be at war.

Q:  What were you most surprised to learn?

A: I learned a lot so this question could easily become very long-winded. So I’ll just share the earliest surprise, which was that no one writes letters any more. The war letter, which was once a staple genre of letter writing, is now an endangered, if not extinct, artifact. Almost all the men and women I talked to said they carried their iPhones in their pockets, just like the rest of us. How will this change the archival aspect of these wars?

Q:  Do you believe social media enhances the lives of those protecting our country abroad, or did you find that it contributed to depression or homesickness?

A: That’s the question, isn’t it? To an extent we are all probably wondering if social media is enhancing or diminishing our lives. For troops in a war zone, the stakes are raised on these types of issues—fear of missing out (FOMO), being distracted, feeling lonely and bored. We can all relate to these social anxieties. But I would say, on the whole, after talking with the men and women fighting our wars, I’m most worried about the broad emotional spectrum they are forced to occupy; Thinking about OPSEC and mission safety on one hand and about how their kids got in a fight at school on the other.  In previous generations, our troops were more “protected” from home front concerns. This is a big change. I wonder how it will affect things like PTSD or the homecoming process more generally.

Q:  What are some of the most common ways social media is used within the American military warscape?

A: In interviews, most personnel said they used social media to “keep up to date.” This can include more intimate information like knowing what your wife had for dinner last night as well as getting a broader idea of what the latest stateside pop culture craze might be.

Q:  What’s the biggest take-away readers will glean from your book, “Friended at the Front:  Social Media in the American War Zone?”

A: One of my chief goals as a writer, teacher and citizen is to cultivate empathy. My hope is that readers will come away having meaningfully related to the men and women fighting these wars. And out of that empathy, maybe they will start to question America’s ongoing relationship with war.

Let’s Stop Making Veterans

9780700621361Every year on Veterans Day, I call my dad and brother, both Veterans. I’m proud they are, but I wish they weren’t. My hope is that one day we will stop making Veterans, a hope that seems increasingly naive as our president “intensifies” efforts against ISIL by putting “boots on the ground” in Syria. There will be more Veterans next year.

Ten years ago on Veterans Day, my brother was in Iraq on his first deployment—on the road to becoming a Veteran like our father, who had been in Vietnam 37 years earlier. My brother kept a journal during his deployment in East Hit. I want to share some excerpts as we mark the ten years since he became a Veteran.

[Dec 23, 2005] The [locals] have been very friendly thus far, I have even smoked the hookah with them, also got to try some food that I think was bean based, but very good. I do sincerely hope that we do not upset the locals too much and that the rest of days will go on peacefully as they have thus far.

[Dec 31, 2005] The Iraqi troops have quit on us. They no longer want to go on patrol or stand post. I’m not quite sure why that is, hopefully they are not bitter at us. I understand that they are under great pressure from their people and some go to great extents to hide their faces and identities while on patrol to protect their families, but obviously they could not last more than one week out patrolling with us Marines.

[Jan 21, 2006] I honestly do not see how they [Iraqi soldiers] will ever be able to maintain law and order in this country.

These diary entries are from ten years ago. Ten years ago, my brother recognized, with genuine and heartbreaking disconcertion, the impossibility of stabilizing Iraq. Ten years ago, we had far fewer Veterans then we do today.

So here we are on another Veterans Day. And with a mixture of gratitude and shame, I find myself choking on the realization that tomorrow we will have the most Veterans we’ve ever had; and if we keep going at the rate we are going, the fewest we ever will. But we can stop it. We can do something different. When I call my dad and brother to thank them, I will again say a silent prayer for peace, hoping that next year I won’t have to.

–Written by Lisa Ellen Silvestri, author of “Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone