When mainstream journalism is good, it can be very good. Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post tells a gripping, emotional story of the impact of social media on military families. Centered around a terrible day in June — when five soldiers died in an IED blast — Jaffe brings the war home. Few of us can imagine what it’s like to have your near-constant internet communication interrupted by a “blackout” and not know whether the one you love is alive, dead, or horribly injured. We can’t imagine what it’s like to see text messages racing around — “Who is it? Does anyone know anything?” — a tiny community of a few dozen wives and girlfriends.
Facebook, MySpace, Skype, and instant messaging are tremendous blessings for deployed soldiers and their families. I know during my Iraq deployment in 2007-2008 that all of us treasured the satellite internet link that brought us voices from home and grainy video images of our wives and children. But this access has a dark side. The blackout (as Jaffe explains, in the event of casualties all internet connections are cut until families can be notified through proper channels) plunges entire communities into a state of fear. I know what it’s like to be on the other end, as the blackout prevents us from reaching out to reassure — and seek solace from — our families back home.
But social networking has other problems as well. Soldiers often find themselves embroiled in domestic disputes in real time, first learning of infidelity or divorce through status updates and seeing pictures of new boyfriends in online photo albums. Social networks also risk operational security, as soldiers snap pictures of battle damage, let upcoming plans slip through messages or wall posts, and even betray their location online to tech-savvy jihadists.
All told, however, as we are now beyond nine years of war (some soldiers have been deployed for up to three and four years, cumulatively) social networks are essential to maintaining bonds back home and morale abroad. But — as with all things in war — they come with a price.