CROSS-POSTED REVIEW: H-Net Review [H-War]: Emery on Silvestri, 'Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone'

David Silbey's picture

Lisa Ellen Silvestri.  Friended at the Front: Social Media in the
American War Zone.  Lawrence  University Press of Kansas, 2015. 288
pp.  $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2136-1.

Reviewed by John Emery (University of California Irvine)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Lisa Ellen Silvestri's _Friended at the Front _brings readers a
fascinating look into the ways in which the Internet (especially
social media) and troops at war mutually impact each other in
contemporary conflict. Utilizing insights gained from in-person
interviews with US Marines and a wide range of theoretical lenses,
Silvestri offers a more holistic understanding of how soldiers frame
their own narratives of war in the digital era. There has been much
debate recently about the blurring of the war front and home front,
with drone pilots who are "at war" one minute and picking their kids
up from soccer practice the next. However, these debates miss how
social media has done something similar in what we consider the more
"traditional battlefields" of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, Silvestri
illustrates how social media (such as Facebook and YouTube) has been
integral to the lives of soldiers and their families, and proffers
compelling analyses to interpret the blurring of the lines between
home front and war front. Rather than focusing on the technology
itself, she is "more interested in how people interact with those
technologies. The goal is to understand how new modes of expression
influence processes of human living" (p. 3).

The book is organized into six chapters that trace evolving ideas of
what it means to be "at war," with insights gained from both service
members and their social networks. The introduction gives the reader
the lay of the land, with accessible theoretical framing via media
studies, communication theory, and social theory that readers from
all fields of study will find easy to follow and enlightening. The
first chapter introduces military culture and guidelines for social
media engagement, setting the stage for how soldiers are expected to
utilize social media and some problems that can arise from it. The
second chapter focuses on social interactivity across fronts, the
sense of constant connection and immediate contact afforded to
soldiers by social media in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter 3 examines
US Marines' digital photo album-making practices and how their social
networks help soldiers in making meaning of their wartime
deployments. In chapter 4 Silvestri considers how troops engage the
values of the home front through the creation and dissemination of
YouTube videos, suggesting that as the home-front attention to the
Global War on Terrorism wanes, service members commandeer popular
culture conversations to maintain relevance within the existing
"attention economy." Finally, in the conclusion, she takes a broader
look at the narratives of war that troops tell about themselves and
to each other, with a final optimistic take on the potential of
social media and its impact on war in the digital age.

Before turning to some of the most powerful insights gained from the
book I wish to briefly outline the book's methodology. Silvestri
conducted a series of semi-structured, in-person interviews with US
Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan on active bases
(Pendleton, California and Okinawa, Japan). Building from her
personal experience having a brother who served in Iraq, she utilizes
a variety of mediums through which she interprets the complex
interactions between the home front and war front mediated via social
media. Each session was a private, forty-five-minute interview with
junior Marines deployed between 2008 and 2012, as those years mark a
critical flashpoint for the use of real-time social media software in
Iraq and Afghanistan (p. 12). Additionally, she followed the Facebook
pages of nine Marines over the course of their deployments, closely
reading their wall posts, video posts, photo posts, and all the
accompanying sidebar commentary. This drew her attention to the
circulation patterns and processes of text production.

Many in academia today are focused solely on their "research
question" that forces interviews and text into neat "categories" that
may or may not be accurate representations of social reality.
However, Silvestri's method allows an openness to what might be
discovered through her interactions with soldiers. She notes: "When I
first began online observations, I didn't know what I was looking
for; I simply took it all in. But as I began to transcribe my
interviews from Okinawa and eventually Pendleton, some of the
Facebook activities I was observing ... began to take on relevance.
Throughout the interpretive process, interview conversations
illuminated online observations and vice versa. Their interdependence
is a genuine reflection of how my methodology unfolded" (p. 13).
Ultimately, this interpretive process allows the possibility for the
most accurate depiction of the mix of practices, representations,
structures, rhetorics, and technologies that make up the complex
interaction of the day-to-day lives of in combat and new social media
technologies.

Many of us tend to have an image of warfare based on Hollywood movies
or videogames. What is enlightening about this book is that soldiers
also view themselves through similar lenses. Thus, they often
describe their time spent in Iraq or Afghanistan as boring, or
repetitive, work. Many soldiers active on social media don't post
about some of the more rare but harsh realities of war, but seem
almost as if they were on vacation, taking touristic type photos for
friends and family back home. As one Marine put it, "We didn't really
talk about the war experience much. Just how's the weather. Small
talk, pretty much. I don't know. It's hard to explain" (p. 70).

Here Silvestri captures the essence of the disjunction between
Marines' expectations of what war "is" and their day-to-day
interactions with the home front, discussing the weather and posting
vacation-like photos. On the one hand the interviews suggested that
soldiers expect "war" to be like they see in the movies, with intense
battles and moments of "sheer terror." Thus, they often film their
own footage of daily life almost morbidly hoping something "war-like"
will occur. Nevertheless, the image they present on social media can
at times be more like that of vacationing in Afghanistan or Iraq,
posting photos with friends, sights, and scenery. Soldiers for whom
the war is an aspect of daily life, act and often feel as if they
were not engaged in "real war." That is not to say that do not
experience "real war" but it is often not how they imagined it to be,
and when they share their experiences on Facebook, they rarely use
the term "war."

Silvestri also theorizes about the impact that the prevalence of war
language in everyday social media interactions--for example, the wars
on drugs, poverty, Christmas, women, etc.--has on the public as a
whole. Most importantly she argues that it creates a sense of war as
mundane instead of extraordinary, that risks the loss of war's
distinction. Her goal is to keep war out of the ordinary and remind
her readers that although the lines between the war front and the
home front are increasingly blurred, war remains something distinctly
extraordinary. Ultimately the narrative of war is changing and social
media contributes to a feeling of routine in an already perpetual
war, where "war consists both of firefights and friend requests" (p.
17).

Soldiers' personal photos from the field have become a feature of
contemporary warfare. Several Marines said that they utilize the
extra grenade pouch on their flack jackets to hold their digital
cameras. In what is perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book,
Silvestri analyzes a number of photos posted by Marines in Iraq and
Afghanistan, using a number of communication, media, and social
theories to interpret their significance. While a majority of the
photos were like those of any other Facebook user--a selfie, posing
with friends, casually hanging out or goofing off--nearly half were
"moto photos." Moto photos are, according to one Marine sergeant,
"any picture of you in gear looking badass," where weapons are the
central focus of the photo as opposed to the "buddy pose" (p. 98).

Silvestri found that the moto photos are not for civilian audiences,
but for "the personnel themselves to verify and authenticate their
war experiences" (p. 104). If there is any doubt that their
experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan are authentic, these images
provide reassurance that what they are doing looks like "war" as our
popular imaginings from films and videogames would have it. The
photos themselves ended up being a kind of self-reflection for many,
as one Marine recognized that his desire to take and post photos came
from the idea "of knowing you are part of history and you're trying
to piece it together as you go" (p. 108).

Beyond enabling sodiers to be in contact with friends and family back
home, social media has allowed them to help in individual and
collective meaning making between what war was for them and how they
thought it should have been. Ultimately, this demonstrates the
complexities of contemporary war. On the one hand many interviewees
felt that mainstream news was an exaggerated version of their
experiences, focusing on frontline conflict whereas much of
deployment is the everyday experiences and "the good stuff" like
building schools, which several Marines cited as their favorite
deployment memories (p. 116). In the end, this book is a must-read
for soldiers, scholars, policymakers, and citizens who would like to
gain insight into the impact of social media in contemporary conflict
and how the lines between the home front and the war front are
becoming ever more blurred.

Citation: John Emery. Review of Silvestri, Lisa Ellen, _Friended at
the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone_. H-War, H-Net
Reviews. November, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45832

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.

--

Categories: review