The Special Role of Veterans in the Social Media Era

Early one morning in the heady days of post-deployment reintegration, just as I was dropping off my gym bag in the platoon office, a soldier approached and asked if I had read a recent article that was going around about how the Army had lost the art of leadership. I knew the article he was talking about.

“Yeah, I read it. What did you think?” I asked.

“I think he has a lot of good points.”

I didn’t necessarily agree with the article, and I didn’t want to argue about it with a junior soldier just before PT. “Yeah, it’s an interesting article,” I replied.

I stood in the rear, waiting to salute the morning flag as the platoon chattered in front of me, eager for the coming weekend. Thinking about that interaction a few moments earlier, what struck me most was the way someone else’s ideas had injected themselves into the actual day of an infantry rifle platoon.

Reveille sounded, we saluted, and then we did PT.

A half a year later, during an aggressive training cycle in preparation for an upcoming deployment, the unit I was in became the target of a barrage of jokes on a popular Army social media site. Between conducting live-fire training exercises and pre-deployment training, soldiers talked about the latest memes targeting their unit, and discussed rumors that they didn’t hear from other soldiers, but saw posted anonymously online.

The confluence of military-centric social media sites, a vibrant community that identifies as military and veteran, and the growth of writers and writing outlets that focus on the military and veteran communities are having a real influence on the day-to-day operations of the actual military. Due to the restrictions on freedom of expression, political neutrality, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the things that active duty service members can do and say online is rightly curtailed. For that reason, military veterans hold a special position in society, being able to represent themselves as arbiters of the military to a wider public – if they so choose.

This is a weird new space that did not exist before the age of social media. While veterans of previous generations also came home and wrote, there were no social media sites or blogs. Veterans certainly wrote, but it came in the form of books and newspaper articles, which weren’t as widely available.

Back during my first enlistment, the online military community was relegated to basic internet forums and a couple of emerging blogs, like Blackfive.

Today they are all over the place, and growing. There are military blogs that lean left or right politically, others that focus on leadership, others still on military policy and life. Conglomerate sites like Task & Purpose give voice to a range of opinions and ideas that can be rapidly spread to a wide and growing audience of both service members, veterans, and civilians.

Not only have the outlets spread, but the barrier for entry has been lowered to be nearly nonexistent. Anyone can start a blog or post a meme (this blog not excluded). In the aggregate, these are good – and unavoidable – things.

Here are the two pitfalls of this new world as they relate to the military:

  • There are actual effects in the day-to-day operations of the military
  • Many civilians do not make the distinction between active-duty and veteran, especially online

The race for clicks and views has us publishing without ever really thinking through what the effects might be. When I was out of the Army and writing, I never really thought about what effect an article might have on the active-duty Army. What I did recognize, though, is that many civilians lump veterans and active-duty into one large box – the military. As a veteran, my voice was given authority on all things military simply for having served. In that position, I served as an arbiter between what I understood as two different worlds – military and civilian.

Serving as that arbiter can be a huge responsibility. Active-duty service members do not have the same ability to say what they think or feel on certain policies or political matters. Veterans do. Many veterans in the community have taken on this responsibility to great effect, writing and speaking to a broader audience with an aim at demystifying what the military is and closing the civilian-military divide.

What has been less explored is what the effect of that same writing and speaking has on the day-to-day operations of the military. It’s not a matter of negligence, this is a new phenomenon and not one most veterans had to contend with when they served.

There is no going back from this era. It is hard to imagine the role of social media receding in the coming years. For good or for ill, this is the new landscape that exists. Veterans, for their part, have a special role that they will play, whether they like it or not. If they have a presence in the public domain, their voice will be amplified above others in regards to military affairs. What they say will have effects not only on how the civilian public views veterans or the military, but on the actual affairs of those currently serving.

The driving force behind some of the more disruptive articles and memes is the contest for clicks. I’m reminded of a line from the Infantryman’s Creed: In the race for victory, I am swift, determined, and courageous, armed with a fierce will to win. Victory, in this context, is going viral. Before publishing, instead of being swift, determined, and courageous, armed with a fierce will to win, better is to be thorough, thoughtful, and critical.

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