T.E. Lawrence and my social media revolt

Originally published in 2013.

“Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a chore to read. It’s massive, and Lawrence at times muses like Holden Caulfield.

But there are many gems found throughout that have stayed with me, like this, his thoughts on the military man, the veteran:

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”

Most of my favorites, though, have little to do with military matters, language, or his travels. The one that sticks with me most is the end of the quote I opened with. Lawrence, in pure orientalist fashion, expresses his thoughts on the Syrians:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

“…busy themselves in others’ affairs.”

It was 2006. I was still fresh out of the Army and I shot out like a rocket ship. I had a full time job and I went to community college full time, trying to catch up with my education while not sacrificing my livelihood. I exercised daily and had a healthy social life. I was busy and happy.

“You should start a Facebook account,” my fianc√© said.

“Why? I have a MySpace,” I replied.

I held out for a year. I just wasn’t interested.

Eventually, I relented and created a Facebook account, my modest little garden on the internet. I started connecting with ‘friends.’ Old friends and new. I was in college and meeting lots of people. It was fun. I have always enjoyed socializing online. AOL chat rooms. Internet forums. Online video games. This was a natural evolution of that.

I’d meet someone and say before leaving “Are you on Facebook?”

I enjoyed it. Pictures and comments and the opportunity to display your best self in a steady parade of best selves.

But something changed. The whole experience is no longer fun. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s making me nuts.

More and more I’m finding myself rotating through a digital cycle of Facebook and Twitter, clearing out my ‘reds,’ those cruelly painted notifications designed to excite my brain and grab my attention. I’ll sit down at my computer to do something and find myself some time later staring at three open tabs that each say ‘Facebook (1)’ and I wonder what the hell it was I meant to do in the first place.

Or I find myself staring at a Twitter avatar, a brilliant, tiny photograph next to a quip, some moral grandstand that dares me to respond. I click ‘reply’ and tap out a response and stare at it, cursor blinking, asking me, “done?”

I think, and delete it. I almost always delete it. I don’t want to get sucked into a whole thing.

Except sometimes I send it and get sucked into a whole thing. Then comes the reply, an electric torpedo from the dark. And I’ll send another one back. And then I have to go out and actually do something in life.

I’m at lunch, checking my phone. My wife rolls her eyes. I’m waiting for a reply. Pitifully, my phone allows for ‘push notifications,’ allowing someone to reach me like a vine growing out of my phone and wrapping around my neck.

My day can be ruined by what someone says on the Internet. And I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of writing little notes and pressing enter, sending it into the ‘stream’ and watching it get carried away, or rather, pushed away by other peoples’ notes. I hate waiting and wanting those other people to look at my note and think it is so great that they’ll pass it along to their people, all sending their own little notes.

I’m tired of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from people I respect, and trying to gently make the correction.

Mostly, I’m tired of the unending gazing. The incessant scrolling. The comparing and wondering. The constant tugging from the social media ether-space, beckoning me to check again, to see what’s going on.

I can no longer stand to have people I don’t know or with whom I share some limited, past experience, suck me into their world. It’s too much.

Aa Lawrence hints: is it wrong to be interested chiefly with one’s own affairs?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. I wholeheartedly believe in it as a tool for fun and personal growth as well as a platform for mobilization. I’ve made some of my best friends through it and it allows me to maintain and develop relationships in a way not as readily available in the past. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of social media in an Egyptian social movement, using Facebook to reach out to and interview some of its leaders.

No, social media is great. Just not for me. I can’t survive in it. It’s quicksand. Others, I’m sure, walk along like it’s a gorgeous beach, waving and smiling and enjoying the sunset

I take a few steps and sink.

That’s my problem.

So, I’m in rebellion. I declare war on social media. I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and I’ve resolved to checking them both just once a day. From my computer.

Oh I’ll still post. To withdraw completely would be to lose. To win is to control this beast. To use the space and turn their weapons to my own use. To pillage the trains left smoldering on their tracks, as Lawrence did with the Arabs.

Take back your day. It’s a revolt.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

T. E. Lawrence

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Social media as a way to bridge the civil-military divide

Soldiers crossing a bridge. It’s a metaphor. But that really happened.

Just about every week there is some event that happens that connects social media and the Army, for good or for ill. I’m a true believer in social media. I love using it myself, I studied its use in social movements in college, and I believe that for all its flaws, social media is good for the Army and good for soldiers. Social media allows both the Army and its soldiers to “tell the Army’s story” to the American public, and further, I argue that it helps fill in some of the empty space that makes up the civilian-military divide.

A brief history

… I started to write my own “brief history” of the Army and social media, but then remembered that MAJ Crispin Burke (aka Starbuck, aka, Wings Over Iraq) wrote a good one at the New York Times At War Blog. So if you’re interested in that history, check it out.

How the Army has changed

The Army has struggled over the years to figure out if wants to embrace social media or wall itself in. Thankfully, after many fits and starts, the Army has chosen to embrace social media, and cautiously empowers soldiers to use it to tell the Army story. For its part, the Army has established a pretty impressive digital foothold (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) Units across the force have their own digital holdings. While I’m sure lots of units out there are just “doing it” the Army actually has created guidelines on “how to do it” through the Social Media Handbook (3rd Edition). The handbook provides units and individuals the guidance they need on how to establish a social media presence for their unit or how to conduct themselves online as individuals. There are some specific rules governing a digital presence for units, but for individuals, following the UCMJ, not violating OPSEC, and using common sense is the best hedge for staying out of trouble.

Connecting worlds, bridging the civil-military divide

The thing that excites me most about social media is the way it allows outsiders of a specific community to inject themselves into that community and engage with it in a way that would normally be difficult or impossible. Interested in ballet but not a ballet dancer? A few minutes of searching and you can amass a small arsenal of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to saturate yourself in the art. Whenever I find myself interested in a new topic, I usually start finding that community online as a way to quickly learn about it, and hopefully, connect to people who know what they’re talking about.

While the big Army is able to tell its story through its social media presence, individual soldiers like myself can engage with the larger public through blogs like this or on any other social media site. While military bases are normally walled off and secluded from major population areas, the internet is everywhere, and anyone can engage with soldiers who are out there and online. Interested civilians can follow me on Twitter or follow this blog and get an idea of what their soldiers are doing in a more personal way than just reading about it in the newspaper.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in this, just as there is when the military is coupled with social media generally. Some people will do dumb things. That is why anyone – especially soldiers – who choose to engage online need to do so with eyes wide open.

Top comment: “Every time i hear this video it reminds me that we’re all humans and sometimes we need to set aside our differences and live life. I salute these soldiers for taking time to make this video as they get little RR in the war zone. So the next time you see a soldier be kind and say “thanks” because it could be their last appreciation they hear from someone that’s protecting our freedom and liberty.”¬†

A few years ago when I was still in college, I remember this video was released and it was getting shared across the internet. From the comments and reactions I saw from a lot of my peers in college, I got the impression that this was the first time they saw and thought of soldiers as human beings. That is, to most Americans – young people especially – the concept of the soldier is something abstract, something never seen or experienced. It’s something that happens in movies, video games, and newspaper articles. While many of my military friends chided the soldiers in the video for making us “look foolish” or for obviously having too much free time, I saw value in the video in the way it humanized the soldiers to a society who are largely unaware of what soldiers do or are doing. Plus, the whole idea of tough paratroopers dancing and enjoying a Lady GaGa song destroyed a ton of stereotypes.

The civil-military divide, that thing which gets lots of lip service of being something that needs to be addressed but little in terms of how to fix it. I’ve written about it before, and I’m of the mind that since we’re helplessly outnumbered by the American population, it falls on our shoulders to do our best to not wall ourselves in further and reach out the rest of country to help bridge the divide. Using social media is one way in which we can do that.

And, just for fun.

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The last letter war

One of my happiest deployment memories is receiving mail at a train station in As Samawah, Iraq in 2003. Our unit had been in Iraq for about a week, and we had just experienced combat for the first time – a liminal event, if there ever was one. Lounging at As Samawah, we were resting before moving on towards Baghdad. We were covered in dirt, exhausted and exhilarated. Shortly before moving out, the company XO appeared, zig-zagging in-between sleeping bodies along the train platform, dragging OD green bags of mail. Santa Claus in DCUs and body armor.

Unless you didn’t get any, or the news was bad, the appearance of mail always lifted morale. Mail was distributed with a hint of bitter anger. Senior NCOs called out last names, then irritably handed over that short respite from reality. Soldiers that received “too much mail” were met with jealousy covered by suspicion.

Quiet blankets the platoon area as everyone rips open their letters, reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading. Silence is interrupted only by someone exclaiming some piece of exciting news that no one cares about. “Ha! My wife won $5,000 in the lottery.” “Oh, that’s cool” someone responds without paying attention, turning back to his own letters.

Those who got nothing congregated like laughing hyenas. Not receiving mail somehow made them harder than the others.

Waking up to packages organized by platoon. Like Christmas morning in Habbinyah.

Better than letters (but not always) were packages. Fat boxes of happiness. Candy, cookies, dried meats, protein, baby wipes, games, magazines (the best!), DVDs, newspapers. A friend sent me a long combat knife. My parents loved sending care packages. Once they mastered the basics (the essentials listed above), they moved onto the exotic. One hot summer day, I received two large brown packages from my dad. The bottoms were slimy. I opened up the packages to find rotting pineapples. My dad thought pineapples might be refreshing. And they would have been if they survived the five week trip from New York to Baghdad in temperatures that reached 130ňö F.

A little more than halfway into the deployment, we got access to an internet tent at our battalion headquarters. I used to take small teams there in the early morning, waking up before anyone else and making the short walk from our compound to the nearby battalion compound. There, we’d write emails and talk on AOL Instant Messenger with anyone online. Soon, the company got access to a cell phone that could be used to call home. Time was rationed out to about 20 minutes per soldier. The phone was used nearly non-stop, only resting to recharge.

The arrival of email and phones replaced written letters. As food and supply got better and the mail became more reliable, even care packages became less important. Soldiers ordered online what they wanted.

It’s with foolish nostalgia that I fear we’ve seen the last letter war. There is something heroically romantic about soldiers’ letters. Yet, we all ditched letter writing when email came along. Some of us, myself included, tried to keep writing. The emotional attachment was there, but was quickly broken by the promise of now.

I don’t think I wrote a single letter during my second deployment.

I have not deployed in the Facebook era, but I can only imagine that with it, letter writing in war is that much closer to dead.

It’s possible that future wars may come accompanied with a short period of time that makes letter writing necessary because of limited supply, speed of movement, and a degraded communication grid. But technology has improved dramatically since 2003, and it’s hard to imagine the internet being far from anywhere. For troops tucked away in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan, letter writing might still exist, like an endangered species kept alive artificially by a dedicated bunch of conservationists.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about letter writing. So much of our romantic literature revolves around letters and letter writing. And we tend to think that some of our heroes from “the old days” would scoff at email, Twitter and the rest. I often have to remind myself that more likely, they would scoff at us for waxing nostalgic for an ancient system that moves glacially, and sometimes not at all. Letters never received. Letters that sink to the bottom of the ocean on freighters. Letters that burn in uncontrollable fires. Letters that are stolen. Letters that arrive in bunches in tightly packed wrapping, years after being sent.

No, I’m fairly certain most would agree it is better to have certain and quick communication.

But still.

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The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk

PT, shooting, and combatives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND

When I first got to a line company in the 82nd, my 1SG called me into his office to give me his in-brief, and fill me in on his philosophy on how to be successful in his company. On his desk, he had a GI Joe action figure (one of the big ones). The GI Joe was wearing all the gear: body armor, kevlar helmet, web gear, and he had an M16 strapped to his chest. The GI Joe was sitting on top of a jar, and taped to the jar was a a white piece of paper with the bold black words PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND. He caught me looking at it, and said “SPC Gomez, what does that say?”

Me: “Psychological highground, 1SG.”

1SG: “And do you know what that means.”

It didn’t matter if I knew, he was going to tell me, so I shook my head no.

1SG: “It means being the baddest dude in the room. What would you do if someone came busting into your room with all that gear on? You’d probably crap your pants.” (he didn’t say dude or crap)

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

1SG: “Part of being a successful infantryman means being intimidating. When a 6 foot tall (me: neither of us were over 5’7”) monster comes crashing through your door, you’re going to pause, because he’s achieved the psychological highground by looking intimidating. In that pause, is where you win.”

I nodded in agreement.

1SG: “But that’s just one part. SPC Gomez, to be successful in my company you’ve got to be good at three things: PT, shooting, and combatives. You’re an 11B, so 300 is where you start. You will qualify expert, and you need to be ready to fight another human being and win.”

Nod.

1SG: “PT, shooting, and combatives. Take care of those three things and you’ll be golden.”

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

He was right. If you keep yourself out of trouble and do those three things well, you can be a pretty successful infantryman. But, as the title of the post suggests, these are the three things you can’t talk about with military folk.

This is something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve recently been reminded about it as I’ve dived into reading the comment section of blogs, and occasionally joining in.

Recently, the Army banned the use of Vibram Five Finger (VFF) footwear from use with the Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU). From what I understand, the reason they were banned has to do with the way VFFs look (like gorilla feet), not their utility as a running tool (simulating barefoot running). Over at Kings of War, a blog out of the War Studies Department at King’s College that usually discusses issues of grand strategy and big picture, highly intellectual stuff, they posted a short piece on the situation, which as of this writing garnered a whopping 78 (78!) comments. Heated debates ensued over what the ‘best’ or ‘most professional’ PT program is. I left a couple of comments on why I thought the Army made the decision they did, and was chided as being weak-minded for being easily distracted by footwear (true). Similarly, over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure, a post about the coveted Reflector Belt resulted in the same craziness.

Post a picture of a target with your shot group on Facebook, and rest assured, your military buddies will jump in to tell you how much you suck, the production history of the weapon you used (and why it is inferior to the weapon they prefer), a detailed ballistic report from the grainy BlackBerry photo, and then reiterate again that your shooting sucks, at least in comparison to theirs.

I won’t get into combatives too much. Everyone who trains in a martial art believes they are training in the best martial art. And to settle the debate, this is the best martial art.

The point is, these three things evoke an emotional response from military folk, probably because these three things are at the core of what we think the military is supposed to do, and be good at. Everyone in the military does PT, shoots, and probably does some form of hand-to-hand combat training. The civilian world certainly expects that we do all those things. So when you bring up your new PT routine with military friends, you are sure to get some unsolicited advice on how you’re doing it wrong, or how you should forget everything you know and adopt his/her eccentric-flavor-of-the-weak fitness regimen. Think you know something about guns? Well you don’t, and your military friends will remind you. And your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no match for my Krav Maga which is no match for his Sambo or her Muay Thai.

So, like politics and religion, I try not to talk about these things, to the best of my ability. And if I do, I just let everyone else be the expert.

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