There was an article last week in the New York Times by John Spencer, a major in the United States Army who served in Iraq in 2003 and again in 2008. Major Spencer expressed concern that the "close personal bonds between solders" that "translate into combat effectiveness" are being undermined by social media, cellphones and computers that keep the troops connected to their friends and loved ones back home instead of to each other.
Of his first tour of duty in 2003, a time before Facebook had taken off and cell phones and personal computers were practically nonexistent, Major Spencer writes, "We practically lived and often slept in our vehicles, we ate together, and we talked about everything from what we saw on our daily missions to the smells of men who don’t bathe for weeks at a time. The only real contact we had with the outside world arrived through letters and packages or an infrequent phone call home." According to Major Spencer it was all the time spent together, especially talking together, that promoted the personal bonding that formed unit cohesion, trust and team work in battle.
But by his second tour in 2008 most soldiers had cellphones and the living areas were equipped with computers and 24-hour internet and so, though the soldiers still talked, they no longer talked only to each other; unit members now spent significant amounts of time communicating with friends and family and posting on Facebook.
Major Spencer writes, "I saw a measured difference in non-battle time, and that difference manifested itself in combat performance...I saw the soldiers' individuality in battle. I saw them arguing about what decisions to make. I often observed much more transactional communications where there would have been friendly banter in the past." He writes of an encounter with the enemy in which an Iraqi child was killed by a grenade, after which the members of his company, instead of grouping together back at the base to talk about what had happened, sat in front of computer screens posting on about their day on Facebook.
Major Spencer sees the support and sense of connection soldiers can now sustain with the outside world as problematic for building the kind of close relationship among troops necessary in battle. He says, "The more connected soldiers are to the outside world, the more individual and separated they become. And that will not help us win future wars".
I won't dispute Major Spencer's observation that staying connected to home and family might create worse combat soldiers. And yet one hears of soldiers who return from combat duty feeling emotionally disconnected and disoriented, no longer able to relate to friends, family members or any one except other soldiers, those who shared their war experience .
And so I wonder if staying connected with the outside world, if sharing the stress and fear and terrible moments of war with friends and family instead of only with one's fellow warriors, though it might make for worse combat troops, might not, when the war is over and the soldiers have returned home, make for better adjusted, better integrated, mentally healthier and happier veterans.
"A Band of Tweeters", John Spencer, "The New York Times", page A 27, November 6, 2015