Summer Essay Campaign #12: “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a Novel Hypothesis: Social Networking and Electronic Isolation in the War Zone”
To Answer Question #10: “What are the advantages and disadvantages of real-time soldier-family communications while at war?”
By Colonel Clark Barrett, PhD., Michigan Army National Guard
*Note: This essay was previously published in Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, © 2012 Springer Publishing Company.
As recent high-profile news stories reflect, the U.S. military continues struggling to identify the underlying causes of the increasing incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide (Swofford, 2012; Wood, 2012). Despite dedicating huge amounts of research and expense, the military seems no closer to identifying the root cause of this growing phenomenon. Much of the military’s time and effort has been centered on treating the problem ex post facto, but my own interest is largely focused on prevention (Barrett, 2011). Lately, I have begun to wonder if we are not victims of our own technological success. We have the global, technical, and logistical capability to bring many of the comforts of home to the battlefield. But our endeavors to make the combat zone more tolerable through technology and instant communication may have unforeseen effects, feeding rather than abating the problem of combat stress.
During my squadron’s tour in Iraq and Kuwait in 2008, I was always surprised to see how many of my soldiers isolated themselves from their comrades through the use of technology. Even the mere pursuit of their technology fix” often caused an immediate and recognizable impact on missions. Indeed, one of the typical discipline problems my unit experienced was when soldiers returned from a convoy security mission and became negligent in their duties. Upon arriving safely at a forward operating base (FOB), the “need” for combat/road safety gave way to the “wants” for food, rest, or entertainment. All too frequently, in the midst of their post mission relief, someone would lose a sensitive item or negligently discharge a weapon. This phenomenon is akin to “the horse smelling the barn,”—rushing and losing sight of what is important to look after themselves. This analogy was especially apropos for our cavalry unit. I frequently reminded my troopers that they—like their horse cavalry predecessors—had to tend to their horses (vehicles and equipment), and their soldiers, before themselves. But all too often, the junior members were focused on eating, sleeping, and the siren call of technological lures at the Morale,
Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) tent.
I am no Luddite, but I am still shocked to see the prevalence of broadband Internet, webcams, video game consoles, and satellite TV in the warzone MWR tents and soldiers’ quarters. I remember deployments (Bosnia for instance) when snail mail was a 3-week turnaround and a phone call home was a very rare occurrence. I do not begrudge soldiers their fun. I also admit that I am awful at Call of Duty (and games like it)—the irony of engaging in virtual combat in the midst of a real combat zone is still lost on me—which my soldiers enjoyed reminding me of, during the few occasions I embarrassed myself playing against them. But I wonder what we are losing as the soldiers tune out of the war zone, tune in to life back home (via phone calls, e-mails, instant messaging, or webcam systems such as Skype), or bury themselves in iTunes and video games (Wong & Gerras, 2006, p. 26)?
In their monograph CU @ the FOB, Army War College faculty members, Drs. Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras (2006) detailed how prevalent technology is for soldiers on the FOBs. They also describe how soldiers communicated to their homes with loved ones . . . without necessarily communicating well. Journalist Stephen Marche (2012) validates this idea, noting that the pursuit of technological connection through social media in lieu of real conversation is affecting society as a whole. Marche calls these interactions “[a] web of connections . . . grown broader but shallower” (para. 3). Soldiers are not necessarily benefitting from this shallow connection with the home front. For two reasons, soldiers are not comfortable talking about the realities of war with family and friends. First, because they do not want to worry loved ones; second, because they quickly realize that those back home cannot possibly understand their circumstances anyway (Wong & Gerras, 2006, p. 15). Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. People back home frequently burden their soldiers with their own problems (Wong & Gerras, 2006, pp. 16, 20–25). Conversations about kids’ troubles, missed bills, or Dear John’s now happen repeatedly, daily, and in real time. This may be one part of the larger problem. Soldiers are communicating back to home, in compromised fashion, when they ought to be communicating more among themselves. As John Cacioppo—of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago—noted, “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are. The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are” (Marche, 2012, para. 26).
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman described the counterexample and historical precedents when—prior to World War I—battlefields went quiet at night. Soldiers—green newbies and grizzled veterans— gathered around the campfire. They talked about the events of that day (Grossman & Christensen, 2008, pp. 304, 307). Through caring conversations, the veterans settled the gun-shy and battle-fatigued junior members of the unit and readied for the next day’s battle. Grossman (2009) noted several factors which mitigate and prevent PTSD: Camaraderie and empathy were instrumental, and battlefield relationships were critical (p. 266).
In the book What It Is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes (2011) reinforced this concept as he describes one older gunnery sergeant who was no longer suited for combat in the Vietnam bush (pp. 244–246). Instead, Gunny “Mike” Michaels was reassigned to the company supply tent where his experience as a cocounselor probably did more to help his Marine Corps buddies than anything he could have accomplished as just another rifleman. Gunny Mike helped the new marines settle their nerves, took care of those who needed help, and provided a ready ear and advice to those in need. This is usually a chaplain’s role, but many service members avoided chaplains because they fear religiosity. Marlantes advocated institutionalizing cocounseling training for all soldiers— with special emphasis for officers and noncommissioned officers—so that more service members are formally prepared to do what Gunny Mike learned and did in ad hoc fashion (pp. 244–246).
Absent a military force well-trained in counseling techniques, Wong and Gerras (2006) noted the importance of “isolation” for special operations units to prepare themselves for missions by “locking down” away from outside influences (p. 27). Perhaps the military as a whole needs a little more isolation from the home front. Admittedly, this is an idea that would not be well received. Wong and Gerras rightfully commented that the technology genie will not be put back into the bottle but suggested that the chain of command must be increasingly vigilant to ensure that outside influences are not negatively affecting soldier battlefield performance (pp. 27–28).
We cannot and would not desire to return to the quieter (and somewhat boring) early 20th century days of the troops surrounding campfires. However, we need to consciously recognize that soldiers isolated (through choice) by technology may be missing out on the important interaction and comradeship that comes from deep conversation and empathy (Grossman, 2009, pp. 265–266). We already know that interaction with fellow veterans is a key enabler in defeating PTSD. Is it too much to assume that the same is required to prevent PTSD? Our soldiers would probably benefit from plugging in less and talking more with their comrades.
Clark C. Barrett, PhD, is a 1993 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He’s served in infantry, armor, and cavalry positions from platoon to regimental command. He is a civilian engineer and a Colonel in the National Guard.
Barrett, C. C. (2011). Unarmed and dangerous: The holistic preparation of soldiers for combat. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 13, 95–114.
Grossman, D. (2009). On killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York, NY: Back Bay Book.
Grossman, D., & Christensen, L. W. (2008). On combat: The psychology and physiology of combat (3rd ed.). Millstadt, IL: Warrior Science.
Marche, S. (2012, May). Is Facebook making us lonely? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www .theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/8930/
Marlantes, K. (2011). What it is like to go to war. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Swofford, A. (2012, May 21). The epidemic of military suicides. Newsweek Weekly MagazineRetrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/05/20/anthony-swofford-on-the-epidemic-of-military-suicides.html
Wong, L., & Gerras, S. (2006). CU @ the FOB: How the forward operating base is changing the life of combat soldiers. Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College.
Wood, D. (2012, July 4). Iraq, Afghanistan war veterans struggle with combat trauma. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/04/iraq-afghanistan-war-veteranscombat-trauma_n_1645701.html