Bridging the Gaps: Pop Culture and Ritual in Military Blogs from Afghanistan

by Frank Usbeck

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq coincided with the emergence of Web 2.0 and social media. American and coalition soldiers deployed with a full array of technological gadgets and can expect to have access to and use the internet during their tours in the war zone. Many of them documented the war with cameras, social media services, emails, and blogs. In doing so, they revolutionized traditional forms of wartime communication and war narration: Soldiers are no longer cut off from contact to their families and their home communities during their time overseas; they can communicate their war experience, their thoughts, and even trivia, with families, the home front, as well as with absolute strangers. The soldiers' use of web 2.0 technology constitutes an amalgam of war diaries, memoirs, letters from the front, and journalistic insider reporting. Soldier communication from the war zone provides subjective, individual, and bottom-up perspectives of the current wars. Their interaction with commenters, be they friends, families or strangers, illustrate how American society experiences, debates, reflects on, and comes to terms with its armed conflicts. This presentation will illustrate how the interaction in blogs written by service members (milblogs) provides for such coming to terms and for ways to understand, represent, and integrate war experience.

Military psychology has been increasingly concerned with issues of combat-related stress and PTSD throughout the 20th century. In the late 1980s, studies began to show a heightened interest in social support from civil society as an element to overcome war trauma. By looking into civil social support and soldier (re-)integration, psychologists try to understand the cultural work of how exactly societies and those who do their fighting for them come to terms with the experience of violence. Some approaches refer to the warrior traditions of indigenous peoples, such as the war ceremonies among Native American communities, to understand how soldiers in the 21st century could integrate their experience and navigate between the different learned behavior, rules, and norms, of war and peace.

Warrior ceremonies continue to be cornerstones in the cultural fabric of many Native American nations. Native communities acknowledge that the transitions from civilian to warrior to veteran force individuals to face fundamental social and cognitive changes (gaps in self-perception). Ceremonies conducted upon the soldiers' return often include ritual narration and performance of their experience, as well as ritual applause, advice, and solace by their communities. Thus, the ceremonies reintegrate the warriors, help them bridge these gaps, and allow them to come to terms with their experience. Both Native studies and military psychology suggest that the therapeutic and community-building effect of such ceremonial storytelling offers inspiration for the reintegration of non-Native veterans, as well.1

My paper will argue that milblogs provide such stress reduction and community-building for soldiers even before their return from deployment. I will emphasize the importance of blogger-audience interaction for sorting out the soldiers' experience and for navigating between civil and military realities. The blog audiences, often organized in support groups (i.e., Soldiers Angels), provide encouragement, solace, and offer gratitude to the bloggers, often in a mantra-like, ritualistic fashion. At the same time, bloggers and their audiences discuss films, music, and sports, which helps soldiers retain a sense of civilian normalcy. This exchange―although not a prophylaxis against PTSD per se―helps to diminish the social and cognitive gaps that lie at the heart of combat-related stress and its after-effects.

 

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1Holm, Tom. "Culture, Ceremonialism, and Stress: American Indian Veterans and the Vietnam War." Armed Forces and Society 12.2 (1986). 237-51, 248; Tick, Edward. War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest, 2005. 217.