January 2011: The U.S. Army issues an official social media handbook. I’m sure every soldier out there has read it cover to cover! Given more and more bureaucratic oversight (official and otherwise), servicemembers begin to transition away from public blogs and identifiable Facebook pages to anonymous message boards and Twitter accounts when sharing the real dope. Alas, this scenario is not covered in the handbook.
May 2011: Navy SEALs ice Osama bin Laden, then drop him into the ocean for the sharks to feast upon. Word spreads through Twitter before President Obama officially announces it to the globe. “America, Fuck Yeah!” gets uttered everywhere in earnest. Celebrators gather at the White House. This is the closest thing to a Victory Day parade we’ll ever get, and for one dark spring night, things seem okay again.
January 2012: Video of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan goes viral. The video — a few months old at the time of its release — causes immediate blowback, and is cited as the reason for a number of “green on blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers on Coalition servicemembers. One of the Marines involved dies a few years later of a prescription drug overdose. He’s buried with honors at Arlington, as his military career was much more than that short clip shown the world over.
April 2012: After years of being a horrific urban legend, a military widow learns of her husband’s death in Afghanistan, not from an official next-of-kin visit, but from a Facebook post.
June 2014: At the peak of the ISIS “caliphate” in the Middle East, ISIS social media extremists taunt First Lady Michelle Obama with a meme, using a doctored photo of her holding a “#BringBack Our Humvee” sign. Beyond the trolling, the meme is a reminder that American arms and war machines sometimes end up in the hands of the enemy, a stark complication in an era of local partnerships and coalition-building.
September 2017-2018: Fourteen years after his death in Afghanistan, former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman becomes a meme. Conservatives angry about Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest turn to the square-jawed likeness of Tillman for comfort — a bizarre projection, given Tillman’s own iconoclastic worldview and nontraditional politics. President Trump gets involved, using Tillman’s memory and the meme to attack Kaepernick. Tillman’s widow issues a thoughtful statement asking that her fallen husband’s memory not be politicized; given that it’s over 20 words, however, it’s unlikely the memers bothered to read it.
Matt Gallagher is a U.S. Army veteran and the author of the Iraq memoir“Kaboom”and the novel“Youngblood.” His next book,“Empire City,”is an alternate history and will be published in April.