Marines on the Internet
by Peter Lucier
April 18, 2018
On weekends at the School of Infantry, the 9 week course future marine infantrymen attend immediately after book, we’d all go book hotel rooms in Oceanside and San Diego, walk around malls spending money like sailors during the day on Oakley sunglasses and backpacks, ugly designer shirts, and cowboy boots. At night we’d fill the bathtub in the room with ice, dump in a couple 30 racks of shitty beer, and drink until we passed out, or someone ran off and did something stupid. Catch the shuttle in front of the movie theater back to 52 area, San Onofre, Camp Pendleton, hike around the mountains of the Alpha shelf that divide Camp Pendleton in two, shoot targets, run ranges, get back to the barracks, shower, rinse, repeat.
It was on such a weekend, in a hotel room I can’t remember, that I first heard the phrase “terminal lance.” All of us boots -- a derogatory slang term for junior marines -- were crowded around someone’s smart phone, watching a video of a Marine in Iraq playing guitar on Youtube. He had shaggy hair for a Marine. He was in “boots and utes” -- camouflage pants and a green tee-shirt, no cami blouse. He was sitting on green cot, outside, in a dirt lot, surrounded by HESCO barriers. You could see the bulge in his lip where a fat wad of dipping tobacco sat, and he’d spit periodically. It was from an account called tubeseantube, but somehow someone knew the singer went by the name “Tyler Jay.” He was singing something called the “EAS song.”
Every Marine knows what EAS means -- end of active service. Its the date, 4 (or in my case 5) years minus one day from the day you went to bootcamp. Mine was October 19, 2013, and that seemed like an impossibly far time away in February 2009. The song was something different, something new in my very nascent Marine experience -- it was irreverent, sarcastic, and funny. I was accustomed to getting high fade haircuts, standing at a crisp parade rest for every NCO, and in general drinking the Marine Corps kool-aid. But here was one of those salt dogs in the “fleet” I had heard so much about.
It’s not too much to say that that video changed everything. It changed the way I thought about myself, about the Marine Corps, and moreover, was my first glimpse at the military community that had something to say, and was using the internet to say it, without the traditional filters of military public affairs officers, top brass, or large traditional media organizations.
I didn’t know it, but a sea change was already underway, one that had started in the early years of the Iraq War, around 2004, and that would fundamentally change military culture.
In the 1990s, there were military communities already forming online -- like the CompuServe chat rooms that helped Vietnam veterans reconnect with old service buddies. In 1998 MOUT Homepage was founded, which would become Urban Operations Journal, and finally Small Wars Journal, one of the most influential spaces for strategic writing outside of military institutional publications.
The Iraq war fundamentally accelerated the movement online. Veterans frustrated by the stories being told, or not being told by traditional media outlets, deployed service members wanting to connect to families back home, or writers just looking for an outlet to tell their stories, took to blogging. With names like “Mudville Gazette”, “OPFOR”, “Kaboom”, “This ain’t hell”, “BlackFive”, and “Cmdr Salamander”, the milblogging community was vibrant, wonky, and most of all, outspoken. They celebrated unreported acts of valor, memorialized the dead, and spoke their minds about how they felt about the war directly to the public, circumventing both military public affairs officers, and the often despised “mainstream media”.
Milblogs offered alternative stories and strategies about Iraq, at a time when the war was a topic of fierce public debate. The height of milblogging, arguably, came in 2007, during the debate over the surge, a policy preferred by both some of the milblogs, as well as the “COINdinistas” -- a group of strategists and thinkers such as Army officer John Nagl, who had written about insurgencies in Vietnam and Malaysia, and David Kilcullen, an Australian Army Officer who was working for the US Department of Defense, and had written extensively on insurgencies, and had been publishing in Small Wars Journal.
President Bush had proposed a troop surge in Iraq, and the week that Congress was to vote on it, milbloggers were invited to the White House. Bloggers who were stationed overseas teleconferenced in to the sit down with the President. Milblogging had managed to reach the ears and become a force at the highest levels of American government.
But that time also sewed the seeds for the eventual decline of milblogging. In 2007, Facebook was opened to anyone with an email address. Many milblogs struggled to adapt to the new way in which readers accessed the internet -- rather than visiting specific websites, increasingly users simply browsed their social media timelines, only clicking off sites like Facebook and Twitter through links shared by friends. Moreover, when the surge was adopted, many of the strategists who had been blogging critically of the conduct of the war were brought into DoD, and General Petraeus' staff, to help run the new counter-insurgency campaign. The COINdinistas were now consumed with the conduct of the war in Iraq, and later Afghanistan, and were much less free to criticize from the outside.
Finally, in 2008, Barrack Obama was elected. With the surge underway, and Iraq fading from the headlines, conservative milbloggers had a new target for criticism. In part led by the success of milblogs, a new crop of conservative alternative media websites were founded and grew, and some of the bloggers who used to write about Iraq, were now taking aim at domestic issues, in line with the Tea Party movement that would help to flip the House of Representatives in 2010.
It was during this period that I flew out of St. Louis Lambert airport to San Diego California to start boot camp, just two weeks before the November 2008 election. My experience of the Iraq War had been from headlines and nightly news -- PBS Nightly News would read the names of the fallen every night. I was quite ignorant of the sea changes underway in military reporting and media. Consumed with looming thoughts of bootcamp, I was only partly aware of the shift underway in Iraq strategy. The milbloggers event at the White House was only a month before I went to bootcamp. It was with juvenile naivete that I stepped onto the yellow footprints of Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
It was not long into bootcamp that we recruits began to hear whispers that the war in Iraq was winding down, and instead of going to the country where our sergeants had all cut their combat teeth for the past 5 years, we would instead be deploying to Afghanistan, a country where very few of our instructors had been.
Afghanistan didn’t seem to engender the same level of public debate and intense scrutiny as Iraq, and America seemed less engaged and educated about the conflict. I remember when I told a friend I was going to deploy there in 2011, she asked “where in Iraq is that?”
The milbloggers who had been able to reach such a wide and influential audience, educate the public, and drive the policy discussion were dwindling -- either now part of the war effort, or focused on domestic issues.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, seemingly without end, something new stepped into the new social media space to fill the void left by milblogs. The EAS song was an early example of this new type of content. But more commentary, largely from other former junior enlisted, was close on its heels. In January 2010, the first Terminal Lance comic strip was published, by Max Uriarte. Rather than taking a political or policy angle, Terminal Lance seemed focused on taking a sharp comedic look at the absurdities of both combat, but also junior enlisted life. In March 2012, the satire site “Duffel Blog” -- the Onion of military news, was launched by Paul Szoldra, a former Marine sergeant, who had had his first byline writing into BlackFive, when he had been an instructor at the School of Infantry.
These were the sites I fed on as a junior Marine. Terminal Lance was everything I had loved about the EAS song, twice a week, in 3-panels, and always with a hilarious post underneath. In bootcamp I had written in a letter to an old mentor that I had never wanted anything so much, as I had wanted to be a good Marine -- to learn tactics and marksmanship and become something like the men of violence in the 90s action movies I had watched as a kid. That image, that goal, was changed by Duffel Blog and Terminal Lance.
I wanted to be one of those guys, the cocky guys, the funny guys, the cool guys, who had combat credentials, but also rocked gunny sleeves, a low-reg haircut, cammies with rips in the knees from being in the field.
Terminal Lance and Duffel Blog, while encountering initial resistance from the institutional military, were ultimately adopted and condoned. Terminal Lance ran a cleaned up version in the Marine Corps Times. High ranking officials in the Pentagon were sharing Duffel Blog articles. But the idea these sites proved out, that junior enlisted voices and culture had a place in online communities, did not stop with these sites.
In 2014, another new platform was launched, and quickly made waves. Task and Purpose, a veteran-centric media outlet, ran a scathing expose, “The Sexist Facebook Movement The Marine Corps Can’t Stop”, about Facebook groups with names like POG Boot Fucks, F’n Wook, Just The Tip, Of the Spear, and Senior Lance Corporal. The pages were rife with rape jokes, and hyper-sexist memes, pulling pictures from female service members social media accounts and calling them cunts, whores, and worse.
The problem hadn’t gone away in 2017, when Thomas Brennan, a Marine veteran himself, published another expose, this one revealing how Marines United, a facebook group, was sharing naked photos of female service members without their consent.
I entered this world, in my own small way, the year after, in 2015. A newly separated veteran, I had started reading and commenting on Tom Rick’s national security blog at Foreign Policy -- Best Defense. It so happened Tom was looking for junior enlisted veteran writers to join the national security discussion. I was lucky enough to be invited to participate. I published my first piece in March Field of View: "Just what extra do enlisted bring to the national security discussion?", and followed with a string of short pieces, all trying to make sense of my time in the Marine Corps, both the culture I had fallen in and out of love with, and my experiences at war in Afghanistan.
I created a Twitter account to help promote my writing, and through Twitter, began to meet and connect with a global network of veterans, activists, and journalists. I’ve been able to share my story, and hear others, both on Twitter, and through sites like The War Horse, and Task and Purpose. I was able to write opinion pieces for the Independent in the UK, about the Special Forces soldiers killed in Niger, for the New York Times when veterans were used as a political football during the government shut down debate, and speak out about gun control in the Washington Post, in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
Through social media, my own voice has been amplified far beyond what I otherwise could have achieved, and moreover, have met an incredible array of individuals with their own stories and experiences. Some of them I know by name, others by their online personas. I interact with this community nearly every day. We celebrate each other’s triumphs, mourn each other’s losses, and often carry each other through the bad days.
When I called Jim Hanson, he was just sitting down on his porch, on an unseasonably warm day in February, to smoke a cigar, while I was driving through the snowy pass between Butte and Bozeman. It was a late Sunday night, even later on the East Coast, when Erin Simpson agreed to speak with me about writing for Abu Muquwama. I opened the laptop in my room while she poured a Bourbon two thousand miles away. Commander Salamander was driving through the night, location unknown, while I stole away from my security job for a quick hour, to ask him about his blog. Andrea Goldstein found time between her classes to talk with me, between my own classes.
Across time zones, and sometimes even continents, the veteran and national security community is connected in new and powerful ways, and on their own terms, largely outside of the traditional institution of defense and national security.
I’m incredibly grateful for the work of milbloggers in the early years of Iraq -- they paved the way for the kind of story telling I do. Civilians can connect to the wars fought in their name viscerally and without the filter of public affairs. Likewise, I tell every ROTC candidate I meet in college that they have to read Terminal Lance, if they want any chance of understanding the world they are about to enter, and the enlisted men they are going to lead as officers.
I’m also grateful that the scandals like Marines United have come to light. In some ways, by bringing the worst parts of our culture online, those elements were drawn out of back rooms and barracks, where they could be confronted, and hopefully killed.
Military strategy, and culture, have been irrevocably changed by the movement online. Civilians can interact with service members and ideas that used to be locked away on bases, or in institutional publications. The internet can be a powerful tool for bridging the civ-mil divide. But it has also enabled, not just veterans, but all Americans, to shelter in digital communities of the like minded.
I never would be where I am without the groundwork laid by mil-blogs, and the access afforded to me by social media. But sometimes I log on, and check up on my old boots, and the communities I see them interacting with, the heirs to those toxic facebook groups, worries me. Since before Iraq, through the bad years of that war, the surge in both Iraq and in 2010 in Afghanistan, and even today, the American public, policy makers, and the military community itself are hungry for the voice and thoughts of veterans, and veterans have been eager to share. However, it is a platform we, as veterans, are still struggling to get right.
Peter Lucier served as a Marine infantryman from 2008 until 2013, first with an anti-terrorism security team, than as a scout in First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in California at Camp Pendleton. Lucier deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and is on Foreign Policy Magazine's Council of Former Enlisted. His previous work has appeared on Best Defense at Foreign Policy Magazine, and others. He is currently studying at Montana State University.