Home, front, and mobile phones: The case of the Second Lebanon War
First Monday

Home, front, and mobile phones: The case of the Second Lebanon War by Hananel Rosenberg



Abstract
This paper deals with the cellphone’s role in the Second Lebanon War. Via in-depth interviews (N=20) with officers and combat soldiers, the study shows how soldiers’ cellular devices served a range of objectives: military, personal documentary, communication with home and family, and updating the home front and other battle sectors. On the military level, cellular enables the generation of the “cellular buddy” phenomenon, or the ability to consult with extra-organizational parties — such as friends who are former senior officers — which led to impeding the army’s internal chain of command. On the personal-experiential level, this section presents the “availability conflict” that the soldiers described, between their desire to be in touch with home during the war and the high price thereof. Full-time availability and the lack of ability to disconnect “brings” the home front, the home, and the family directly to the battlefield, thus affecting the soldiers’ already-complex experiential and mental state.

Contents

Introduction
Theoretical background
Methodology
Findings
Discussion and conclusions

 


 

Introduction

On 12 July 2006, the Hezbollah militant group initiated a massive missile attack on northern Israeli towns from southern Lebanon. This assault was a diversion from the main event that occurred simultaneously: the abduction of two Israeli reserve soldiers that left three of their fellow soldiers dead. This was the “opening shot” of the Second Lebanon War that lasted over a month, leading to a death toll of hundreds of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers, Israeli citizens, Hezbollah militants, and Lebanese civilians. At first, the fighting focused on airstrikes of central Hezbollah targets. Later in the operation, the IDF infantry and armored forces, regular and reserve soldiers, launched a ground invasion into the depths of Lebanon, where they remained for long days engaged in tenacious battles with Hezbollah militants. At the same time, Hezbollah continued firing missiles towards Israeli cities, gradually expanding the firing range and encompassing additional cities in the impact zone. On 12 August, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved UN Resolution 1701 that calls for a bilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of IDF forces. On 14 August, the UNSC resolution went into effect and the fighting concluded.

The Second Lebanon War was the first and only war in Israel where numerous IDF soldiers fought on enemy territory, for the duration of so many days, in close accompaniment of their personal mobile phone. The army’s official regulations that prohibit bringing civilian cellphones into combat areas did not permeate all levels of command, and many soldiers and officers carried the device during their activity and used it extensively, sometimes while the battles were being waged. The cellphone device’s presence in the battlefield has implications on a range of issues, such as information security, combat command and control, information transmission from the battlefront to the home front and vice versa, and the soldier’s combat experience as an individual. The “cellphone challenge” was one of the topics discussed by the commission of inquiry appointed after the war that dealt with the IDF’s military conduct. The Committee’s findings prompted the IDF to refine the procedures and work to implement them on the ground. Indeed, in the battles that occurred since then in the Gaza Strip — Operation Cast Lead (2008), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014) — mobile phones were collected from soldiers already at assembly and deployment areas. Therefore, the Second Lebanon War constitutes a unique case study of how the mobile phone challenges the army’s media environment as a total institution, and the isolated and disconnected environment of the battlefield in particular. In this context, the present study examines the cellphone’s function in the hands of the soldier as an individual, the uses made of the mobile phone during the war from both the operational-military aspect and the personal-civilian aspect, and how the cellphone’s presence allows fighting in enemy territory while experiencing and being conscious of a continuous connection with other spheres — other fronts, the home and civilian front.

 

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Theoretical background

Cellphone diffusion in the military sphere

The advance of digital media and changes in the media environment pose a substantial challenge for the military. As a total institution (Goffman, 1961), the army operates in an authoritarian and hierarchal structure that disconnects individuals within it from surrounding society (Richmond and McCorskey, 1992). Similar to other institutions perceiving the diffusion of new media technologies as a threat to their physical and symbolical boundaries, the military also employs a variety of defensive strategies formulated according to the type of technology, nature of the organization, and perception of threat characteristics (Altheide, 1995). This struggle takes place on two levels: the “external” level, i.e., the increasing exposure of the military system to mass media and the press, and the “internal” level with the introduction of new media technologies into the military and soldiers’ daily lives (Levin, 2011). The introduction of the mobile phone into military service in Israel began at the end of the 1990s and the device quickly became a possession of most soldiers (Cohen, et al., 2008). Cohen, et al. argue that the intensive use of the mobile phone during military service derives from a change in the daily routine between citizenship and military life, a change that causes mental stress for a soldier and many concerns among his family members. Soldiers’ — particularly combat soldiers’ — limited accessibility to communication technologies that require a stationary terminal, e.g., an immobile telephone and computer, increases the dependence on mobile phones where accessibility is almost entirely eliminated (Fortunati, 2002).

The cellphone’s dominance of military everyday life is reflected not only in the regular service but also in the reserves. Reserve service requires the abandonment of occupational, social, and familial frameworks for extended periods of time each year. The introduction of the cellphone in this sphere is critical as it is a soldier's most direct and available channel to a disconnected environment. Levin (2011) demonstrated how an individual’s everyday voices infiltrate isolated reserves with increased intensity by means of a mobile phone. In this manner, the cellphone is a spearhead of social processes that affect the socio-Zionist ethos, whilst undermining the isolation of reserves and reservists.

The introduction of the cellphone challenged the military in a variety of ways, including notions of information security. Most soldiers attest to using their personal cellphone for operational and military needs (Cohen, et al., 2008), a reality that raises concerns among military officials of potential information leaks and pinpointing of soldiers by an enemy. As part of the adaptations to a changing technological environment, the IDF formulated new guidelines that include prohibiting the sharing of classified information on mobile phones, restricting cellphone use in areas of military activity, and banning it from command meetings and compartmentalized sites, even when turned ‘off’. In an attempt to deal with these threats, in 2002 the IDF launched an encrypted mobile communications network named Vered Harim (literally Mountain Rose) designed for use in operational activity, and at the end of 2012 the army provided its officers for the first time with secure smartphones.

The cellphone in the Second Lebanon War

In the Second Lebanon War the cellphone functioned as a central communication channel between civilians, with the usage scope and characteristics indicating a high level of solidarity that prevailed in the home front (Schejter and Cohen, 2013). The mobile phone played an important role also from a journalistic aspect: the reality in which the cellphone device is perpetually carried on a person’s body, transforms the carrier from a potential witness into a potential documenter and sharer wherever he is present, so that security events, such as rocket sirens and hits, were captured by citizens and featured on social networks and news broadcasts (Cohen, et al., 2008). Additionally, the cellphone served as an important communication channel for receiving information from the battlefield since the IDF barred the media from battle zones except for a few reporters who were allowed to accompany combat units. Due to this fact, the information flow from the battle zones was conducted via two channels: the official channel of the IDF information systems and the soldiers’ own reports — whether during fighting or when returning to the country for regrouping (Weimann, 2007). As part of the learning process, phone records of officers of various military ranks were examined and it was found that dozens of them had spoken with reporters during the war, bypassing the IDF spokesperson system. Severe punishment of those involved led to a significant decrease in information leaks during Operation Cast Lead about two and a half years later. In the wake of the investigative committee’s conclusions on the events of the war — which focused mainly on the issue of information security — new procedures were formulated and indeed implemented in the military. For example, roughly seven years after the Lebanon campaign, during Operation Pillar of Defense, regular and reserve soldiers were required to deposit their cellphones prior to entering combat.

The above-discussed perspective relates primarily to the new media environment’s effects on journalistic and military institutions. However, in light of the cellphone’s personal nature, it seems to lack reference to the medium’s function in the hands of a lonely soldier in the challenging setting of a battlefield. From the outset of its emergence, the cellphone was recognized as a medium that provides its carrier with a sense of security in unexpected emergency situations (Ling, 2004). The ability to report danger and receive help anywhere and in any situation, even when remote and isolated, is a chief purchasing motive (Ling and Yittri, 2002). Indeed, in practice, the cellphone functions as an accessible medium in emergencies, such as traffic accidents (Ling, 2004) and terrorist attacks on civilians (Katz and Rice, 2002; Cohen, et al., 2008). Katz and Rice focused on the cellphone’s function during the September 11 attacks, depicting how in addition to reassuring relatives and inquiring after their well-being, the medium was used for operational purposes as part of search and rescue missions. They argued that cellphones heightened the effectiveness of emergency services, as opposed to other means of mass communication that did not function as well. The sudden nature of emergency events and their unexpected context render the medium’s perpetual presence and mobility particularly important (Schejter and Cohen, 2013). Against this background, this study seeks to focus on the cellphone’s function in the battlefield, examining if and how its unique nature is reflected in the soldier’s and commander’s operational activities, and whether the cellphone’s presence in combat affects modes of communication with fellow soldiers and with other military ranks.

Media, soldiers, and family: Between battlefront and home front

Another aspect of the medium’s functionality during the war relates to the potential communication between the soldier in the battlefront and his home, the civilian front. Despite the many pressures of the battlefront, the connection with the home is the main source of tension in soldiers’ operational services (Greene, et al., 2010). The longing, the concern for a family member’s safety, and the sense of detachment between the soldier in the battlefield and those left in the home front stimulate a strong need to create contact. The Bible itself describes how Jesse (Yishai) sends his son David from their home in Bethlehem to the battlefield in the Valley of Elah to “visit and enquire after the welfare” of his brothers [1]. Messengers eventually replaced written correspondence between the battlefront and home front, which in turn made way for the telephone, electronic communication means, and now new media (Ender, 1995; Schumm, et al., 2004). However, despite a strong desire for contact, most researchers agree that mediated communication between family members and soldiers creates feelings of ambivalence (Pincus, et al., 2001), both among soldiers in routine operations (Carter and Renshaw, 2016) and especially among soldiers located in the war zone (Cigrang, et al., 2014). On one hand, contact with home provides emotional support, subsides anxieties, and helps prevent stress (Greene, et al., 2010). On the other hand, continuous contact with home creates negative and demoralizing feelings among many soldiers. The contact dysfunction derives from its being a means through which the soldier becomes aware of problems at home and negative information (e.g., a girlfriend who wants to breakup), all the while in a state of lack of control, lack of support, and with no real ability to help. This situation can cause stressful and depressing experiences, damaging a soldier’s mental state and his operational performance to a life-threatening extent (Wong and Gerras, 2006).

In light of this, it seems that the Second Lebanon War allows for a broadened perspective on the role of communication technologies in those connections between the home front and soldiers at the battlefront and on the mediating medium’s implications. Researchers point out that there is a correlation between a soldier’s location in the military sphere and his attitude towards communication with the home; the closer the soldier is stationed to the battlefield, the higher the usage, and the contact significance is intensified for a soldier — in both the positive and negative sense (Ender and Segal, 1996; Cigrang, et al., 2014). However, most studies examining soldier communications in areas of conflict, such as Panama, Sinai, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, focus on communication conducted by soldiers staying at a military base in between operative missions (For a comprehensive overview, see Carter and Renshaw, 2016). In contrast, the geographic location of the battlefront during the Lebanon War provided a unique view into the function of the communication technology accompanying soldiers during actual fighting. The fact that military directives were not fully enforced, and the short distance between the Israeli border and the Lebanese villages where the battles took place (very few kilometers) — resulted in many cases where soldiers had mobile access in combat areas, enemy homes, and tank ambushes.

Another innovation derives from combat soldiers’ service: Practically all of the papers on this topic dealt with soldiers sent into active duty in a predictable and planned manner for an extended period of service. In the Second Lebanon War most of the soldiers were reservists called from their day-to-day lives to join their units within hours. In one moment, these soldiers were disconnected from their families and sent into combat for days or weeks in enemy territory, occasionally with a brief respite at a military base in Israel for equipping and rest. Also the regular soldiers who took part in the fighting were called from their routine operations — during which they conducted a rich and continuous contact with their families and friends and enjoyed frequent leave — into the isolated and disconnected battlefield.

Characteristics of the cellphone medium

This study seeks to offer a unique perspective derived from focusing on the cellphone as a medium. Carter and Renshaw (2016) examined 20 years of research on contacts between soldiers and their families. They noted that future studies should examine the pros and cons of specific communication channels, while being attentive to each medium’s unique characteristics that directly affect the qualities of relationships. This recommendation is particularly relevant since the cellphone has not received proper attention, even in studies on new media (For example, Wong and Gerras, 2006). Perhaps the cellphone is not very popular among soldiers on the battlefront due to its cost, issues over information security, or because it is not a medium that has a stationary communication terminal provided by an army base, but rather a mobile device that requires a local connection. Examining the cellphone in the Second Lebanon War case provides some new insights.

In this sense, the cellphone’s importance is not only due to its centrality in the current media environment, but also from its potential for soldiers. The cellphone’s unique characteristics — its mobility and perpetual presence on the human body (Ito, 2005; Axelsson, 2010) — allows soldiers to carry the device throughout their entire operation and experience perpetual connections. This is in contrast to other channels’ limitations, such as accessibility and privacy (Hinojosa, et al., 2012). The cellphone provides access immediately as well as a level of privacy, thanks to its mobility (Ito, 2005). In addition, the level of synchronicity and richness of communication enabled by the medium affect the extent of its usage and communication experience, as reported by soldiers (Ender, 2005; Carter and Renshaw, 2016). They argue that rich, synchronized communication (such as a video call) may sometimes cause more stress than asynchronous communication, such as e-mail (Houston, et al., 2013). In this sense, the cellphone integrates voice-synchronized communication and written-e-synchronized communication (text messages), and allows a user to choose between these options. The attempt to examine the communications content and adapting them to a preferred format may contribute to understanding the distinct meaning of communication channels for a soldier in different situations.

Therefore, research questions in this study focus on the following aspects: (1) What are the operational and personal uses made of the mobile phone made by soldiers on the battlefield? (2) What are the implications of the presence of a cellphone and its usage on soldiers’ experiences and functioning during the war? (3) How does the unique context of usage shape the cellphone’s symbolic meaning for them?

 

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Methodology

This study was conducted qualitatively, using semi-structured in-depth interviews. The choice of this methodology comes from wanting to not only provide a description of the phenomenon, but to enable a rich, in-depth view of the soldier’s experiences and feelings while listening to his authentic voice. Indeed, this methodology was preferred by most researchers dealing with the relationship between a combatant on the battlefield and his family and friends on the civilian front [2].

The study group included 20 interviewees who took part in combat during the Second Lebanon War, half as soldiers in compulsory military service and half as reservists. Among the participants were 12 soldiers and eight officers, of them five are platoon officers, two company officers, and an operations officer. Granted, previous studies have not found significant correlations between age, education, military rank, and often even marital status variables and media usage characteristics for the purpose of contact between the soldier and his family (Schumm, et al., 2004). Nevertheless, the research group integrated soldiers that are single, married, and married with children, while ensuring a diversity of ages. The interviewees’ ages, presented alongside quotes in the findings section, ranges from 21–34 and refers to their age during their service in the war. Assuming the differences in rank may have affected operational aspects of the cellphone use, the interviewees’ military role is also mentioned together with their statements.

The interviewees were collected using the ‘snowball sampling’ process through advertising on Facebook and hanging up advertisements in the university and two academic colleges. Out of about 40 combatants with whom initial contact was made, those who carried cellphones during the fighting or that one of their friends carried a device within their close surroundings, were selected, while attempting to reach a variety of ages, military ranks and positions. The interviews were mainly done in-person, with the exception of five interviews that were done over the phone. Though aware of the time that passed between the war and the interviews, researchers stress the actual importance of retrospect and the manner in which the soldiers describe their battlefield experiences after having ‘processed’ those experiences (Merolla, 2010; Carter and Renshaw, 2016). Indeed, it was evident in some of the interviews that the recounted events stirred strong emotions, and in certain cases the speakers themselves tried to distinguish between real-time experiences and their interpretation of them now. The interviews included open-ended questions regarding personal and operational use of the cellphone, by both the interviewee and his comrades; questions concerning his feelings about communication with his family and friends during the fighting, motives for using or not using the cellphone and reactions of his surroundings in these contexts. Additionally, the interviewees were asked to describe specific situations pertaining to using the mobile phone before entering Lebanon, during combat, and upon returning to Israel.

The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed according to a thematic organization method, and accordingly mapped and identified for emergent themes (Berger, 2000). The soldiers’ names cited in the findings section were altered in order to preserve their privacy, but — as mentioned earlier — while making sure to indicate their operational role and age during the war.

 

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Findings

Communication for operational-military purposes

The interviewees indicate that indeed the cellphone was used for operational purposes as a parallel channel to military communication networks. This may be surprising given the fact that wireless communication networks were available to soldiers and some of the officers were entrusted with Vered Harim, an encrypted IDF mobile phone that served the commanders as a secure communications channel. Nevertheless, many interviewees mentioned situations in which they also used their personal cellphones for operational purposes in addition to the military networks:

The officers spoke among themselves on their personal cellphones all the time. Especially about supplies, moving equipment, and stuff like that. It was easier for them to talk on the cellphone than on the transceiver or the Vered Harim device. A lot of the officers didn’t have a Vered Harim and even if you have a device like that it makes it very difficult in terms of operational conduct. In the end, your cellphone is the device you’re most friendly with. You always know where it is, you know its ringtone, easy for you to operate it. For that reason, at times of pressure in the war we chose to use it. (Ori, 24, Combat-Engineering Officer)

The cellphone’s features are also reflected in the unique situation of the battlefield. The personal aspect, the “friendly” as the interviewee put it, is reflected in the familiarity with the unique ringtone, familiar operation, and cellphone’s proximity to the user results in that “you always know where it is” — which is relevant in stressful moments when you need to quickly ‘draw’ the device. The majority of the interviewees’ accounts discuss uses for organizational-military (‘administrative’) purposes, such as equipment supply, etc. However, some of them described situations in which the cellphone was used for emergency purposes, and even for saving lives:

There was someone with a very serious wound to his leg, and I’m describing this very gently. His leg almost flew off, and until the medical team arrived to rescue him they instructed him on the cellphone, the battalion doctor instructed him what to do until he arrived and took matters into his own hands. To tell you that he would have died had there not been a phone there? Could be, I don’t know. Not everyone has an available transceiver in such a case but everyone has a cellphone. (Yishai, 21, Medic in the Armored Corps)

According to the interviewee, this event highlights the advantage of the perpetually available presence of the cellphone in the hands of an isolated soldier as a critical factor in the situation. Other interviewees mentioned the cellphone’s role as a backup channel and as a replacement in situations when the official military channel was unavailable, for instance in cases of overloads on the communication networks. Similar events were also described in newspapers and interviews published after the war [3].

The cellphone buddy

Another aspect of cellphone usage concerned situations in which soldiers and officers had doubts over making operational decisions. The availability of the cellphone on the battlefield allowed them to bypass the military hierarchy (available on the military communication network) and contact a friend or family member who served as military ‘opinion leaders’ for consultation or “getting a second opinion” (Ori, 24, Combat-Engineering Officer). This practice was mentioned in the autobiography of the IDF Chief of Staff during the war, Dan Halutz (2010), who nicknamed it the “cellphone buddy phenomenon” [4]. Halutz described a situation in which officers called friends or previous commanders who were no longer in the army for consulting purposes instead of adhering to an inner-IDF chain of command. This description refers to senior officers who are in their command centers and available to various communication channels, so that the potential for this behavior pattern was present in previous wars. However, in the fighting areas themselves the potential communication with persons outside the military hierarchy was made possible only as a result of cellphones, hence the importance of a technological dimension of the phenomenon in question.

Nonetheless, it turns out that the cellphone allowed soldiers to contact not only past or present military personnel, but also request assistance from professionals on the civilian front. An example of this can be found in statements made by Omer (25), who served as a Battalion Operations Officer in the Infantry Corps during the war. One of his soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and while in the field he contemplated how to act. Instead of turning to a higher military authority, he decided to use his cellphone to call his spouse, a social worker, in order to get her advice on the most effective treatment method: “I texted my wife to consult with her about the soldier and ask her what to do and how to deal with him. I didn’t feel a need to contact anyone else, the contact with my wife was enough.”

Communication for personal-civilian purposes: Between the home and front

On another level, the cellphone functioned as a communication channel between soldiers and their social and familial circles. The continuous contact allows soldiers to calm down concerned relatives at home and thereby ridding themselves of distress from being responsible for the uncertainty of those remaining at home: “Every time we heard that forces were hit I’d send ‘everything is okay’.” (Eli, 23, Soldier in the Armored Corps). A soldier’s short conversation with home after long days with no contact served as a huge relief for worried parents and soldiers were aware of their concerns. As depicted by Eran (33, Soldier in the Infantry Corps): “in reality, I knew everyone was worried crazy about me. My mother is hysterical about these things. So I calmed her down, and also my girlfriend, who learned from her how to be hysterical.”

The sense of security given by the presence of a cellphone related not only to family, but to the soldier as well. The contact with home and friends allowed a soldier to receive emotional support in threatening situations:

Friends, family, [friends from] school and work always sent me messages wanting to hear that everything was okay [...] It calmed me, hearing a voice that you trust and love is very reassuring, and it’s not just in order to call all the time and talk but knowing that your cellphone is in your pocket and that you could whenever you wanted, it gives a sense of security. (Yishai, 21, Medic in the Armored Corps)

Similar to what Yishai stressed at the end of his statement, other interviewees mentioned the sense of support and security derived from not only actual communication but the cellphone’s presence in and of itself. For example, Elad (27, Soldier in the Infantry Corps) described the presence of the cellphone while underscoring the correlation between feeling safe and the physical touch of the device:

It sounds silly because in reality the cellphone harms information security, but I felt more secure knowing that it was on me, that I could put my hand in the bag and feel it. I felt unstable without it. Everything is in it, work, life, messages.

Elad’s feelings of security and stability due to the cellphone in and of itself were derived from the significance given it as a symbol of ‘regular’ day-to-day life, “work, life, messages.”

However, contrary to this experience, other interviewees stressed the contact’s negative implications. The reality of an open communication channel is often described in a dual manner, as a good experience but one that has a mental toll. Thus, for instance, during a particularly intense interview, Avi (25, Soldier in the Armored Corps) described a moment which he said was engraved more powerfully in his memory than all other war experiences:

That Friday night was on high alert and we were told we’re going deep into the territory [=an area with many casualties]. I called my wife, and I had this feeling that that was it ... it was over, our beautiful life ... and in that moment I had a very very difficult incident ... I called my friends uncontrollably and told them and my parents and my wife a few times ... it was very hard for me to hear my little boy like that and I had to resist not to ... [halted]

Avi’s phone call functioned as an attempted unloading of emotional turmoil and as a potential parting conversation, but it seems to have only deepened his difficulties. Indeed, many interviewees perceived the potential availability as a negative — and at times threatening — experience. Some justified it as family and friends’ concerns, that is, the problematic interpretation that might be given to a soldier’s unavailability: “The moment people close to you know you have a cellphone but can’t contact you for two-three days, then you automatically think ‘oy, what are they thinking’, so on the one hand it created high availability and on the other hand there’s the knowledge that you have a cellphone but can’t be reached” (Dan, 34, Soldier in the Armored Corps). There were those who viewed the cellphone presence as something that created an emotional burden, damaging their ability to create a mental disconnect required of a soldier in the field. Along these lines, one of the interviewees explained why he did not carry a cellphone with him the second time that he went into Lebanon:

The second time I didn’t bring my phone because I thought it wasn’t right. The minute you take a phone, whether you like it or not, psychologically you know you can make contact and that anyone on the outside can contact you. And so as not to start questioning yourself and dealing with people on the outside I decided to leave it [...], believe me that the people who were with me there are the people who are closest to me in that moment and I didn’t feel the need to hear anyone from outside. Just the opposite, it weakens you, you have to understand that. You are going to fight, not to talk on the phone. (Eitan, 20, Soldier in the Infantry Corps)

Eitan explained his abstention from carrying a cellphone using two arguments: not needing to communicate with other environments due to the support of his immediate one, and unwillingness to deal with the difficulty of communicating with home in this situation. It is interesting to see that here too the interviewee highlighted the source of the — negative, in this case — experience as deriving from the mere presence of the medium and not necessarily from its usage. The heavy burden placed on the soldier, the life-threatening and difficult experiences he was exposed to, required maximum concentration and presence of consciousness, requiring in turn total disconnect from home. Indeed, soldiers who spent several consecutive days in enemy territory recounted a conscious attempt to disconnect from daily framework and described the cellphone as a device that allowed a momentary connection to the “sane” world, which may cause emotional turmoil upon returning to an intense combat situation. Such an experience can be found in Tzachi’s (23, Soldier in the Infantry Corps) statements. He described it during an interview with great emotion:

The Company Commander let us call home this one time. This was after a week and half inside. I sent a text message to my mother and to a good friend. I reassured that everything was fine, that I love and miss [them] but that really everything was fine. The ugly truth is that it didn’t feel good. They (those who are at home) were the last thing I wanted to think about there. In the end we weren’t in a good mental state there at all. Even though we functioned, the situation wasn’t good. We saw unpleasant things and had a bad experience. And on top of all that I knew that my mom and my friends aren’t really sleeping at home because they are worried sick about me. So I didn’t want to think about them and get myself into a worse mental state. Because thinking about my mother and how she is worried and how much she is thinking about me, it just made me weaker and undermined me. And to call her is just to make it worse. I sent a message because I knew it make it easier for them. But I didn’t really want to.

The momentary disconnect from the battlefield and the connection with home is not perceived as a moment of respite or release, but rather a jarring experience that may burst the bubble necessary for passable functioning during war [5]. Tzachi’s use of a text message constitutes a sort of compromise between understanding the need to have contact and the price he felt that the act of communication cost him. However, as noted, there were those who also viewed minimal contact and the potential contact as negative, preferring the option of a complete disconnect: “The fact that there was the option, the possibility of picking up the phone and making contact, fairly messes up a person emotionally [...], when you don’t have the option of contacting your family and the people you love you think about them less. The feeling is disconnected and that’s fortunate. That’s how it should be in war” (Itzik, 30, Officer in the Artillery Corps).

In this context, it is worth noting another personal aspect: using the cellphone for documentation purposes. Some interviewees described incidents where they used the cellphone camera to shoot moments and situation in war, such as fire command through the tank’s lens, “as a memento of the surreal experience we went through” (Dan, 34, Soldier in the Armored Corps). One of the interviewees recounted a postwar get-together of platoon members where they screened a slideshow that included pictures taken with one of the soldiers’ cellphones; most of the soldiers said they had not even noticed that these pictures were captured.

“We knew almost nothing”: Facing the home front and other fronts

The disconnect that soldiers experienced in isolated combat zones included the distance from home, but also ignorance of what was going on in the home front under attack (especially in northern Israel) and other combat zones. Additionally, the Second Lebanon War was marked by confusion and inconsistency in orders given to soldiers in the field, contributing to an overall experience of uncertainty. The cellphone was used in this situation to provide a general picture of what was happening on the home front and other fronts. In one case, Eran (33, Soldier in the Infantry Corps) described watching his commander use a cellphone to get update on a situation in Israel:

We knew almost nothing. This part really drove us crazy. There were some things here and there on the radio network, but local, and we had no idea what was happening ... yes we felt the distress there was on the outside, and yes we understood there was something big happening, but there wasn’t a feeling of war, but rather more of a bunch of hungry people in a Lebanese house, stuck with each other. I know for certain that the company commander carried a personal cellphone with him because I saw him turn it on and surf news Web sites on the Internet or third-generation, however they called it back then. I was more interested about calling to order a pizza out of hunger [*Laughing*].

Being able to receive available information in real time, through online media or conversations with friends on the home front or other fronts, changed the feeling of uncertainty soldiers were experiencing. However, it seemed that in this context using the cellphone for receiving information was regarded as negative:

I had a friend that was killed, a childhood friend, and I received it via the phone. I also had a friend from the village that was killed and I received that on the phone too, I didn’t even know about it. We were disconnected. We knew what was happening on our front, and that some of the guys were killed and some were injured but anything beyond that we didn’t know. We were completely disconnected. Really. Even the ceasefire was just rumors and we received the news by phone [...] and obviously, that magnified my fears. (Avi, 25, Soldier in the Armored Corps)

The problem described here was not derived from using the cellphone for phatic communication in Jakobson’s (1960) model, a function depicting speech aimed at contacting and maintaining a communication channel (and in our case, sending home a ‘sign of life’) but with no actual content. In his statement, Avi focuses on the problem arising from news content reaching soldiers on the front via cellphone, such as names of the wounded and dead, information that affects soldiers and their combat experience. Some interviewees mentioned that sometimes there was also a heavy price for information passed from the battlefront to the home front via cellphone and not through conventional channels. For instance, as illustrated by Ori (24, Combat-Engineering Officer): “We had a soldier in a bad situation inside that was eventually killed, and soldiers made out calls to the media before it was officially announced, so his family heard the news from the media.”

The cellphone after the War

The cellphone’s function as a symbol of the “sane” civilian world was also manifested in the seam between war and routine, and between the battlefield and the home front. These moments were etched in many of the interviewees’ memories, especially those that did not communicate with their families during the fighting. They portrayed their first phone call as an act that symbolizes a moment of transition:

It was a great satisfaction, just turning it on and the connection, on the whole it’s what signaled to me that this was it, it’s all over. I felt that this was it, I came back and can live once again. I turned on my phone and called my mom, I woke her and she answered in a terrified voice. They were also hit by rockets and experienced an even greater fear than I had. I called her all happy and she was crying and crying. I told her ‘Hi mom, I’m back’, and she was so excited that she couldn’t speak. I hung up and spoke to my girlfriend who also cried frantically and ate herself up because she was so worried. (Dani, 28, Officer in the Armored Corps)

It turned out that soldiers who used cellphones during the fighting also remarked on connecting the device in Israel as a moment of relief that reflected the end of the fighting:

Automatically the moment we crossed the border, when we arrived at Kiryat Shmona, it was a rare sight. You see tens of soldiers each one grabbing a corner, either talking on the phone or texting. Like suddenly something opened up, suddenly the communication was fluent again and it was a huge relief. (Dan, 34, Soldier in the Armored Corps)

The ritualistic aspect of the first call and message sending functioned as a ritual in the liminal time of transitioning between militarism to citizenship and war to routine. It is interesting to see how this ritual sometimes took place also in liminal space — on the bus from the battlefront to the home front: “first thing, as we got on the bus [...] I turned my phone on just like everyone and called my mom and girlfriend ...” (Eran, 33, Soldier in the Infantry Corps).

Avi (25, Soldier in the Armored Corps), presented the complete opposite experience, describing the hardships that accompanied him for a long time after the war. For him, in the weeks following the war, the cellphone signified a connection to what he had witnessed through communications with friends asking about his wartime experiences:

Interviewer: How was it coming back to your cellphone after the war? To speak unrestricted?

Avi: I turned it off completely. Didn’t want to speak with anyone.

Interviewer: For how long?

Avi: A lot ... two-three weeks.

Interviewer: Why?

Avi: I didn’t want to connect with anyone. It came from a place of weakness, you really want to get back into a routine but you can’t. Suddenly I had a kind of ‘boom’ of images and feelings and bad things that I just didn’t want to talk about with anyone or with guys from the army.

While the return to the cellphone symbolically reflected the return to routine for most of the soldiers, for Avi the cellphone represented the negative potential of revisiting the experiences of war. For him, the home was a battlefield, and similar to those who disconnected from the cellphone on the battlefield in order to delineate an enclave that was isolated from the voices of the home front, Avi’s disconnection from the cellphone inside his home created an enclave the filtered the voices of war and barred them from penetrating his damaged world.

 

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Discussion and conclusions

As noted, the findings revealed that soldiers used cellphones on the battlefield, for both operational and personal purposes, in the Second Lebanon War. These findings were akin to Katz and Rice’s (2010) study, identifying three focal functions of a cellphone during security emergencies. These functions are (a) ‘operational’ in calling for help and reporting to authorities; (b) communication between members of a close social group for reassurance, emotional support, or sending farewell messages (the situation in question refers to final messages from those who were trapped during the September 11 attacks); and, (c) receiving information about other events taking place or even in the user’s immediate surroundings, via mass media.

This study’s findings present an extension of those functions. On an operational level, a large-scale military conflict is an organized and almost institutionalized emergency situation, and it is allegedly expected that the existence of structured communications systems will satisfy soldiers’ needs. However, it turned out that in this context the cellphone was a preferred medium because of its unique characteristics: its simplicity, easy operation, and perpetual proximity to the user that turned it into a kind of technological “prosthesis” (Richardson, 2007). Furthermore, the cellphone had another advantage. Unlike the military network connecting the user and direct commanders and subordinates, the cellphone enabled soldiers to ignore this hierarchy and turn to external sources, military or civilian, bypassing an official chain of command. The access to external authority figures besides those set in an inter-institutional hierarchy contributed to a discussion of the cellphone’s functioning relative to traditional hierarchies.

On one hand, some argue that the cellphone allows permanent availability in changing spaces, and thus allowing a reconstruction and maintenance of traditional hierarchies and positions of power (Kinnunen, et al., 2011). On the other hand, this study supports the approach of those claiming that the cellphone allows a bypassing and at times breaking of traditional professional hierarchies (García-Montes, et al., 2006). The ability to communicate personally, quietly, and hidden from superiors, allows the customer — or in our case, the soldier and commander — to skip through the hierarchy scale and sometimes also refer to authority sources that are not part of an inter-organizational hierarchy. In this sense, the ‘cellphone buddy’ practice challenges the army’s ability to function as a total institution, a functioning that depends on the control of institutional boundaries, the disconnection of its inhabitants from competing environments, and thus a maintenance of a hierarchical status of its officials (Richmond and McCorskey, 1992).

On the personal level, it was found that the cellphone was primarily used for communications between soldiers on the battlefield and their families. It seems that, similar to studies focusing on other communication technologies (Cigrang, et al., 2014),contact with home provokes dual experiences among soldiers. In this sense, this study strengthens the claim that synchronous communication may cause greater strain that asynchronous communication (Houston, et al., 2013). In a sense, communication via cellphone has a more negative potential. This is reflected in the intensity of severe emotions depicted by soldiers, but also in identification of causes of these conditions. Previous studies describe the dysfunction of contact with home as mainly derived from two factors: media limitations (i.e., difficulties in communication) and media content that involve a soldier in negative news and issues that he is incapable of dealing with properly. Here too soldiers mention the exposure to negative information — e.g., a friend being killed in the war or rockets hitting close to home — as demoralizing and impairing performance. However, the findings show that many soldiers highlight the problematic nature of the media itself, regardless of specific content. They described the cellphone’s mere presence as harming their proper functioning, even when not being used. This position may derive from the fact that this study focused on the fighting experience itself, and the creation of a disconnected and isolated environment was not only considered a necessity but also a solution.

From the technological perspective, these experiences were presumably also related to the medium’s unique nature. The cellphone presence that accompanies the soldier in every moment creates a simultaneous experience of ‘home’ and ‘away’ (White and White, 2007). In this context, the cellphone functions in the battlefield as a “transitional object” (Ribak, 2009) that symbolically made the parents, family, and civilian front present — even if with its mere presence. In a Winnicottian sense (Winnicott, 1967), through its mere presence the transitional object provides an individual with existential security, and affords him a sense of connectedness and continuous experience of potential presence of any subject absent from actual physical space. Indeed, some of the soldiers described the security they felt from the cellphone’s mere presence in their vest pocket or bag. Yet, there were soldiers who claimed that in the situation of the battlefield, making the phone did not grant an individual carrying it with security, but rather the opposite — undermined his mental stability.

On a broader perspective, these finding may assist us in understanding the potential change a cellphone generates in communication practices in isolated spaces. The situation where any person becomes a mobile communications terminal and interpersonal contact is free of concrete physical presence limitations, challenges social practices based on traditional perceptions of time and space (Katz and Aakhus, 2002). The cellphone medium challenges practices of disconnecting the individual from his environment, whether the individual voluntarily seeks isolation or whether isolation is required by a social group or institution (Rheingold, 1999; Campbell, 2006). The existence of an isolated space — institutional or social — disconnecting an individual from competing environments is not something to be taken for granted. The soldiers’ accounts revealed situations where the cellphone created a connection experience in the isolated and disconnected space of the battlefield. In this sense, the presence of a cellphone challenges traditional dichotomies of “connection-disconnection”, “home-away”, and “home front-battlefront”, and blurs conscious borders between these polarities.

This complexity was reflected in the various “prevention practices” (Light and Cassidy, 2014; Rosenberg and Kohn, 2016) adopted by the soldiers: completely avoiding taking the device into battle, carrying the device but reducing usage to the necessary minimum, and using indirect communication configurations like text messages that enable personal yet asynchronous and highly mediated communication (Cho and Hung, 2011). These practices were also described in additional contexts where the cellphone’s presence challenged the ability to create an isolated and disconnected space. Thus, there are situations on the solitary individual level where one strives for maximum isolation from other environments, for a tourist or backpacker (White and White, 2007); and on the cultural group level among “cultural enclaves,” in Amish or ultra-Orthodox societies, attempting to isolate members from competing cultural spaces (Rheingold, 1999; Rosenburg and Rashi, 2015). In these situations, researchers point out prevention patterns reflected in the conscious choice of the cellphone’s mere presence, extent of use, and preferred communication configuration. These practices are perceived as the individual and group’s active attempt to preserve the potential disconnection in media space that challenges the existence of traditional physical and symbolic borders.

It is important to note that there is a bidirectional blurring of boundaries. The cellphone makes the home present in the battlefield, but also brings the voices and images of the battlefield to the home. With that in mind, documentation practices described by soldiers may be explained. The cellphone camera is perceived by most as a medium intended for personal documentation of situations from a photographer’s daily life, therefore mobile photography is not only an iconic representation of people, but a human or environmental record of moments in context, presented for repeated emotional consumption (Rivière, 2005). The use of a cellphone at an exact time and specific situation turns the present into a future nostalgia production site (Schwarz, 2009). Indeed, using the cellphone for documenting battles allows for the revival and later consumption of these contents in personal space, in an attempt to “recreate and process” (Dani, 28, Officer in the Armored Corps) experiences. In this way, the sounds of war are transferred via cellphone across spatial spaces to concerned families, and over time for the purpose of future consumption by soldiers themselves.

This situation has critical implications, especially in the post-heroic age (Luttwak, 1995) where the military is closely linked with civilian society. One of the post-heroic age features is a complex relationship between soldiers’ families, who are interested in being involved, and the army, which is interested in autonomy (Lebel, 2010). It may be that from this perspective the cellphone’s functioning in the Second Lebanon War constitutes another expression of a much broader process of blurring lines between civilian society and the military (Peri, 2001; Levin, 2011; 2008). According to Levin, the manner in which the cellphone makes everyday voices present in isolated reserves space during routine times challenges a traditional separation between military and civilian. In the context of the Second Lebanon War, this process is reflected in two directions: “from the external to the internal” by making social circles present in the soldier’s everyday life, as well as continuously being updated on the situation in the home front through access to media; and “from the internal to the external,” a flow that is reflected in the soldier’s ability to disseminate information to the civilian front, to document his experiences for future consumption, and, if necessary, turn to thought leaders for consultation and assistance, both military and civilian outside the military framework in which he is present. In this sense too civilian society’s power rises in terms of potential involvement and influence on military processes and operations, especially in Israeli society and in the mandatory and reserves army service which demonstrate this phenomenon even more significantly in comparison to other armies in the world (Lebel, 2010).

There have been many technological changes in the time that passed between the events described in this paper. The cellphone underwent a speedy convergence process (Jenkins, 2006) and now includes many diverse applications, while the medium’s unique characteristics — mobility and proximity to the user — remain unchanged. Bear in mind that in recent military operations the IDF has been careful to collect soldiers’ cellphones at assembly areas, yet there are records of soldiers who in spite of this carried their devices with them. Thus, for example, there were several reports after Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) of the popular WhatsApp application being used for transferring information — in part classified — between officers and junior commanders. In light of this, it will be interesting in future studies to examine soldiers’ use of various mobile applications that are relevant for operational performance on the battlefield (such as group chats and navigation apps) and for connecting with family and friends (such as social networks). From a comparative perspective, they can examine the differences between cellphone usage patterns and their significance in various combat zones around the world. Cellphone usage practices change among various groups according to cultural and social differences (Mesch and Talmud, 2008), so presumably these differences will also be reflected in the unique situation of the battlefield. End of article

 

About the author

Dr. Hananel Rosenberg is a lecturer in the School of Communication at Ariel University and in the Department of Journalism and Communication Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His main research interests are the psychology and sociology of mobile phone usage, and media usage among children, teens and young adults.
E-mail: hananelro [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Acknowledgements

The study was conducted with the support of the Institute for the Study of New Media, Politics and Society at Ariel University.

 

Notes

1. 1 Samuel 17:18.

2. Cigrang, et al., 2014, p. 333.

3. For example, Shimshi (2013) described an incident that occurred during the fierce battle in the town of Bint Jbeil when two soldiers from the Golani Brigade were left alone, their friends believing them to be dead: “The Company B Commander overlooked the valley from the canal and saw two burning tanks stranded in the field. The Company Commander tried calling the Battalion Commander on the Vered Harim device but there no reception.” Suddenly he found another solution: “I suddenly realized I had cellphone in my pocket, I connected the battery, and apparently there was reception. I thought to myself, who would be available in the situation that transpired. I called the Company Headquarters Commander that was at the base behind [the lines] and he answered me. He was shocked when he heard me. Only then did I realize they thought we had been killed. I reported to him about the killed soldier and asked that he update the Battalion Commander and that they come rescue us” (p. 177).

4. Halutz, 2010, p. 439.

5. One of the soldiers (Aviad, 21) mentioned Maimonides’ (“Rambam”) writings in the Mishneh Torah (literally “Review of the Torah”; a commentary and codification of Jewish religious law) regarding the conscious state required of a soldier on the battlefield. The soldier presented the cellphone’s presence as a “halakhic problem,” as it contradicts the explicit ruling. The words of Maimonides are as follows: “Once a man becomes entangled in the throes of war ... He should place his life in his hand and not fear nor be afraid. He should not think about his wife or his children. Rather, he should wipe their memory from his heart, and turn away from everything for war.” (Mishneh Torah, Melachim uMilchamot [Laws of Kings and Wars], chapter 7, Halakha 17).

 

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Editorial history

Received 23 May 2017; accepted 20 January 2018.


Copyright © 2018, Hananel Rosenberg.

Home, front, and mobile phones: The case of the Second Lebanon War
by Hananel Rosenberg.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 2 - 5 February 2018
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7899/6640
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i2.7899





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