Inside a plywood shack at a combat outpost in Marjah, in Afghanistan's Helmand province, three Marines sit before a bank of computers provided by the military to help keep up morale. The dingy outpost is made up of a collection of tents where troops live among swarms of flies and the constant hum of generators.
One Marine talks with his wife on Skype and another is on Facebook. The sites allow troops to keep in touch with their families, but commanders in Afghanistan have mixed feelings about them. Troops' constant access to social media has led to headaches for the military, including the inadvertent release of the names of American dead before families are officially notified, as well as the release of gruesome pictures of war dead to the American public.
Sitting in the outpost's Internet cafe, Sgt. William Garner is charged with keeping his squad members from posting anything that can cause trouble. He says Marines show him their photos and he decides which ones can go online.
"We get a lot of firefights, come [upon] a lot of dead Taliban," Garner says. "So Marines want to take pictures of that, and there's really no point behind it ... It's pretty cut and dried what you can do and not do, common sense-wise."
It's Common Sense
But the Marines' leadership isn't taking any chances. Before they even come to Afghanistan, troops are briefed on what not to post.
"Don't take pictures of detainees; you don't take pictures of dead people; you don't take pictures of Afghan people in compromising positions — and women," says Lt. Col. Michael Styskal, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. Styskal, the top Marine officer in the area, is paying a visit to the Marjah outpost.
Occasionally, Styskal has one of his officers check online for any potential social media problems. But he says his concern goes beyond pictures of detainees or dead Taliban — they also include the frequent videos of firefights that show up on YouTube. One such video, posted to YouTube in May 2011, shows Styskal's own 2nd Battalion engaged in fighting. The video was taken before Styskal took command, but he says if his Marines posted a video like that today, "I'd probably go to talk to the company and the commander and say, 'What was this guy doing ... videotaping when he should have probably been helping fight?' "
The video is still under investigation, and there's a possibility of disciplinary action against not only the four Marine sergeants involved, officials say, but also their commanders.
'Let Me Make You Proud'
Of course, the military isn't all fighting — there's also plenty of downtime. Back at the plywood Internet cafe, Pvt. Alejandro Francis of Manhattan is logged onto Facebook. He's 19 and on his first deployment. There's a tattoo of St. Michael the archangel on his upper arm.
"I put up pictures that are appropriate," Francis says. "If I have to think about it twice to put it up, then I won't put it up."
That's probably because the message has been drummed home. After a video surfaced in January showing Marines in Afghanistan in 2010 urinating on the corpses of alleged Taliban fighters, Francis says every Marine was required to take a class that discussed why the video was inappropriate and how it gave Marines a bad name.
But Francis isn't even close to giving the Marines a bad name. On this day, he's posting a Mother's Day message to his mom back in New York: "Happy Mother's Day. Words can't explain how I feel about you," Francis writes. "Anything I were to do wouldn't ever amount to things you've done for me. I want to thank you for bringing me into this world and putting up with all my childish acts. It's time for you to sit back and let me make you proud."
And maybe that's the test troops should use when they're thinking about posting something online: Is this something to be proud of?
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, they've become staples of the digital landscape. But on the battlefield in Afghanistan, U.S. commanders have been struggling with how U.S. troops should and should not use social media. They use these sites to keep in touch with their families. But posting online can lead to headaches, like releasing the names of American dead before the families are notified or revealing gruesome pictures of war dead.
NPR's Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan and has this report from an Internet cafe on the frontlines.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Inside a plywood shack at Combat Outpost Marjah, three Marines sit before a bank of computers. They're provided by the military to keep up morale at this dingy collection of tents, where there are swarms of flies, bland and starchy chow and the constant hum of generators. One Marine is Skyping with his wife. Sergeant William Garner is on Facebook.
SERGEANT WILLIAM GARNER: I was just hanging out on the Internet, bored.
BOWMAN: Sergeant Garner turns from the glowing screen for a moment. He says members of his squad show him the pictures they snap with their cameras, and he decides which ones can show up on the Internet.
GARNER: We get a lot of firefights come over and a lot of dead Taliban and what not. So Marines want to take pictures of that, and there's really no point behind it.
BOWMAN: It's reality. Marines take pictures of dead Taliban.
GARNER: It's just pretty cut and dry what you can do and not do - it's common sense-wise.
BOWMAN: It's up to Sergeant Garner to make sure they don't post those pictures. The Marines leadership isn't taking any chances. Officers brief the troops before they come to Afghanistan on what not to post.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL STYSKAL: Don't take pictures you're not supposed to take. And then, you're not supposed to put them on to social media.
BOWMAN: That's Lieutenant Colonel Michael Styskal, commander of Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. He's the top Marine officer in the area and was visiting the Marjah outpost.
STYSKAL: You know, so you don't take pictures of detainees. You don't take pictures of dead people. You don't take pictures of Afghan people in compromising positions and - or women.
BOWMAN: Colonel Styskal has one of his officers occasionally check the Internet for any potential social media problems. Still, the colonel says his concern goes beyond pictures of detainees or dead Taliban. They include the frequent videos of firefights on YouTube, like this one from his battalion taken during the last two years right here in Marjah before Colonel Styskal took command.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND GUNFIRE)
BOWMAN: What would the colonel do if he saw such a video today of his Marines?
STYSKAL: I'd probably go talk to the company commander and say what was this guy doing when he was videotaping when he should have probably been helping fight.
BOWMAN: Of course, in the military, there's not always a fight. There's plenty of downtime. Back at the plywood Internet cafÃ©, Private Alejandro Francis of Manhattan is logged onto Facebook. He's 19 and on his first deployment. A tattoo of St. Michael the Archangel is etched on his upper arm.
PRIVATE ALEJANDRO FRANCIS: I mean, I put up pictures that are appropriate. And I know if I have to think about it twice to put it up, then I won't put it up.
BOWMAN: That's probably because the message has been drummed home. When a video surfaced in January showing Marines in Afghanistan in 2010 urinating on dead Taliban, Private Francis says all the Marines here were required to take a class.
FRANCIS: About the video and how that wasn't very appropriate and how it gave us a bad name.
BOWMAN: That video taken two years ago is still under investigation. Disciplinary action is possible not only against the four Marine sergeants involved, officials say, but also their commanders. Private Francis isn't even close to giving the Marines a bad name. On this day, he's posting a message to his mom back in New York.
FRANCIS: (Reading) Words can't explain how I feel about you. Anything I were to do would never amount to things you have done for me. I want to thank you for bringing me into this world. It's time for you to sit back and let me make you proud.
BOWMAN: Maybe that's the test for troops when they're thinking about posting something on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, does it make you proud? Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.