Earlier this week, my 14-year-old son asked a startling question: Do you think there’s really going to be World War III?
Like most kids with a smartphone and access to social media, he had seen the chatter about war spiking after President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. From mushroom-cloud memes on Twitter to TikToks about dodging a possible draft, teens processed their anxiety, ironically, on anxiety-provoking social platforms.
World War III hashtags started trending again when Iran retaliated by firing missiles at Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces.
Gen Z found a way to mock the fears that gripped most informed adults about the potential for escalation in the conflict with Iran. It makes sense, given the outsize role violence has played in their childhood. War is both near and far in their imagination: They’ve grown up in an era of never-ending war, in which America is time and again dropping bombs on some far-off country. Meanwhile, their schools are regular settings for the mass murders of their peers, to which our leaders respond by having children role-play being stalked and killed by a mass shooter. Children can watch animated videos on YouTube about what would happen in a nuclear war.
How do we expect them to cope? They see adults unwilling to protect them from the existential threats facing their generation -- from gun violence to environmental catastrophe -- and willing to excuse and protect certain evil regimes in which they have a vested economic interest.
The kids aren’t stupid.
The notion of a third world war, in particular, is tied to fears of a nuclear war and annihilation. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War understood those theoretical risks, but we didn’t face those apocalyptic ideas bombarding us when we simply wanted to talk to our friends. Or watch a video. Or play a game.
When the prospect of war looms, my thoughts go to the people I know who would be most directly affected. As soon as I saw the news of the strikes on Iraqi air bases, I texted our close friends whose son is an officer in the Air Force and just returned last month from Iraq. He had been stationed at one of the bases attacked.
“Just pray he doesn’t have to go back,” my friend said.
I opened Facebook and saw another friend had posted a prayer request for her niece, stationed at one of the targeted bases, taking shelter in a bunker.
I think about the funerals I covered of young American soldiers from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. While no one knows exactly how many innocent people have been killed and wounded in Iraq since that invasion, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University reports that more than 182,000 Iraqi civilians died from direct war-related violence. Civilians. Brown’s Costs of War report found that the U.S. “War on Terror” has cost the U.S. $6.4 trillion and led to the deaths of 335,000 civilians worldwide. That’s more than the total number of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagaski combined. In the case of Iraq, the argument about “weapons of mass destruction” given to the American people to justify the war turned out to be false.
Maybe that’s why the dark humor war memes seemed chilling to me. We know that the things we want to believe could never happen are entirely possible.
To answer my son’s question, my impulse was to be as reassuring as possible.
“No, I don’t believe World War III is going to happen,” I told him.
To myself, I said a prayer.