As college students in the U.S. anticipated their returns to their respective campuses, 3,000 troops prepared for their deployment to the Middle East following increased threats of retaliatory action by Iran. The Trump Administration followed its pattern of unexpected, and often risky, foreign policy moves by killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the second most powerful man in Iran, on Jan. 3 at the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.
In the standard “Generation Z” manner (this generation includes people born after 1996), we combatted our fears of catastrophe with memes. We saw fake Snapchat maps of friends partying in Iran. TikToks of people trashing fake draft letters. Tweets with videos of a rapper dancing with the caption, “me dodging Iran’s bullets.” As U.S. involvement in the Middle East continues, confusion, frustration and misinformation about American objectives in the region persist. Joking about being “dead inside” as a reaction to world events connects social media users. However, the memes lose their humor when we recognize that actual people, including U.S. military personnel, are suffering and dying as a result of reckless U.S. foreign policy decisions.
Through digging in the meme trenches of Twitter, I repeatedly saw memes suggesting that the fighting was going on in Iran, which is one of the foundations of misunderstanding about the current situation with Iran. The U.S. has no bases in Iran ー the U.S. killed Soleimani in Iraq, where U.S. troops started fighting to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and have been combating the threat of ISIS since 2014. As much content as there is on war, there’s little discussion of whom war would truly impact and why a war would matter to America.
Similar to the Vietnam War era, people who project the most anxiety are those who are more likely to be disproportionately impacted by a war with Iran. The draft for Vietnam disproportionately affected black men, so it’s worth noting that black Twitter was the first community to widely share World War III memes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who we celebrated this week, was both a civil rights and anti-war activist. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he noted that problems with democracy at home, like racial inequality, must be solved before we venture into ideological conflicts abroad.
But why is the U.S. still risking resources and lives in the Middle East? It’s not for oil or Communism; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested America’s goal is to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. The answer is far from simple, and the confusion persists, even among those who have grown up in a world where the U.S. is always at conflict in the Middle East.
On TikTok, a platform where many World War III memes are surfacing, 41% of the users are between the ages of 16 and 24. Many of these users weren’t even alive during 9/11, before the U.S. initiated engagement in its longest conflict, the War in Afghanistan. The meme culture does not only represent Generation Z’s tendency to express shared anxieties over social media but also frames the worldview of a generation that doesn’t remember a time when the U.S. was not at war in the Middle East.
War has become a national punchline at the expense of American soldiers fighting abroad, their families and those in the Middle East who are suffering from ongoing U.S. military engagement. However, we cannot completely fault those who are fearful of the consequences of U.S. actions in Iran for sharing their anxieties on Twitter and using memes as a coping mechanism. The problem of U.S. involvement in the Middle East is complex, and solutions and reactions to it are just as confusing.
Katie Dames is a junior international studies major from St. Louis, Missouri.