We’re only a few days into 2020 and already the world is (literally) burning around us. First, there are the severe bushfires that continue to ravage parts of Australia; and now World War III is trending on Twitter and Google.
Jan 1st: New decade going fairly well, all things considered.
Jan 2nd: Australia appears to be on fire.
Jan 3rd: World War III announced.
— Have I Got News For You (@haveigotnews) January 3, 2020
If you’re wondering why the term has been popping up on your timeline, you’re not alone. And, no, it doesn’t refer to the release of a new video game. It has to do with, like many things today, US President Donald Trump. The trend was sparked after Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was killed on January 3 in a US airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport. The strike was carried out at the behest of Trump, who claims that Soleimani—a top Iranian general who headed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force—was planning to attack Americans in Iran. The strike was aimed at “deterring future Iranian attack plans,” per BBC. For those who don’t know (aka most of us), the Quds Force is the most elite and covert unit of Iran’s military branches and focuses on military operations outside of Iran. The strike came only days after protestors attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019, an action the Pentagon says was approved by Soleimani amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
In Iran, the general—who was considered the second most powerful man in the country (behind the Supreme Leader of Iran)—has been heralded as a heroic national figure by many. But both Soleimani and the Quds Force have been labelled as terrorists by the United States and held responsible for the deaths of several US personnel in the country.
So, essentially, the US killed the Iranian equivalent of Vice-President Mike Pence.
In response to the killing, thousands of Iranian people took to the streets in protest and Iran has vowed “harsh retaliation” against the United States.
Read this next: What Does Trump’s Impeachment Mean?
The strike has been criticized by several world leaders *and* some officials in the White House—including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—who claim that Trump pretty much went wild and enacted the strike without authorization or the consultation of Congress. It’s a decision that could have serious repercussions for the United States and its military personnel stationed in Iran, and some politicians fear that it could lead to a war between the two countries.
The US’ actions in Iran have brought us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East.
The Prime Minister needs to act quickly with other countries to de-escalate the situation and not be drawn into the path that President Trump is taking.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) January 3, 2020
It’s a lot to digest. But people who aren’t taking the time to thoughtfully digest this very significant international info? People on the internet. Since the news of Soleimani’s killing, people on the internet have pretty much not taken the issue seriously, instead posting tweets that joke about being drafted into WWIII (and make seriously racist insinuations about Iran):
— Chef Ref 👨🏽🍳 (@jcheferente) January 3, 2020
And making memes suggesting that dying in a war would be better than living through 2020:
You when u saw You when you
that #WWIII is remember that
trending while you want to fckin
you still have so die already and
many dreams World war 3 is the
to accomplish perfect opportunity pic.twitter.com/wEMAEYvCNm
— 𝕃𝕒𝕟𝕔𝕖𝕡𝕠𝕘𝕚 ♡ COMEBACK TODAY STREAM ON (@jungho_shookt) January 3, 2020
And pretty much making a joke of the whole thing:
HAHAHAHAHA YOOO🤣🤣🤣💀💀 https://t.co/u9SG2XhsGd
— 𝙹𝚊𝚌𝚘𝚋 ▸ (@eugenex_) January 3, 2020
Which is a pretty big issue. Here’s why.
It’s privileged AF
The most glaring issue to come out of these memes is the fact that the people tweeting about WWIII are seriously privileged and out of touch. It’s pretty low stakes for someone to tweet and joke about being drafted and going into combat when they know that it’s probably not a real possibility for them. I say “probably” because, shockingly, the draft is still kind of a thing. While the US military has been volunteer-based since 1973, according to the Selective Service arm of the government, the government can still reinstate the draft (forced conscription) in cases of national emergency. Because of this, all men in the USA (including immigrants) between the ages of 18 and 25 must be registered with the Selective Service System. Nonetheless, considering the numerous other conflicts the US has had with foreign countries since the mandatory draft ended, it seems highly unlikely that citizens will actually be conscripted if there’s a conflict between the US and Iran—which people probably assume. Hence the ability to joke.
Read this next: The Climate Strike Was Awesome and Empowering, But Now What?
Which makes joking about something that’s no longer an actual possibility pretty frickin’ rude considering it *was* a very real thing for tons of Americans before 1973 and something that many people gave up their freedom to avoid.
It diminishes the sacrifices people have actually made in combat
Not only do these memes make light of a scary reality for many people but they also belittle the sacrifices that people who have chosen to be in the armed forces make every day. Because for those who are currently serving in Iran, the threat of warfare and potential harm is very real.
Also, joking about being in a prisoner of war camp…yeah, that’s not OK.
It doesn’t take into account the real effects of war on Iran
Because a war, or even just regular airstrikes, isn’t just political. There are real, human repercussions to this violence—mainly, loss of life for people who are either directly involved or get caught in the crossfire.
Disgusted by the jokes, the callousness towards loss of life. The problem doesn't just lie in morally bankrupt U.S. leaders, it lies in all those who ignore the gravity of violence. Call me "too sensitive," but we are in a crisis of empathy and too many can't even see or feel it.
— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) January 3, 2020
Missing from these memes and supposedly funny tweets is any mention of the people of Iran and what they want or what effects these airstrikes and attacks against their country might have on them. And the fact remains that the people of Iran *will* be greatly affected by any combat in their country, because civilians are often caught in the crossfire in war-plagued areas.
A study compiled by Action on Armed Violence found that, in 2017, 15,000 civilians in ISIS-held territories had been killed by explosive weapons, an increase of 42% from 2016 that coincided with US-led military operations to reclaim the Islamic State strongholds of Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria. The majority of these deaths were from airstrikes.
And not only is there the very real potential of civilian casualties in Iran if this conflict escalates, there’s also the potential for Muslim people globally to be targeted as a result of increased Islamophobia. It’s not hyperbolic to say that when there’s conflict with Muslim countries, those who identify as or even just “look” Muslim (aka have a certain shade of skin) in other parts of the world can suffer from increased surveillance, hate and violence. If Trump is emblematic of anything, it’s this. As we’ve seen in the USA, when someone in a position of power targets or calls out a minority or racialized group, it can incite others to act violently toward them. Since Donald Trump’s election and his very public condemnation of immigrants and minority communities, minority communities have reported being physically assaulted, called racial slurs and subjected to racist graffiti on their homes and places of worship.
Keep thinking how this act of war will increase hate, surveillance and violence towards Muslims and racialized people globally. Keep thinking about Muslim women and girls, specfically those that wear hijab or niqab, will face increased gendered Islamophobia.
— Farrah Khan (@farrahsafiakhan) January 3, 2020
In Canada, hate crimes against Muslim people rose by 253% between 2012 and 2015, according to data from Statistics Canada. And in 2017, the number of police-reported hate crimes (against Muslim, Jewish and Black people) rose by 50% compared to 2014, reaching an all-time high. While Trump may not be directly calling out the Muslim community (like his now infamous quote calling Mexican people rapists), this airstrike and his comments about this arm of the Iranian military does put heightened scrutiny on Iranians, both in Iran and overseas—even if it’s a wrongly placed association. And, as history has shown us, it’s incredibly easy for the Western public to paint minority groups with one brush.
Chances are that if the threat were more real for citizens of the United States, they wouldn’t be making memes about it.
And it shows just how de-sensitized we are to…everything
Our reactions to the news out of Iran is pretty telling about where we’re at as a society—as in we’re super fucked up. How horrible is it that we’re so desensitized to warfare that we make memes and jokes about the prospect of airstrikes and combat? On one hand, I can kind of understand where people are coming from—Trump has made pretty much everything associated with him into a joke, and that includes the White House and all its actions. We’ve been through a confirmed affair with an adult-film star, have been subjected to three-plus years of misspelled and erratic tweets from the leader of the free world and are in the midst of an impeachment trial. It’s all so beyond belief that it kind of makes sense that people would chalk up this latest development to Trump wildin’ out and being unpredictable again.
But the thing is it’s not just Trump wildin’ out. His actions and the actions of the US government have IRL effects on real people. And this isn’t just a tryst with an adult-film star (which is bad but obviously not *that* bad, if Scandal is anything to go off)—it’s potential warfare and the loss of human life. And that’s nothing to scoff at.