Why young people need to care about the middle east

Alexis Yi, page editor

Following the announcement that top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani had been killed by a United States airstrike on Jan. 3, the internet quickly found its new meme: world war. #WorldWarIII was trending on Twitter, with accompanying GIFs and nihilistic jokes. Generation Z unleashed a flood of new content on TikTok to cynically make light of the attack. One such TikTok, with the caption “can’t get drafted if they can’t see me”, shows a person systematically blocking the Twitter accounts of all the US military branches.

This frenzy of internet activity has shed light on the sheer amount of confusion surrounding these issues. First, the possibility of world war: the US isn’t going to go to war with Iran any time soon, according to numerous experts. Iran responded to the Jan. 3 airstrike with a missile strike on an American airbase in Iraq, but most experts considered it a de-escalatory response. Soleimani was a prominent public figure in Iran, integral to the government’s intelligence and military operations, and Iran could have retaliated much more severely. Since then, the two countries have refrained from actions as aggressive as these. Even so, the current relationship between Iran and the US is strained. 

Next, the draft. Or rather, the lack thereof. Teenagers seem to think that if the US declared war, the draft would be effective immediately. In reality, the US military has been all-volunteer since the draft ended in 1973, following the Vietnam War. It would take another act of Congress to reinstate the draft. As for Selective Service online registration, which all American men ages 18 to 25 must complete, that’s simply for a database from which to choose from should a draft be reinstated. 

Another question is whether women would be included in a draft. If Congress authorized one, yes. A recent 2019 federal court ruling held that all-male drafts are unconstitutional. However, women don’t register with the Selective Service right now because the ruling didn’t strike down existing government policy concerning all-male registration.

So we’re not going to war with Iran. But saying that everything is alright just because no official wars have been declared is ignorant and privileged. There are current US military conflicts that have been going on for years, conflicts that affect millions of men, women, and children. The US started sending troops to the Middle East in 2003 when the Iraq War began, and over the years (nearly two decades) we’ve sent more to engage with numerous groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The violence in the region has led to the rise of several extremist groups, and other interested governments, including Iran and Russia, have further complicated the situation. These conflicts have been disastrous to civilians, who’ve seen their homes and communities destroyed. Millions have been displaced in what is one of the world’s largest refugee crises. A 2018 study from Brown University shows that at least 480,000 people have been killed in the Middle East since the Iraq War, with civilians making up at least half. The study says that those numbers are probably an underestimate because of how poorly records are kept during conflict. 

The most obvious reaction to these issues, since we’re minors, is to just ignore it. But our generation is going to inherit this violence—violence started by adults before many of us were even born. Shouldn’t we do everything possible, as early as possible, to do better by the generation after us?  If we say yes to these questions, then we need to educate ourselves about the situation and stay informed about our government’s decisions. We can’t let the government evade accountability, as it has done before in our nation’s history, by giving us false narratives, or because of our own passivity and disinterest.

The government has deceived the public in the past, and signs show that it’s happening again. The Trump administration is not known for its adherence to the truth. That’s especially worrying when we’re considering international war. So why did our president assassinate one of the most high profile individuals in the region, someone who has influence with numerous groups in the Middle East? According to the Trump administration, because of “imminent threats” against American troops. However, when asked, members of the administration and Trump himself have  said that the exact nature, time, or location of the threats can’t be disclosed, or have given contradictory accounts of the cause: at one point it was one US embassy, at another, it was four. Because of the chaos surrounding politics, attention spans are tiny, and the administration is getting away with this lack of transparency. 

The Trump administration, however, is not alone in duping the public to protect their own authority. During the Vietnam War, the public was told lies about body counts and the likelihood of American victory. Not until the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 did the American people see hard evidence of how the government prolonged the war even though the basis for it—to prevent the spread of Communism—no longer justified the destruction that had come to pass. In the meantime, millions of people, both soldiers and civilians, were killed. In the end, three consecutive administrations continued the war to protect the reputations of themselves and the United States. Each of President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Richard Nixon said that he wouldn’t be “the first president to lose a war.”

More recently, the Bush administration told lies about the rationale for starting the Iraq War in the first place. They were vague and inconsistent in their explanations about how Iraq was connected to Al-Qaeda. Now, the conflict in the region has allowed Iran to slowly seize power and produced other extremist groups, including ISIS. 

Politicians and officials, despite the power we give them, are just people. No amount of expertise or education should be able to justify decisions that result in the loss of human life and the destruction of communities and economies, when there’s no gain for either side. The conflicts in the Middle East have cost the lives and money of everyone involved. These conflicts and the Vietnam War are both prime examples of how a government can tell everyone “We’re doing the right thing” when they are not, and how the public can be all too ready to accept it. 

Back in the present time, the Trump administration’s vagueness about the Soleimani assassination is not the only issue where they fail to be transparent. Since the Jan. 8 Iran missile strike was a less aggressive measure compared to what Iran might have taken, the Department of Defense has revealed through several successive reports that in total, at least 50 service members have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) from the attack, despite initially reporting no casualties. The Trump administration initially claimed no casualties whatsoever—with Trump even tweeting “All is well!”—and then failed to address the growing number of casualties that began to be announced. When asked about the casualty reports, Trump said he didn’t consider TBIs “very serious,” and referred to TBIs as “headaches.” So the pattern of deception continues. 

Holding our government responsible and not accepting vague justifications is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to get out of the Middle East and put an end to the violence and suffering in the region. This can only be done if we, as soon-to-be-voting-age citizens, understand the basics of what’s going on in the Middle East in the first place—we can’t afford to let our own ignorance get in the way of a better life for all. 

So we can make TikToks, but we must also really make the effort to learn. It can be tempting to think we don’t have power because we’re young. But we’re going to be adults soon, and even so, Greta Thunberg, the #NeverAgain movement, and the college student Vietnam protests prove that young people are powerful. It’s time to take charge of the future we’re going to live in, and that means educating ourselves.