A New, Meme-Fueled Nostalgia for War

On TikTok and Twitter, anxious posts about World War III recall a simpler era of global conflict.

A phone screen showing a mushroom-cloud explosion
Farknot Architect / Romolo Tavani / Shutterstock

The World War III memes are here, bursting onto the shores of TikTok and Twitter after American forces killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani this week. “Me and the boys on missile duty during #WWIII,” one reads, illustrated by a GIF of two soldiers running from a misfired mortar. “Me chilling at home after ignoring my draft notice #WWIII,” says another, illustrated with a Spider-Man clip in which the hero’s aunt is interrupted during a prayer by the Green Goblin exploding through her window.

Along with the memes came the counter-memes, chiding people for joking about war, or smarming at them over how little their comfortable life would be impacted by a new war in Iran.

World War III is not actually upon us, of course, but just #WWIII—a container for content. In that role, these memes fulfill the internet’s ability to fashion endless turtles of content about anything. On TikTok, someone feigns illegally disposing of a draft notice, set to Britney Spears’s “Criminal,” which someone else collates in a thread on Twitter, which gets rolled up into BuzzFeed meta-content about World War III memes.

But world war is not just a hashtag either. It’s also a symbol. And it’s notable that young people are mustering that old emblem to express their unconscious fears about the present. In doing this, they are reviving a received notion of “world war,” one mostly expended by the generations that precede them.

For three decades or more, World War III has been an anxious fantasy. During the Cold War, it became a shorthand for a very specific kind of doom: global nuclear destruction. After the blasts comes the fallout, the depthless smoke of nuclear winter, the ensuing end of the crops that sustain our mortal bodies, and the certain starvation of those too unlucky to have survived the war.

Those who lived through this period can still feel how real the threat was. That has not changed: Global nuclear stockpiles have been cut by 75 percent since their peak, between 1965 to and 1986, but thousands of nuclear warheads are still spread all around the globe, each between tens and thousands of times more destructive than the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs detonated over Japan in 1945. Iran is not believed to have nuclear weapons, although its ambitions to develop or acquire them have been at the heart of the American conflict with the country.

Even so, the fantasy of World War III helped hide the reality of what war had become: a tangled mess of statecraft, profiteering, and politicking. In the moment, tidy narratives often made conflicts seem straightforward, but history has unraveled their knotty strands. During the Cold War, hot tensions became hopeless moils, conducted for political benefit as much as (and over time, more than) moral right. Vietnam braided opposition to communism, itself a tenet of Cold War conflict, with democratic state building in a decolonizing region. Proxy wars became common, such as the United States’ support of the Afghani mujahideen to destabilize the Soviet Union rather than to support a Muslim revolution. The Gulf War braided up the emerging 24/7 media ecosystem with the oil economy. The Iraq and Afghan Wars, it now seems clear, were manufactured for political and commercial gain, and at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

And those are just some of the “normal” wars—the military ones entwined with nation-states rather than with cartels, such as Los Zetas in Mexico; militias, such as the Sudanese Janjaweed; or paramilitary groups, such as ISIS. Then there are the corporations. Mercenary data brokerage by Cambridge Analytica put useful information extracted from Facebook into service for misinformation campaigns. Via social media, organizations such as the Russian Internet Research Agency weaponized information, on the cheap, to disrupt the operation of the nation-states that might yet wage conventional or nuclear war. Services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provide easy, global reach for all the non-state actors that have proliferated to further destabilize their opponents.

In the face of all this chaos, is it any wonder that young people might see the relatively conventional act of killing an Iranian military commander as an oasis of political clarity? The memes help amplify a moment that fits into a straightforward narrative.

The deluge of draft-related memes that flowed from the news of Soleimani’s execution exemplify the mental comfort such clarity brings. The idea of a normal war—an organized military front where national armies face off—became so piquant that it crashed the website for the Selective Service System, the government agency where men 18 and older must still register in case of a draft. Even though a U.S. military draft hasn’t taken place since 1973, some of the memes feign comfort in evading conscription, citing hypothetical age, sex, or medical reasons their author might be disqualified.

At Insider, Andria Moore wrote that young people are using the wry humor of memes to cope with uncertainty. And at BuzzFeed News, Otillia Steadman and Ryan C. Brooks portrayed the practice as an expression of fear carried out on the media formats, such as Instagram and TikTok, that have become native environments for Gen Z.

But the 18-to-24 set might have no idea what they are thinking or feeling when they create or share these posts. “Nobody is aware of what’s going on,” my Gen Z son texted me while with a group of friends. (He’s 20 years old.) “It’s not coping because there’s nothing to cope over,” he theorized, adding that his crew wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the people posting these memes don’t have the faintest idea about the geopolitical circumstances to which they are supposedly responding.

That’s probably the case for people of all ages, thanks in part to the frenetic pace at which everyone produces and consumes information online. “Buckle up, nerds,” the Arc Digital editor Berny Belvedere began in a hilarious viral tweet. “After discovering the existence of Quasar Sailemun thirty minutes ago, I am now ready to explain how, being three trillion times more significant than Bin Laden, his assassination means we will have to forfeit the Louisiana Purchase.”

Instinct and habit rule online, and online life is just life now. The instincts and habits everyone has developed over the past 20 years of forever war involve reacting first and thinking later—if at all. The news is so ubiquitous that its coverage—from Soleimani’s death to all these memes supposedly comforting people in its aftermath—evades more meaning than it elucidates.

Absent knowledge and intention, the best and most generous way to interpret these World War III memes is to try to understand how they surface the ideology of contemporary life. Memory of the experience of world war is disappearing, as the last of the generation who survived conventional global warfare die. At the same time, conventional war itself became too constant to take notice of; today’s 18-year-olds have never taken a breath at a time when the United States wasn’t embroiled in combat in the Middle East.

For Gen Xers like me, the fear of nuclear annihilation made the end of the world a dark but deviously appealing fantasy. It seemed natural for humankind to dream about witnessing our collective end. No matter your scientific suppositions or religious beliefs about life or afterlife, the glory of human existence became even more bewitching in the event that total annihilation might ensure that you would not have missed out on its future, beyond the grasp of your own life span.

For many of today’s youths, however, a mortgaged future can already feel likely, if not certain, for much more concrete reasons—from economic inequality to climate-caused extinction. It’s no wonder that their fantasies would look toward the past instead. It is strangely comforting to imagine a conventional war of the 20th-century variety, mated to the risks of nuclear escalation, because it represents a return to a well-worn period of history.

The two world wars produced horrific atrocities. But they also tipped out into a long period of prosperity and comfort, especially in America. That connects the idea of a world war with other matters: the Greatest Generation, and the idea that military service is noble, thanks to the unvarnished clarity of good and evil; a time when patriotism in general and the war effort in particular were nonpartisan; the social services, tax base, and economic circumstances that produced the middle class and all its benefits, from stable jobs to cheap homeownership.

But that reality is no more. So now what? To fear world war is also to dream of it, and to dream of world war is also to indulge the nostalgia of the mid-century, that great refuge between two gilded ages, when ordinary people thrived.