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.
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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.