Skoog: War in memes and memes as warfare

Having grown up in the shadows of the War on Terror, war can feel like just a dark fact of existence for Gen Z Americans. Now we’re cynical.

Caroline Skoog

Following the news that a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Gen Z channeled existential anxiety into tweets, Tik Toks and memes. 

Digital natives, the Selfie Generation, Zoomers, Juul’s target demographic – we’re a generation characterized by boundless access to information. Yards of #WWIII tweets, though, might indicate that we have reached our bad news capacity. 

Another element of Gen Z eligibility is how we relate to September 11, 2001. Most Zoomers were too young to recall the attacks, or at least to produce any meaning from the event. I was three and a half at the time. I remember my mother sobbing in front of the TV, desperate to get a hold of my dad who at the time worked in New York City. And I remember going to the highest hill in our neighborhood to see a distant skyline consumed by smoke. Every adult was as frightened as a toddler that day. Children and adults process catastrophe, as well as its aftermath, in disparate ways. While most Americans recognize 9/11 to be a sharp turn in the U.S. political landscape, the post-9/11 climate is Gen Z’s first conceptualization of one. 

I should point out that I’m presenting the most privileged perspective. I didn’t experience the consequences of amplified Islamophobia and Xenophobia post 9/11, and I’ve never been subjected to combat, drone strikes or another country’s military in my backyard. The U.S. Iran Strategy has only materially impacted my Twitter feed, and that was for two days. 

U.S. presence in the Middle East has remained a constant throughout Gen Z’s lifetime (born after 1996). We came of age, much like earlier generations, in the throws of ambiguous threats and violence overseas.

Gen Z’s familiarity with weapons of mass destruction and war isn’t exceptional. The threat of global annihilation, which is an anxiety that’s been passed down for some generations now, anchors the “way of life” the U.S. fiercely defends. Unlike the war in Vietnam or World War II, though, there isn’t a draft. Nothing is forcing the public to engage with war. Not to fight or even stay updated on the matter – life can continue uninterrupted, if you choose. It can sort of exist in the background like music in movies. Muffled newscasts reporting drone strikes on distant countries is the soundtrack of our generation’s childhood; you’d have to be listening for it to register it’s there. 

The background is a dangerous place for warfare to be, as it can remain there for decades. U.S. presence in Afghanistan, for instance, is the longest running armed conflict in U.S. history, older than most Gen Z-ers. In this sense, our experience of war is more abstract. Kind of like “way of life” versus “terror.” 

How do you grapple with a body count when the established enemy is a concept? 

That’s where we, Generation Z, spawn: a cynical bunch with an attention economy. United in existential dread but divided by online niches. We’re politically exhausted, and some of us are just out right ambivalent. Our best contribution to the war effort would be the memes we create. It’s not surprising that when faced with the possibility of a ‘traditional’ war (as opposed to a nebulous conflict), Gen Z turns to nihilistic humor. Memes are the best example we have of a successful democracy. 

I’m willing to bet a lot of us didn’t know who Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was until after the news broke; at least, I didn’t. Making sense of prospective war, among other generational crises, feels like building a castle out of quicksand. Even if you manage to do it, the center’s still caving in. 

I’m not trying to romanticize Gen Z’s ironic jokes about the draft. It’s not all that sophisticated. #WWIII circulated, and we deflected anxiety with humor. If this joke trend persists beyond a cultural knee-jerk reaction, it could run the risk of further normalizing war, accidentally spreading misinformation and/or further isolating us from the devastation in another country. Everything is a punchline until it becomes a genuine military strategy. 

All things considered, #WWIII demonstrated how unhinged, albeit misinformed, we are. It’d be cool to see anti-war memes enter mainstream discourse. We’re all so clearly frustrated, so we should probably channel this frustration into political dissent. It does us no good otherwise. We lack the authority to start and end wars, but social media can be (and has been) an instrumental tool for social change.