Years-long tensions between the United States and Iran peaked three weeks ago when the U.S. assassinated the leader of Iran’s military, Major General Qassem Soleimani, in the wake of increased conflicts, including violent protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The Iranian general’s death disturbed the Middle Eastern and Western world as allies scrambled to prepare for a likely counterattack. Iran responded four days later, sending a barrage of missiles at two U.S. military bases. The attack was rather minor as there were no deaths — though some soldiers were injured. The next day, Iran’s military — allegedly mistakenly — shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board.
Though the situation seems to have died down, there is still uncertainty over the future of the conflict. Many worry the situation in Iran will become America’s next Iraq or Afghanistan, an asymmetric war with no clear end in sight. As students mostly born between 1998 and 2001, our country has been at war for longer than we can remember. The only legacy we know has been a foreign policy of escalating violence in the Middle East, a policy we as The Michigan Daily Editorial Board do not feel represents our generation’s values.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been unclear as to why the assassination occurred. The Department of Defense’s justification has been ambiguous, convoluted and contradictory. Initially, sources from the Pentagon to the White House said the U.S. targeted Soleimani because he was planning an imminent attack on U.S. embassies in the Middle East. Later, Trump declared it was retribution for the killing of a U.S. contractor in an Iraqi airbase and the protest at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Conflicting accounts raise questions of how these decisions are being made. The lack of clear reasoning behind the strikes calls into question their necessity and the legitimacy of an administration that is not transparent in its decision-making process.
Foreign policy decisions are supposed to be tightly vetted and challenged through research and deliberation. Staffers will usually present the president with a number of options to respond with. In this case, Trump chose the most extreme. This change in precedent is due to the startling lack of experience in the executive branch. A majority of Trump’s war cabinet has been in office for less than a year, and 88 positions in the executive branch, such as Secretary of the Navy, remained unfilled. The lack of transparency on this issue is worrying, especially to our generation, because we feel that those in charge are out of touch with what we want.
The morning after the attacks, people flooded social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with memes and jokes about the night’s events. Nervous that this was one of the most severe escalations of violence in our conscious lives, young people initially panicked about everything from an attack on American soil to being drafted in a potential World War III, with tweets circulating like @jadenonfirree’s viral “When you realize #WWIII is the first meme of 2020 and it might be the last.” These jokes died down over the next couple of days as Iran, understanding that a war with the U.S. is not in its best interests, stepped back from the conflict.
Nevertheless, our generation’s confusion at the prospect of war with Iran reveals that we are unaware of the actual impact that a war would have on U.S. citizens. Discussions and demonstrations on campus against these extended military conflicts coupled with relatively little change over the past couple years justifies our concern that these situations could reasonably escalate into a larger war. Moreover, the Trump administration’s erratic approach toward Iran — they called off an airstrike in the eleventh hour last year — makes it harder for both countries to broker a peace deal and for our allies to count on our commitment to them.
Given that most young Americans are physically removed from the scene of the conflict in the Middle East, our nervous jokes and memes reflect a detachment from the consequences of a war with Iran. We could at least take comfort in knowing that most of us would not be directly affected by such a conflict. However, this scare was much more extreme for Iranians. They would almost surely bear the brunt of any prolonged conflict, just as Iraq has for theirs. An estimated 200,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the start of the Iraq War, and a war with Iran would likely also yield a great many casualties. In comparison, only 4,419 American soldiers and 13 Department of Defense civilians were killed in the Iraq War, revealing the disproportionate effects American interventionism has on foreign nations. While young people in the U.S. responded to the events through memes, the effects were much more concrete for Iranians, who had to confront the terrifying proposition of their country being bombed and attacked. It is important for Americans to keep things in perspective, and understand that the people with the most to lose in a war are not our compatriots, but rather Iranians who did not ask to be put in this situation.
While the conflict with Iran ultimately did not escalate after Soleimani’s killing, it is undeniable that it could have worsened drastically. The strike was ordered by a rogue administration acting without the knowledge or consent of the legislative branch, a move that undermines the principles at the core of the U.S.’s political system. As Americans, students and supporters of our democracy, we demand more transparency from our executive branch. Our government is elected to serve the people and should act rationally with the aim of keeping us out of unpopular, dangerous military situations. Additionally, being largely removed from the direct conflict, University of Michigan students must work to contextualize their response to the threat of war and have more empathy for those who would have been most gravely affected by this conflict. Lastly, if we want change in our foreign policy, we must take action to enact it. We urge students to strive for increased political engagement, especially in light of the upcoming 2020 elections. Oppose unnecessary military action against Iran, call for transparency from the executive branch and encourage awareness on U.S. military actions in the Middle East.