When we first heard the reports that Iran was firing rockets into Iraq, presumably to attack U.S. servicemen stationed at bases in that country, we had good reason to be frightened. We didn’t know if there would be casualties and if so how many; we could reasonably surmise that if Iran’s military killed a lot of Americans, then some sort of U.S. counterattack would be launched, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a scenario of increasing back-and-forth attacks growing into all-out war.
Thankfully, we found out within a few hours that there were no casualties. Iran launched what appears to be a symbolic response to the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, and their state-run media told their public that they had killed 80 Americans.
Still, immediately after the Soleimani killing, a lot of people who probably ought to know better declared on social media that World War III was imminent. And while big media institutions didn’t concur with the assessment . . . they still wrote pieces about the fears expressed on social media.
McClatchy News wrote an article headlined, “Is the US headed for World War III? Here’s what experts say as Twitter fears the worst” — although thankfully the article declared early on, “while a war on that scale is unlikely, according to experts, the actions put the U.S. on a new path of escalation.”
Molly Roberts of the Washington Post wrote, “The inaugural meme of the dawning decade homes in on nothing less than the total annihilation of humanity. The mushroom clouds familiar to us from the pop canon loom over the Internet, and now they’re accompanied by image macros with captions about how last week’s U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani will provoke global catastrophe. Hashtag it World War III.”
Over at CNN, Richard Galant wrote, “In the hours after the Pentagon announced the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Thursday, “World War III” was trending on Twitter. Traffic to the US Selective Service, the agency that would be responsible for any eventual military draft, spiked so high that the website crashed.”
It is now January 15, and thankfully the world is, so far, not consumed in a terrible war. The situation regarding Iran is tense, no doubt, and there’s still the possibility that the mullahs in Iran strike back at us through a terrorist proxy, either at home or abroad. But the Iranian regime currently has its hands full with angry protests about the accidental downing of the Ukrainian jetliner. This morning, there’s no story about Iran on the front page of the New York Times or Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal has a story about Germany, France, and Great Britain moving closer to re-imposing sanctions on Iran. Not only did World War III not arrive, the conflict has largely faded out of the news cycle.
A U.S. war with Iran would be bad, but it would not be World War III. The Iranian regime doesn’t have allies who are willing to fight on its behalf — and it’s fair to wonder if many traditional U.S. allies would prefer to help by coordinating logistics far away from the front. Even fighting alone, the United States would probably be able to pummel the Iranian military and regime from the air, from the sea, and in cyberspace. After the American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, you would have to imagine a really dire set of circumstances that would precipitate a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iran. No one in the American government is itching to be an occupying power again and start nation-building one more time.
I know, I know, “Trump is crazy and unpredictable, you never know what he might do.” But even on his worst day, President Trump doesn’t want to get sucked into a bloody war with Iran. And for all of their bellicose “death to America!” rhetoric, it appears the Iranian regime doesn’t want to go down that path, either.
Social media posts are “the voices in the crowd,” a cacophony of loud, impulsive reactions that often include overreactions. I wouldn’t go as far as saying they’re not news and they shouldn’t be covered. But just because a lot of people are publicly expressing fear that World War III is going to break out, it doesn’t mean that World War III is going to break out.