Those of us of a certain age are becoming somewhat used to the concept of World War III.
We remember October 1962 and the gut-wrenching 13 days during which the Soviet Union and the United States stood toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye over the issue of Soviet ballistic missiles deployed on the island of Cuba, some 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
We were not cursed with the 24-hour cable news cycle in those days, so we had to get our news from newspapers, radio and evening newscasts.
But however we got it, the news was not good. As the days wore on it seemed increasingly likely that we were soon to be enmeshed in a nuclear war, a war we had feared since the close of World War II 17 years earlier.
We had spent the 1950s digging and equipping fallout shelters, stocking the public ones with canned food and pamphlets with titles like “Surviving Under Atomic Attack.”
The children of the Cold War were taught to “duck and cover” when emergency sirens sounded, and countless little knees and elbows were soiled with chalk dust from children curling up on the linoleum floor under their classroom desks during mandatory drills.
As the crisis wore on my parents became more and more grim-faced, pointedly turning away my attempts to gain more information about just exactly what it was everyone was worried about.
And then, mercifully, it was over. Cooler heads prevailed, the Soviets blinked and the world took a large step back from destruction.
I am not sure we have ever come as close since, but for a time recently it appears we were on the cusp of another world war.
Earlier this month U.S. drones fired missiles that wiped out a convoy near the airport in Baghdad, Iraq, killing, among others, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s military forces throughout the Middle East.
The world instantly went from its normal screwed-up state to a height of tension rarely seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Was Soleimani’s killing justified? Certainly he was no Boy Scout. He led Iraqi Shiite militias fighting against U.S. forces between 2005 and 2011. He oversaw Syria’s civil war against insurgents trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Some said Soleimani was the one actually running Syria, while al-Assad was a mere figurehead. In addition, he had close ties with Hezbollah, the so-called political party that acts as a terrorist proxy for Iran in its conflict with Israel.
President Trump says he authorized the strike on Soleimani because of intelligence estimates pointing to the fact the general represented an “imminent threat” to the U.S. and its interests.
The president cited this intelligence, plus the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack in Iraq just weeks ago, as his reasons for ordering the death of Soleimani.
Reaction to Soleimani’s death was swift and savage. Iran vowed “severe revenge” in the aftermath of the drone strike. That led President Trump to vow to take retaliatory action of his own if Iran struck any American personnel or property.
And the world held its breath.
Here at home a local lawyer was asked by his 20-something daughter if we were on the brink of World War III. A local 10-year-old, who was adopted from another country, told his mother he wanted to go back home where it was safe. He couldn’t do that, she told him. Well then, he decided, he wanted to go to the United Kingdom.
As they are wont to do, those in their late teens and early 20s, those of Generation Z, took to social media, flooding platforms with World War III memes. On the app TikTok, which features short form videos, the hashtags WWIII and WW3 have been viewed more than 1.6 billion times.
In the interest of using black humor to cope with their fears, young folks also established a Twitter account named UrFavIsDrafted, posting jokes about celebrities who had supposedly been drafted in anticipation of World War III. Of course military conscription was abolished in this country in 1973, but that didn’t stop the jokes from flying. Among the celebs allegedly drafted was singer Harry Styles.
One post showed a man in a Spider Man costume standing in front of a sign reading “During WW3 the army would be busy so we should raid Area 51,” a reference to last fall’s silly “Storm Area 51” Facebook event.
Mercifully it seems that, like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, one side blinked. Last week Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq. There were no casualties and little if no damage was done.
Did these missiles miss on purpose, or are the Iranians simply colossally bad shots? That is a matter for debate. No matter, the attack gave both sides the face-saving out they were looking for.
Iran claimed more than 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and called the missile strikes a slap in the face for the United States. President Trump announced that Iran was “standing down” from a threat of war.
So both sides win, or rather, nobody wins as we go back to the normal, everyday threats we face as a nation. The world is a dangerous place and America is a very big target. We have plenty of enemies, but our recent foreign policy seems indifferent at best toward strengthening ties with our allies, so we may not have many friends, either. And you can’t even turn your back on our friends these days. Keep in mind the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and Saudi Arabia is our largest Middle East ally.
For now, at least, we can put the Missiles of January in our rearview and focus on more pressing topics, like what Harry and Meghan are going to do when they leave the British royal family.
World War III is no longer an imminent threat. Until the next time.