Over high school lunch tables, teenagers spoke of World War III. When they got home, they tearfully asked their parents whether they would be drafted. Social media feeds exploded with predictions of military action and wisecracking memes about end times.
As the United States escalated its conflict with Iran this past week by killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian commander, Americans scrambled to determine what it all meant for the young men and women whose lives could be upended in the event of an extended conflict.
For now, it remains too soon to tell. The United States’ wars in the Middle East have slogged on, with plenty of tense and foreboding moments, for about as long as most teenagers have been alive. But for a generation of young people who were born after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or were not old enough at the time to have grasped their impact, the events of the past week signified the most urgent — and perhaps alarming — military escalation in memory.
Adrian Flynn was born a month after the Sept. 11 attacks and he registered for the Selective Service shortly after he turned 18 in October, as all men between 18 and 25 are required to do.
But he and his friends at his Manhattan high school did not give much thought to the ramifications of registering until this past Friday, after a drone strike authorized by President Donald Trump killed Soleimani and prompted vows of retaliation from Iran.
“Now it’s like, what exactly did we sign up for?” said Flynn, a senior who was recently accepted to college.
In cafeterias across the country, young men speculate about being sent abroad, even though U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they do not want a war with Iran, and that reinstating a military draft will require congressional approval. At this point, registering for the Selective Service has little bearing on the likelihood of being conscripted.
[Read more: Utahns protest potential war with Iran]
When Molly Patterson picked up her 17-year-old daughter from school in a suburb of Detroit on Friday, she was stunned when her daughter immediately asked whether her boyfriend would be drafted. The next morning, Patterson discovered that her 14-year-old son had been up until 3 a.m.; he was feeling stressed after reading about the possibility of war and texting his uncle about whether he could be sent to fight.
Patterson had not thought of the possibility of a draft, but her daughter said that it was all that people at school were talking about, and that many were even getting alerts on their phones with updates about the airstrike, more than 6,000 miles away. On Saturday, Patterson found herself trying to quell her children’s fears.
“We all talked about it this morning and I tried to relax them, saying there’s not going to be a war,” Patterson said on Saturday. “I like to be very, very honest with my children, but I don’t want them to worry about that. That’s for the adults right now. It’s too much for a kid to handle.”
Some young adults joined thousands of anti-war protesters on Saturday at more than 80 demonstrations to condemn the strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani.
At one protest in Seattle, Lukas Illa, 19, said he was not too worried about being drafted, but was concerned about the effect a war would have on others, including service personnel who might come from disadvantaged backgrounds. He also said civilians in Iran were more at risk than Americans.
“We’re not going to be affected by this as much as Iranians will be,” Illa said.
Citlali Perez, 18, of Chicago, had begun to plan how she might mobilize against another protracted war, were it to come to that.
“Mostly how I feel is scared, but also wanting to do something about it and wanting to prevent it,” said Perez, a freshman at DePaul University who has become involved in anti-war activism.
Perez said she had seen a mix of fear and galvanization since news of the attacks. She has also seen the memes that have been widely shared online, making jokes about the draft or a hypothetical world war. Some found the posts distasteful, trivializing what had already become a deadly conflict, while others saw them as a way to laugh off their fear. In any case, the rapid spread of the memes was a clear sign of how preoccupied young people were with the airstrike and the looming question of what would come next.
For most, being shipped off to war is still a theoretical peril — a nerve-racking thought perhaps, but not an imminent threat. But for some young men and women, it was now a reality; at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 3,500 troops were ordered to the Middle East in one of the largest rapid deployments in years.
Dia Smith, 21, was nervous for her wife, who is in the Army, even before the airstrike: Her wife was told on New Year’s Day that she would be deploying to Iraq. The rising political tensions since then have only made Smith’s fears worse.
Smith said her grandfather had served in the military and had come back so mentally scarred that she and her family found it difficult to visit him. She could not help but worry that if the conflict escalated, her friends — or even her wife — could return the same way.
“Growing up as a kid, you hear about the Vietnam War and all these things that are so surreal to me, until you’re in a time or space when you’re like, ‘This is real,’” Smith said from Fort Bragg. “Being my age, I can see how this can really shape or form the rest of my life, simply because she’s there.”
Smith is a member of the National Guard and said she had joined to get away from Montgomery, Alabama, where she went to high school. She runs a wig business and attends training on the base each month. She had wondered in recent days whether the National Guard could be deployed next.
“I’m waiting on that call for myself, hoping that it doesn’t come,” she said.