The saga of the Chinese spy balloon drifting across the United States last week held the nation’s attention as politicians, policy experts, and regular people argued over what it could mean and what our response should be. Everyone was suddenly an expert on US-China relations and the intricacies of state-level spycraft. But I found it curious that among the talking heads and professional commentariat, no one thought to ask the people who would eventually need to fight in a potential conflict between the United States and China: the high schoolers who I work with every day.
General Mike Minihan, the head of Air Mobility Command for the Air Force, sent a memo to the officers under his command to prepare for the possibility of war with China as soon as 2025. He said, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
I have students who have already told me about their plans to join the military after high school. The Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) has been actively recruiting in our school. The children I’m talking to today will be the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardians of tomorrow. So how do they feel about this latest situation between China and the US? In a word: scared.
“This whole thing means that we might go to war, right?” one of the students said to me. “Does this mean that they’re going to hit us with nuclear missiles?” asked another. “Don’t we spy on other countries too? So what’s the big deal?”
“Doesn’t China have super advanced technology that can really mess us up?”
I tried my best to answer their questions, but they kept on coming. As often happens with children though, someone made an unrelated comment and the conversation turned away from their impending doom. But even as they joked and laughed about the latest “cringe” trend on Tiktok, the anxiety behind their questions remained. These kids are afraid that they’re going to die. And they don’t know what they would be dying for. The question that stayed with me the most was, “Why would we even be fighting China?”
Even as I tried to explain the history of Taiwan and the strategic importance of the first island chain, the answer sounded hollow to me. What exactly is the reason for war that a 17-year-old could understand? The children recently completed a unit on World War I and its aftermath, and I find myself struck by the similarities to today. Many Americans, then and now, couldn’t explain why the United States was going to war halfway around the world, but that didn’t stop over 100,000 Americans from losing their lives.
The same inexorable logic seems to be pushing China and the US to war. In two years, my kids could be deployed to a war they barely understand. It’s not because they’re too absorbed by social media or more concerned about their sports teams. No one has taken the time to tell them what’s important (or unimportant) about Taiwanese sovereignty and why it’s worth their lives. To them, the military is a place for career training and scholarship opportunities because that’s how it has been sold to them.
In his State of the Union address, President Biden declared that he has told Chinese President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict. Yet only a few moments later, in a direct reference to the spy balloon, Biden said that “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.” But sovereignty is a word that many adults have a hard time applying to geopolitics, much less children. So for them, the question remains: what would a war with China be about? And so, they are afraid that something as simple as a balloon might start a conflict.
I don’t want my kids dying on some foreign battlefield. None of the talking heads who cheered as a Sidewinder missile took down the balloon will be sent to fight. As they argue about the importance of upholding nebulous concepts and dominating the Pacific Ocean, my kids watch with unanswered questions because they know its their lives that will be on the line.