Foreign Wars Have Become a Spectator Sport in the US

War is terrible, and social media’s depictions of it have created fanbases for foreign regimes among the American population.

The Israeli Defense Force began its operations in Gaza and later Rafah, resulting in massive collateral damage. After viewing gruesome, detailed videos of the conflict on social media, Americans responded with Instagram stories: Calls for support of one side or the other flooded social media accounts.

“All eyes on Rafah.” “Where were your eyes on October 7th?”

We’ve seen this before. “We are all Darfur,” or “Slava Ukraini.”

Ultimately, thanks to social media, the American experience of foreign conflicts has become a spectator sport.

Drone Warfare

From 2011 to 2017, I served in the United States Air Force. I flew drones.

While on shift, I sat in an air-conditioned trailer in the Las Vegas heat and conducted missions in the target area through a video screen. Chances were, after work, I would end up in a club, casino, or at home watching Game of Thrones. But it was Vegas. I often chose the former two.

Partying provided a temporary respite from the disorientation I felt during my shifts: I stared at pixelated figures on a screen and, after receiving a telephonic command, decided a human’s fate by the push of a button.

As I accumulated 3,000 combat hours, I subconsciously chose unhealthy distractions to drown out the horrors of what I saw. Those well-intentioned often ask me if it’s like playing a video game. It’s not. But I understand the sentiment.

The biggest difference is how real it all looks, not just from a graphic standpoint, but from a behavioral standpoint — the way people move, how they seem stuck in a monotonous life similar to the average American in a routine, but then without warning, there’s a public execution, or voiceover tells us we are cleared to engage.

Lastly, the lack of sound — explosions, screams, or flying through the air at 20,000 feet — all inaudible. It wasn’t until I separated from the Air Force that I recognized how unhealthy my lifestyle was.

MQ-9 Reaper drone in Afghanistan
An MQ-9 Reaper flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan in 2008. Photo: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/US Air Force

Social Media

In 2017, NPR released an article that put what I was experiencing into words: For Drone Pilots, Warfare May Be Remote, But The Trauma Is Real. The stark contrast between war and partying — the actual human cost and conducting war virtually — created a numbness inside me, a less-discussed symptom of PTSD.

This dichotomy has become less unique to veterans of drone warfare.

As social media platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter) provide detailed videos of the most disturbing scenes of conflict, war has never been more accessible. And once you’ve got your fix and expressed your opinion on social media, you can move on to streaming the latest Netflix series.

Social media, like drone warfare, has become schizophrenic. From conducting the mission to searching for club promoters who help you skip the line. From going on X and glancing at a gruesome image of war, scroll down to find a Sydney Sweeney thirst trap.


I fear that the current generation and each ensuing one will lose human empathy from overexposure to war without the fear of loss.

But how can we understand the tragedies of war without having to put our own lives on the line? Do governments need to push a service requirement among civilians, such as community service, Peace Corps, or military enlistment, to stop the growing plague of selective empathy?

Watching war on a phone — for most, far removed from the conflict and not experiencing its direct consequences — does not allow one to recognize what’s at stake. No matter how much one purports to internalize it, the conflict remains external.

For those who haven’t served or have not lived in a warzone, foreign conflict has become akin to watching the Super Bowl: Maybe you wanted the Niners to win, but when the Chiefs prevail and the NFL season ends, you just move on to the NBA or remind yourself “There’s always next year.”

As I attend university, I can’t help but think that war has turned into a spectator experience, like sports, for many Americans.

Ukraine artillery
Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery munitions toward Russian positions. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP

Fanbases for Foreign Regimes

A keffiyeh is the jersey for Team A, and the “Bring Them Home” dog tag is the jersey for Team B.

Team A fell silent when Team B highlighted the hostage crisis of Israelis. Team A instead emphasized the atrocities in Gaza and Rafah with posts like “All Eyes on Rafah.” Team B responded: “Where were your eyes on October 7th?”

Niners fans pointed out that Mahomes threw two interceptions with a 78.1 passer rating in the 2023 Super Bowl, well below his 103.5 season passer rating. But Chiefs fans never addressed that: he threw two touchdowns and won after all.

War is a terrible thing, and social media’s depictions of it have created fanbases for foreign regimes among the American populace. War is now a simple binary: You either support one faction or don’t. And, often, so is conducting war: You either push the button or you don’t.

The soldiers involved in foreign conflicts — and the civilians affected by it — will continue to suffer. But don’t worry: Americans are rooting for you on their latest Instagram story. You’re their favorite team… until the next conflict occurs.

Headshot Sam NahinsSam Nahins (@SNahins) is a writer and graduate student at Columbia University School of the Arts.

He has been featured on Fox, The Washington Post, and France 24. He wrote A Choir of Crickets, which can be found here:

Nahins served in the US Air Force from 2011 to 2017 as an Unmanned Sensor Operator, having flown 3,000 combat hours in the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

He is working to publish his debut novel.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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