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18 January 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Ten years on: did the Gulf War really happen?
Where the West is involved, war now seems to resemble professional wrestling.

by Patrick West

'Our reality: that is the problem. We have only one, and it has to be saved. "We have to do something. We can't do nothing." But doing something solely because you can't not do something has never constituted a principle of action or freedom. Just a form of absolution from one's own impotence.' Jean Baudrillard (1)

Ten years ago, war broke out, not just in the Gulf, but also among a small coterie of intellectuals. At the beginning of January 1991, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote in the French daily Libération that 'The Gulf War will not take place'. After hostilities had taken place, he concluded in the same newspaper that 'The Gulf War did not take place'. (2)

His assertion naturally caused something of a furore. Baudrillard was dismissed as a flippant postmodernist, a man who seemed to deny the reality of a conflict that had caused so much human suffering.

But did he have a point? Baudrillard was not saying that fighting had not actually happened, merely that in the age of live TV the nature of conflict has taken on some strange contours. Ten years on, post-Cold War and post-Yugoslavia, it still seems that war as we used to know it does not exist any more. At least where the West is involved, it seems increasingly to resemble professional wrestling.

Enemies used to be confronted; now they are manufactured. Since 1984, Saddam Hussein had been an accomplice to the USA's intervention in the Middle East. On 25 July 1990, five days before the invasion of Kuwait, US ambassador April Glaspie met the Iraqi president and said that Washington had 'no opinion' on his border dispute with Kuwait (3). The Iraqi dictator also showed no intention of invading Saudi Arabia, President Bush's initial pretext for sending the troops in.

In the Gulf, there was rarely any conventional fighting, mainly aerial bombardment. Where combat did take place, it was an absurd, predictable and dark pantomime, in which a hi-tech, twenty-first-century alliance waged a safe war against an army that fought as if it was still the Second World War. According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, the Iraqis lost 100,000 soldiers while the Allies lost 213 - of these, many were killed by their 'own' side (4).

It was war as entertainment. Hostilities broke out at 7pm Eastern Time on 16 January 1991, just in time for the evening news; during the initial part of the war, President Bush's press conferences were sandwiched between the American football divisional playoffs (5). Images of smart bombs hitting their targets enthralled the Western public, to whom this must have resembled a Nintendo game, and T-shirts bearing the message 'Screw Saddam' and 'Desert Storm' car bumper stickers achieved a great deal of popularity.

Truth was a media creation. Most of the journalists, and indeed the protagonists, on the frontline got their information from CNN - as there was so little discernable conflict on the ground. On 21 January, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell said: 'We have done considerable damage - at least according to what [CNN correspondent] Bertie Shaw tells me.'(6) If a bomb falls in the desert, and there is no camera to bear witness to it, does it still make a sound?

This is to say, CNN's version of the war did nothing to convey the true horrors of the conflict. Indeed, during the conflict, most American TV viewers said they would not object to being fed lies by television if it was in the interest of national security (7). Truth itself became another victim of US 'friendly fire'.

Unlike normal war, there was no end, no closure. Saddam Hussein was not removed from power, but was left to continue his oppression of the Kurds and Shiites. US and British planes continue to bomb Iraq to this day.

In the meantime, NATO set about ostensibly crushing another tyrant, and the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 bore many similarities to the Gulf conflict. Like Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic was originally somebody the West could 'do business with'; yet he was also instantaneously transformed into a proverbial Hitler when the occasion demanded. As Bush said in 1991, so Blair asserted in 1999: this was a fight between 'good and evil'.

In the Balkans, the media was just as crucial. Radio Television Serbia in Belgrade was deemed such an important weapon in Milosevic's armoury that in April 1999 it was the target of one of NATO's more infamous attacks. And then there was the BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson, derided by some in the UK for his alleged 'pro-Serb' reports. It was TV footage of fleeing Kosovans that prompted intervention. Yet just as there were no cameras in Baghdad, there were none in Belgrade - so, in the Western public's eyes, the suffering of civilians in Belgrade did not take place.

The bombing of Serbia was just as predictable in its result. But why did we bomb Iraq and Serbia? If you ask why the West has not bombed Moscow and Beijing in regard to their behaviour towards Chechnya and Tibet, you are half way to the answer. In the post-Cold War era, the West no longer has an evil 'East' to define itself against, and we demand that the new Other will not fight back.

The accomplice to cynical, self-interested Western governments here are TV networks, who crave conflict to boost ratings. Indeed, in February 1998 there was another media invasion in the Gulf, with CNN, BBC, ABC and CBS sending in news reporters to the region in anticipation of 'Gulf War II'. A 'brand name' for the sequel to the war, 'Desert Thunder', was even chosen, while CNN took out adverts in the newspapers, thundering with Schwarzenegger-like enthusiasm: 'That was then, this is now.' (7)

During the Gulf conflict of 1991, the World Wrestling Federation created two new characters for its theatre sport. The Iraqis, 'General Adnon' and 'Colonel Mustafa', were naturally booed in stadia throughout America, and, of course, were roundly defeated. But was this predictable, semi-sport for entertainment, between goodies and baddies and staged to boost the ego of the US, taking place in the wrestling ring or in the Gulf?

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, translated by James Benedict, Verso, 1996

(2) Libération, 4 January 1991 and 29 March 1991

(3) Newsweek, 1 April 1991

(4) Associated Press news, 10 January 2001. The US Defense Intelligence Agency gives an error of margin of 50 percent. Proponents of 'Gulf War Syndrome' attest that post-conflict Allied casualty figures have since risen to anything up to 6000.

(5) Boston Globe, 20 January 1991

(6) '…and there was television', Ellis Cashmore, Routledge, 1994

(7) See Television and the Gulf War, David Morrison, University of Leeds, 1991

(8) See the Guardian, 17 February 1998

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