Back to Baudrillard

The French philosopher's infamous assertion that the 1991 Gulf War 'did not take place' shines some light through the fog of Gulf War II.

Josie Appleton

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Before, during and after the 1991 Gulf War, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote three essays asserting that it ‘will not take place’, ‘is not really taking place’, and ‘did not take place’.

At the time, Baudrillard was dismissed as a particularly pretentious example of post-modern academia. Of course the war was taking place – bombs were falling, tanks were moving, people were dying, Saddam was surrendering.

But in spite of his pretentiousness, and his typically post-modern hyping of symbols, Baudrillard had some key insights into a new kind of war – a war that is not really a war at all. As the current Gulf conflict seems to be drawing to a close, parts of Baudrillard’s essays seem more pertinent than ever.

Proper war, as Baudrillard would have it, is a conflict between adversaries, each fighting for their own political or economic goals. Each side stakes men’s lives and ammunition in an attempt to overcome the other side. The aim of the war is to force the other side to submit to their demands – such as new trade agreements, a new division of territory, or a new arrangement of government. As each side attempts to attain its goals, there is a tendency for the level of force to escalate, for the conflict to become more and more violent.

The 1991 Gulf War, argues Baudrillard, was not driven by these principles. It claimed to be a war, it was talked about as if it were a war, it used the methods of warfare (armies, guns and bombs) – but it was not a conflict between adversaries.

For a start, there was no contest – the war’s outcome, a coalition victory, was decided in advance. But there was also no real conflict of interest; neither side was trying to achieve political or economic goals. Modifying the Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is ‘the pursuit of politics by other means’, Baudrillard claimed that the new war is ‘the absence of politics pursued by other means’.

According to Baudrillard, when the logic of war is missing – when there is no real reason for the war to exist – you get a virtual war. War becomes a spectacle of force managed by the dominant side. The 1991 Gulf War was waged with high-precision weaponry and ‘surgical strikes’. The war was less a conflict between adversaries than a demonstration of American power.

Of course, American weapons had real and devastating results, but they were not deployed with the aim of achieving these results. They were deployed more as a show of force than as force aiming to achieve concrete results on the ground.

These features of a new kind of war appear even more vividly in the current conflict.

Virtual war

In the current war, virtual warfare has become an explicit part of military strategy. Take the much-discussed ‘shock and awe’ strategy of the Americans (also talked about as ‘effects war’ by the British). This, in the words of one commentator, is primarily ‘an attack on the mind – a presentation of overwhelming force and an unwavering sense of inevitability. The message to Iraq is loud and clear: surrender or die, because we’re coming’ (1).

The aim of shock and awe is actually to avoid confronting the enemy – to avoid, in effect, having a proper war. The idea is that you demonstrate your power, and they give up. There need be no battles as such. It is this idea that has led some to predict a day of completely ‘clean’, casualty-free wars.

The coalition forces’ invasions of Baghdad and Basra have deployed force more for its psychological effects than for its strategic outcomes (see Power trips, by Brendan O’Neill). According to one report, the first ‘daring and dangerous raid into the centre of Baghdad’ was not done to ‘gain terrain, as is traditional in wartime, but just to prove to the Iraqis that they could’. If they showed that they could take Baghdad, was the assumption, then the Iraqis would submit without the coalition forces actually going through the business of taking it – of winning the battle for each street and each building.

No reasons for war

There has been no conflict of interest underlying the current conflict in Iraq. The coalition’s stated aim for war is to get rid of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Others claim that the coalition wants to gain control of Saddam’s oilfields. Both of these reasons for going to war – because Iraq is a strategic threat, or in pursuit of American economic interest – are ‘real’ reasons. If either were true then the war would have a logic and a reason to exist.

But they are both patently untrue. America has shown no signs of attempting to profit from or control Iraq’s oil wealth. All the oilfields that have been seized, the Americans keep emphasising, will be ‘kept in trust for the Iraqi people’.

And the wildest of imaginations could not conceive of Iraq as a strategic threat to the world’s only superpower. Iraq’s so-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’, if they exist, are chemical and biological weapons like mustard gas and anthrax that have limited military effectiveness. That the war has itself turned into a frantic search for these weapons is telling. Because it is not being driven by war aims, these have to be constructed artificially as the war goes along (see Propaganda defensive, by Brendan O’Neill). The actual process of war becomes an exercise in justifying that war.

The outcome is decided in advance

As prime minister Tony Blair and President George Bush keep telling us, ‘the outcome of the war is not in doubt’. The defeat of the Iraqis was inevitable from the beginning, and because of this there was no conflict, no contest. As Baudrillard said, the behaviour of both sides is conditioned by this knowledge: ‘We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We would never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like.’ Because both sides knew what the result of the conflict would be, there is little point in the conflict ever really getting going. There is little point in staking lives on a loaded die.

One consequence of a predetermined war, argues Baudrillard, is that the war collapses into a single moment, rather than progressing in a series of stages. ‘At every phase of this war’, he wrote, ‘things unfolded as though they were virtually completed’. Rather than existing as a series of battles or engagements, where one leads on to the next over a period of months or years, the war is imagined ending at the first shot.

In the current conflict, debates began about how to reconstruct Iraq before the war had even begun – the buildings were rebuilt before they were even knocked down. And after only a few days of hostilities the Western press was full of impatient speculation asking ‘when is it going to end?’. The battles that it would take to get to the end were seen as a burdensome and unnecessary trial.

Nor does the war even have a clearly defined beginning or end. There is no declaration of war to mark the kick-off and no surrender to mark the conclusion. What there is, is a gradual build-up and gradual diminution of American military action – and at two points along this progression, Bush makes a statement that indicates that a particular moment should be seen as a ‘beginning’ or an ‘end’.

No engagement with the enemy

In the current war, there has been no real engagement between Iraqi and coalition troops. The adversaries have never confronted each other in battle – there has been bombing and sniping (‘minor skirmishes’, as the press describe it), but no engagement. At any point when it looks like there might be a battle, America has called in its war planes.

Like the 1991 Gulf War, the coalition casualties are comparatively low (in 1991, more soldiers would have died in car crashes had they remained at home than died on the battlefield). Coalition forces managed to take massive areas of ground without taking any casualties at all – and those casualties they did suffer were often the result of accidents or friendly fire. The Iraqis, it seemed, did not even mount a defence – failing to blow up bridges or defend strategic points. Iraqi resistance has appeared in the farce of Iraq’s information minister – who continually talks about battles that are not happening, and denies the fact that American troops are posted underneath his window.

As Baudrillard argued, this lack of engagement between the two sides gives the enemy an unreal quality. In 1991, he said, the Americans and the Iraqis ‘never saw each other: when the Americans finally appeared behind their curtain of bombs the Iraqis had already disappeared behind their curtain of smoke’. The result is that ‘it is impossible to determine whether or not [the enemy] is dead’.

In this conflict, it has been very difficult to work out where the enemy is – or even if he exists at all. The Republican Guard, long whipped up as Saddam’s supreme fighting force, melted away when coalition forces began their assault towards Baghdad. Perhaps they were killed, perhaps the divisions broke up and returned home.

As for Saddam, he is approaching Osama bin Laden’s status as the half-living half-dead adversary. Perhaps he died on the first day of the war, perhaps he died four days ago, perhaps he is not dead at all…right now, it is impossible to tell. The taking of Saddam’s palaces by coalition forces has assumed such an importance because this seems to be one way of getting close to him, of assuming dominance over him. The press has been full of pictures of soldiers and journalists lounging in his chairs and sitting in his bathroom.

But the Iraqis also doubted the existence of the Americans. Reports from Baghdad before coalition troops actually arrived noted an ‘everyday nonchalance’. The mood was calm and relaxed; many people seemed not to actually believe that coalition forces would one day arrive.

Waiting for the climax

While the pattern of a traditional war is for hostilities to escalate, argued Baudrillard, the pattern in new wars is the de-escalation of violence. Because the war has no drive of its own, no conflict to keep it going and take force exercised by both sides to ever-greater extremes, the battle is always threatening to peter out.

In the current war, there has always been a sense that we are about to reach a climax, that hostilities are about to start for real, but this is always indefinitely postponed. The ‘big battle’ was promised first of all when American troops began the march up to Baghdad, then when they began to take the airport, then when they began their assault on the city…now it is promised when coalition forces chase Saddam’s henchmen up to his homeland in northern Iraq.

Now, we are faced with the question of what victory is supposed to look like – how will we know when the war is over? Saddam is not around to surrender, minor skirmishes are likely to continue for many months.

Ultimately, it is down to Bush to draw his line in the sand, and declare the Second Gulf War closed.

Read on:

(1) Shock and Awe: The Ultimate Jedi Mind Trick, American Partisan, 28 March 2003

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