Postmodernity goes to war

Contemporary warfare is more about images and effects than bombs and battles.

Philip Hammond

Topics Books

In 1991, when the philosopher Jean Baudrillard offered a postmodernist assessment of the Gulf War – predicting that it would not take place, asking if it was ‘really’ taking place, and claiming that it ‘did not take place’ – many thought that it demonstrated the political irrelevance of the latest French intellectual fashion. Even some who were sympathetic to post-structuralist thought dismissed Baudrillard’s writings as rarefied nonsense (1).

Today, by contrast, postmodernism is mainstream. Robert Cooper (deputy secretary of the defence and overseas secretariat in the UK Cabinet Office, before becoming the European Union’s director of external affairs) sees Britain as a ‘postmodern state’ practicing ‘postmodern imperialism’ (2), and discussions about postmodernism have reached the American military. One contributor to the US army’s National War College journal, Parameters, argues: ‘The concept of “postmodernism”, with its core meaning of the absence of absolute values, [is] increasingly applicable to the contemporary military.’ (3)

The attacks of 9/11 sparked a debate about postmodernism. On 22 September 2001, New York Times columnist Edward Rothstein saw the attacks as a ‘challenge’ to postmodernists, arguing that ‘[t]his destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective’. On 24 September, Time magazine proclaimed ‘the end of the age of irony’, with Roger Rosenblatt asking combatively: ‘Are you looking for something to take seriously? Begin with evil.’ Yet the age of irony continued: US News and World Report editor John Leo complained that the reaction to 9/11 on university campuses was characterised by ‘radical cultural relativism, non-judgmentalism, and a postmodern conviction that there are no moral norms or truths worth defending – all knowledge and morality are constructions built by the powerful’ (4).

The subsequent ‘war on terror’ was denounced as postmodern. Left-wing academic Douglas Kellner saw the October 2001 bombing of Afghanistan as ‘a new step toward postmodern war’, while in the conservative National Review Victor Davis Hanson complained that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a sign that war had ‘become fully postmodern’. In the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Anis Shivani condemned ‘America’s hyperreal war on terrorism’, which he described as ‘an intended replay of the Cold War with a new postmodern gloss’ (5).

Why did what was formerly seen as an esoteric cultural theory go from the margins of academia to the mainstream of public debate?

  • Postmodern war

If, as Kellner suggests, ‘the concept of postmodern war is widespread in the media and public sphere’ today (6), perhaps this is because postmodernist theory seems to describe what contemporary warfare is like.

For example, in 1991 Baudrillard described how Saddam Hussein’s military strength was exaggerated: ‘…brandishing the threat of a chemical war, a bloody war, a world war – everyone had their say – as though it were necessary to give ourselves a fright, to maintain everyone in a state of erection for fear of seeing the flaccid member of war fall down’ (7). His account of this ‘futile masturbation’ seems even more applicable to the talking up of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability in 2003, or the hyping of al-Qaeda. Similarly, Baudrillard’s remark that ‘…the war ended in general boredom, or worse in the feeling of being duped…. It is as though there were a virus infecting this war from the beginning which emptied it of all credibility’ calls to mind the efforts to build public support for the 2003 invasion with unconvincing dossiers of ‘evidence’, and the seemingly endless inquires and post-mortems that followed.

Baudrillard wrote of the 1991 conflict as a ‘non-war’, a war that ‘never began’, the outcome of which was ‘decided in advance’: ‘We should have been suspicious about the disappearance of the declaration of war, the disappearance of the symbolic passage to the act, which already presaged the disappearance of the end of hostilities, then of the distinction between winners and losers (the winner readily becomes the hostage of the loser…).’ The second time around, the allies’ ‘victory’ looked even more suspect. US President George W Bush’s speech on 1 May 2003 announcing the ‘end of major combat operations’ was the nearest thing to a declaration of victory, but many took the symbolic toppling of Saddam’s statue on 9 April as marking the moment when the regime fell. The fact that the image was staged in front of the media hotel, and that a year later the coalition troops admitted they were ‘no longer in control’ of some parts of the country, indicated that this was a victory on television only (8).

Such apt description suggests that Baudrillard’s essays on the 1991 Gulf War merit closer attention. Was he on to something about the nature of contemporary war? The term ‘postmodern war’ is often used loosely, sometimes as little more than an acknowledgement that things are different from the past. Even in the specialist literature there tends to be an overemphasis on relatively superficial, technical changes, and analysts are often vague about why the developments they describe should be understood as ‘postmodern’. Clarifying this slippery concept, however, suggests that the most important changes pointed to by postmodernism are political.

Baudrillard is usually interpreted as making two main points about the 1991 Gulf War: first, that the USA’s technological superiority and use of overwhelming force made the conflict so one-sided that it could not properly be understood as war in the traditional sense; and second, that the deluge of information and images produced, not a representation of the reality of war, but a media spectacle in which it was impossible to distinguish the virtual from the actual. Yet as Baudrillard’s English translator points out, both of these arguments were also made by critics hostile to postmodernism. In an essay titled ‘The media and the war: what war?’, Noam Chomsky wrote: ‘As I understand the concept “war”, it involves two sides in combat, say, shooting at each other. That did not happen in the Gulf.’ Chomsky’s essay appeared in a collection called Triumph of the Image that examined how TV images served to obscure, rather than to reveal, what was going on (9). This suggests that there is nothing specifically postmodernist about Baudrillard’s propositions.

Others have attempted to develop Baudrillard’s notion of postmodern war. Kellner argues that the 1991 Gulf War was postmodern for three reasons (10). Firstly, it involved ‘a carefully manufactured attempt to mobilize consent to US policy, in which…image and spectacle prevailed’ – Kellner claims that audiences reacted with ‘euphoria’ and ‘delight’ to spectacular images that evoked the pleasures of video games and Hollywood special effects. Secondly, the war involved an ‘implosion between individuals and technology’: as events unfolded in real time on TV we saw the digital images of ‘smart’ bombs and missiles appearing on the cockpit screens of pilots or tank commanders (who in turn use simulations, virtual environments and videogames such as Doom as part of their training) (11). The distinction between doing and watching, or between the real experience of war and the consumption of its image, became blurred. Thirdly, the conflict was ‘a form of cyberwarfare, with information technology and new smart weapons prominently displayed’, as the US sought to demonstrate its predominance in both weapons technologies and the propaganda war.

Despite claims about new types of ‘cyberwarriors’ and ‘cyberwar’, however, Kellner’s description sounds like modern war with better technology; and despite assertions that ‘reality’ became blurred, the account still implies a clear distinction between the reality of the war on the ground, which we mostly did not see, and the manufactured image which served a propagandistic purpose.

Chris Hables Gray’s 1997 book Postmodern War also highlights the use of information technology, charting in detail how the US military has developed new doctrines such as C4I2 (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and interoperability) to match the ‘revolution in military affairs’ that new technology is said to have brought about, and argues that soldiers are now effectively cyborgs (12). Yet the military’s extensive development and use of technology is nothing new, and the notion of ‘cyborg soldiers’ seems rather forced. Again, it is not clear why these technical developments should be seen as ‘postmodern’.

More promisingly, Gray characterises postmodern war as ‘contradictory’ and ‘paradoxical’. Weapons are more developed than ever, to the extent that the planet could be obliterated, but this makes the actual use of such weapons impossible. War has continued in the form of ‘low intensity conflicts’, cold wars, information wars, and so on. His argument is evidently inspired by Baudrillard’s observation: ‘Today [deterrence] functions all the more effectively as self-deterrence…the profound self-deterrence of American power and of Western power in general, paralysed by its own strength and incapable of assuming it in the form of relations of force.’ Yet there is an important difference between these arguments. In Baudrillard’s view, the ‘paralysis’ of Western power derived not, as Gray argues, from the ‘devastating technologies’ of the military, but from the uncertainty of contemporary politics.

A more convincing argument about the nature of ‘postmodern war’ could be made by recalling Jean-Francois Lyotard’s declaration: ‘I define postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives.’ (13) It is perhaps the absence of metanarratives today that explains the unique features of contemporary warfare.

Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism implies exactly the ‘ironic’, sceptical attitude toward truth claims and political and moral values that so troubled conservatives in the reaction to 9/11. Yet as New Left Review editor Perry Anderson notes: ‘Just one “master narrative” lay at the origin of the term: Marxism.’ (14) That is to say, Lyotard’s incredulity was directed, in the first instance, at the promise of liberation and freedom offered by the ‘grand narrative’ of Marxism. Lyotard’s critique of capitalism was directed primarily at the alternative to it: ‘Reason is already in power in kapital. We do not want to destroy kapital because it is not rational, but because it is. Reason and power are one…socialism, it is now plain to all, is identical to kapitalism. All critique, far from surpassing, merely consolidates it.’ (15)

Where Marxism had traditionally claimed to be the true heir of the Enlightenment, upholding values of reason, progress and emancipation in a way that the bourgeois order could not, postmodernists rejected those values as inevitably compromised, as complicit with power. Baudrillard echoed these sentiments when he wrote of: ‘All these events, from Eastern Europe or from the Gulf, which under the colours of war and liberation led only to political and historical disillusionment….’ His attempted critique of the ‘consensual traditionalism’ of the West was a rejection of ‘the Enlightenment, the Rights of Man, the Left in power…and sentimental humanism’. It was from this perspective of disillusionment that the only option seemed to be the ‘ironic’ postmodern attitude, dismissing everything as mere images. Baudrillard’s advice was to: ‘Resist the probability of any image or information whatever. Be more virtual than events themselves, do not seek to re-establish the truth, we do not have the means, but do not be duped….’

Without any means to establish the truth, not being duped can only mean disbelieving everything. As another writer on postmodern war, James Der Derian, puts it: ‘…better strategically to play with apt critiques of the powerful new forces unleashed by cyberwar than to hold positions with antiquated tactics and nostalgic unities.’ (16) In the 1991 Gulf War, Baudrillard couldn’t see the possibility of an alternative grand narrative to challenge the hegemony of the West: his essays are peppered with references to the decline of Arab nationalism, the containment of radical Islam, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the defeat of the ‘revolutionary potential’ of the Algerian uprising against colonial rule in the 1950s.

As James Heartfield has shown, it was the Algerian uprising that was the formative experience in the development of the postmodern sensibility. In France, both the establishment and the Left justified the suppression of Algerian claims for independence in the name of the Enlightenment, and some radical thinkers – including Lyotard and Baudrillard – drew the conclusion that Enlightenment humanism itself was flawed (17). By the time Lyotard announced postmodernism’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ in 1979, this disillusionment had been consolidated by further experiences of defeat, but it was still a marginal outlook. When the Berlin Wall came down a decade later, the incredulity became somewhat more generalised. Even so, maintaining an ‘ironic’ attitude as tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed was easily dismissed as irresponsible foolishness at the time of the 1991 war.

It is not immediately apparent why postmodernism, which originated as a sceptical rejection of the ‘grand narrative’ of Marxism, should be of such concern to conservatives that commentators interpret 9/11 in terms of its ability to overcome the ironic cynicism of intellectuals. To understand this, we need to look back to another war: Vietnam.

  • Culture Wars and the ‘post-Vietnam condition’

Michael Bibby argues that ‘the Vietnam War can be seen as foundational to the emergence of postmodernity’: ‘It took the Vietnam War to give rise in the United States to the notion that the Enlightenment project of modernity and humanism could have its own horrors.’ (18) The US Left’s reaction to Vietnam paralleled the earlier French reaction to Algeria. As Douglas Kellner puts it, ‘the Vietnam War was a highly modern war that showed the pretensions and flaws of the project of modernity’. Vietnam, he suggests, ‘revealed the limitations of the modern paradigm of technocratic domination of nature and other people through the use of science, technology, and cybernetic control systems’ (19).

In the reaction against the Vietnam War there was a repudiation of the Enlightenment belief in reason and progress, expressed, for example, by the rise of environmentalism and a growing distrust of science as an inherently risky enterprise that creates more problems than it solves. More broadly, in the post-Vietnam ‘Culture Wars’, as Mick Hume observes: ‘Everything about the past was called into question, notably through widespread allegations that America’s history was tainted by racism and colonialism.’ In terms of international politics, these battles over values made it difficult to project US power confidently and coherently: ‘These bitterly contested Culture Wars corroded old certainties about truth, justice and the American way. Without a clear consensus around established values at home, it became much harder to underpin America’s adventures abroad.’ (20)

This is the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’: not simply the traumatic military defeat itself, but the way that the war became, as Simon Chesterman, a senior associate at the International Peace Academy, notes, ‘a defeat on both military and moral fronts’ (21). The Vietnam Syndrome might be understood as an ongoing crisis of meaning for the elite. As Christopher Coker, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, argues, after Vietnam ‘America is no longer engaged in great projects’: ‘It no longer finds legitimacy in a vision of the future; instead, it has been reduced to managing the present. The “crisis of meaning”…is expressed in a disquieting gap between expectations of change (the need to act, to project oneself into the future before being caught out), and an ideological discrediting of grand schemes and grand narratives. The United States may project its power into the future but not in tune with a particular project.’ (22)

These trends came to a head with the end of the Cold War. At first, the end of the Cold War seemed to promise a way to resolve the Vietnam Syndrome – because there was no longer an ideological alternative to Western capitalism, and no Soviet deterrent to the exercise of US military power. Yet although there were fewer restraints on the open use of military force and the pursuit of US interests and influence around the globe, the overarching rationale for action had also collapsed.

The West was robbed of ideological cohesion at the very moment of its victory. At home, the aggressively pro-capitalist ideology promoted under right-wing governments in the 1980s floundered without the foil of the labour movement to lend it coherence. Internationally, having intensified the Cold War in the 1980s, the implosion of Soviet communism left the West without an enemy and without any cohesive identity. In the post-Cold War era, military actions tend to be undertaken by temporary ‘coalitions of the willing’, rather than by the more stable Cold War alliance under assumed US leadership.

At the same time as the Western elite’s crisis of meaning makes the coherent projection of American power more difficult, however, it also creates a situation in which the elite is driven to use war as a way to try and overcome such difficulties. When George Bush Senior declared that with the 1991 Gulf War, ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all’, he was hoping that the war had overcome the lack of cohesion and consensus at home and that US military power would be seen once again as a moral force. This was the president who famously had difficulties articulating what he called ‘the vision thing’, but the war allowed him to strike a statesmanlike pose: ‘In the life of a nation, we’re called upon to define who we are and what we believe.’ (23) Bush Senior declared of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait: ‘It’s black and white. The facts are clear. The choice is unambiguous. Right vs. Wrong.’ (24) Yet the moral clarity that Bush Senior claimed to have discovered in the Gulf was able to offset the elite’s ideological crisis only temporarily and partially – no sooner had he declared a ‘New World Order’ than critics were pointing out that actual disorder seemed to reign.

Despite having the most powerful military machine ever, the Western elite has no metanarrative to allow the projection of power. Baudrillard repeatedly emphasised this point in his Gulf War essays, when he wrote of ‘the profound self-deterrence of American power and of Western power in general’: ‘Unlike earlier wars, in which there were political aims either of conquest or domination, what is at stake in this one is war itself: its status, its meaning, its future. It is beholden not to have an objective but to prove its very existence….In effect, it has lost much of its credibility.’

Without a grand narrative to make sense of the enterprise, war is unable to inspire belief or enthusiasm. Instead, war becomes meaningless and empty, a mere image. In this context, argues Baudrillard, war ‘no longer proceeds from a political will to dominate or from a vital impulsion or an antagonistic violence’: instead of being a means to realise definite political aims or interests, ‘non-war’ is ‘the absence of politics pursued by other means’.

It is this lack of political purpose and vision that gives rise to the features of what has been called ‘postmodern war’, such as the use of hi-tech ‘smart weapons’ and the importance of media spectacle. When war is not ‘born of an antagonistic, destructive but dual relation between two adversaries’, Baudrillard contended, it becomes bloodless: ‘an asexual surgical war, a matter of war-processing in which the enemy only appears as a computerised target….’ In the West’s propaganda, there is an emphasis on its ‘humane’ approach to killing people, using ‘smart weapons’ to minimise ‘collateral damage’ – but the more important aim of this hi-tech weaponry is to eliminate the risk to Western troops themselves. As Baudrillard noted mockingly in 1991, American soldiers were actually safer in the war zone than at home: the casualties were lower than the rate of deaths from traffic accidents in the USA.

The fear of ‘another Vietnam’, which surfaces whenever the US military goes into action, is a fear that deaths cannot be justified by the political rationale for war. As US secretary of state Colin Powell has argued, referring to the 1994 withdrawal from Somalia following the deaths of 18 US servicemen, the public are ‘prepared to take casualties’, but only ‘as long as they believe it’s for a solid purpose and for a cause that is understandable and for a cause that has something to do with an interest of ours’ (25). The lack of any such ‘solid purpose’ means that casualties are avoided – and also means that the media presentation of war assumes a disproportionate importance, because staging the spectacle of war becomes a substitute for an inspiring cause to rally public support. As Baudrillard put it: ‘The media mix has become the prerequisite to any orgasmic event. We need it precisely because the event escapes us, because conviction escapes us.’

President George W Bush has tried to use the war on terrorism as his father used the Gulf, to ‘kick the Vietnam Syndrome’. According to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd: ‘It is the latest chapter in the culture wars, the conservative dream of restoring America’s sense of Manifest Destiny…. Extirpating Saddam is about proving how tough we are to a world that thinks we got soft when that last helicopter left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975.’ (26) It was in this spirit that Bush advisor Richard Perle said that: ‘If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage a total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now.’ (27)

Yet even Perle’s ‘just do it’ approach to war entails some ‘vision of the world’, the content of which seems difficult to specify. No doubt the clique of neocons at the Project for the New American Century see the war on terror as part of a grand strategy, but few other people seem to have been convinced.

Despite their fulminations against unpatriotic cultural relativists in US universities, what conservative commentators are really railing against is their own inability to project a clear and inspiring cause. In reality, postmodernism represents little challenge. Literary critic Stanley Fish, for example, who came to postmodernism’s defence against its conservative detractors after 9/11, resented what he saw as a contemporary equivalent of the red-baiting scares of the McCarthy era, but was at pains to show that he was not unpatriotic. Indeed, postmodernism might even make the war on terrorism more effective, he suggested, by allowing greater understanding of the motives and goals of the enemy. Fish argued that postmodernists ‘can and should invoke the particular lived values that unite us and inform the institutions we cherish and wish to defend’, but that it was better to do so ‘without grasping for the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes’ (28).

If conservative commentators exaggerate the extent of postmodern intellectuals’ anti-Americanism, postmodernists are apt to overestimate the elite’s ‘universal absolutes’. The war on terrorism claims to be a war for Western values. On 5 March 2004, Blair argued that: ‘The best defence of our security lies in the spread of our values’, and that ‘we cannot advance these values except within a framework that recognises their universality’ (29). Yet it would be more accurate to say that it is a war fought over the crisis of Western values. In Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the US foreign policy establishment, even ardent Atlanticist Dominique Moïsi felt called upon to ask ‘Does “the West” still exist?’. As Moïsi observed, ‘Islamic fundamentalism, international terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have not had the same unifying effect as yesterday’s Soviet threat’.

Moreover, the ‘universal’ values of the West are unable even to bridge the divide between the USA and Europe over Iraq. Moïsi noted that ‘European intellectuals, such as Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, see in the recent antiwar demonstrations the emergence of a European civil society that chooses to define itself negatively against the United States.’ (30) Meanwhile, Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute argues, ‘the old habit of transatlantic partnership has now been replaced by the idea that the natural and even desirable state of affairs if for the Europeans to disagree with the Americans’ (31). There are divisions within Western countries, and there is an apologetic, defensive attitude in projecting ‘Western values’.

  • The postmodern war on postmodern terrorism

Contemporary terrorism also seems to lack a grand narrative. In the past, acts of terror were acts of political violence, linked to a definite programme or a specific set of demands, and carried out by close-knit organisations with an explicit ideology and a clear objective, often that of national liberation. Today, by contrast, acts of terror are carried out by amorphous and disparate groups with no clear aims, and are about image rather than political content. In that sense, the spectacular destruction of 9/11, targeting symbols of US prestige and power, was an act of postmodern terrorism. Emptied of political content, the image becomes an end in itself.

The same is true of the West’s response, which has been all about creating an image of purposefulness. Whole military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been staged in order to produce the right pictures. The US special forces who went into Kandahar in October 2001, for example, were essentially actors – the operation was of doubtful military value because, as Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker, army pathfinders had already gone in beforehand to make sure the area was secure (32). The point of the operation was for the soldiers to videotape themselves for the benefit of world’s media. Such incidents recall Baudrillard’s comment on the 1991 war: ‘Never any acting out, or passage to action, but simply acting: roll cameras!’

The Pentagon’s Public Affairs guidance for the 2003 ‘shock and awe’ campaign in Iraq advised that the use of helmet-mounted cameras on combat sorties was ‘approved and encouraged to the greatest extent possible’ (33), producing such memorable episodes as the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from al-Nasiriyah. As Richard Lloyd-Parry revealed in The Times, in reality this was not ‘the heroic Hollywood story told by the US military, but a staged operation that terrified patients and victimised the doctors who had struggled to save her life’ (34).

Coalition troops in Iraq encountered more difficulty than they had expected in securing control of towns, claiming to have ‘taken’ Umm Qasr no fewer than nine times before actually doing so, for example. It was far easier to create the impression of control by rolling tanks and armoured vehicles over shrines to Saddam, painting over his murals, and ripping up his pictures. As Jonathan Glancey noted in the Guardian, this was ‘not…a knee-jerk reaction by angry soldiers…. The photographs are too many, press coverage too knowing for that’ (35). The calculated images were designed to produce a simulation of victory and liberation. One year on, an Iraqi interviewed by the BBC observed that: ‘The only thing that has really changed is the pictures. Saddam’s pictures have gone.’ (36)

This obsession with appearances is self-defeating. Bush’s speech announcing ‘the end of major combat operations’, for example, was highly contrived, with a team of former media professionals employed by the White House to design the backdrop, plan camera angles and provide lighting (37). The performance, which involved Bush co-piloting a fighter plane and striding around the deck of an aircraft carrier wearing a military flight suit, reportedly cost around $1million and delayed the return of the ship. Bush emphasised the image, rather than the fact, of victory, claiming that: ‘In the images of falling statues, we have witnessed the arrival of a new era’, and that ‘in the images of celebrating Iraqis, we have also seen the ageless appeal of human freedom’.

Yet the result of this assiduous attention to presentation was that the image became too self-conscious. BBC reporters described it as ‘carefully choreographed’, ‘stage-managed’, ‘made for American TV’ and ‘pure Hollywood’. Diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall even suggested that the war had merely provided a ‘useful prop’ for Bush’s re-election campaign (38). Politicians are inclined to blame media cynicism for disillusionment with the war, but it is their own empty image mongering that is the problem. After 9/11 the US government consulted marketing and PR companies and put a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, in charge of ‘re-branding’ US foreign policy. Some critics have suggested that Beers’ efforts were ‘an abject failure’ because they did not address the underlying causes of resentment of the US in the Muslim world (39). A more fundamental problem, however, was the uncertain nature of the ‘brand’ itself. Beers’ ‘shared values’ advertising campaign was bound to fail precisely because of the lack of agreed values in Western societies.

While some commentators thought that, as Rosenblatt put it in Time, ‘one good thing’ to come out of 9/11 would be that postmodernists would no longer be able to say ‘nothing was real’ (40), in the event leaders have found themselves obliged to insist repeatedly on the ‘reality’ of the war on terrorism. Blair’s assertion of the ‘reality’ of weapons of WMD in Iraq was doomed from the start. In a 24 September 2002 speech he claimed: ‘The threat…is not imagined. The history of Saddam and the WMD is not American or British propaganda. The history and the present threat are real…there are many acts of this drama still to be played out.’ (41) Similarly, in March 2004 he maintained his ‘fervent view that the nature of the global threat we face in Britain and round the world is real and existential’ (42).

The prime minister protested too much: the more he asserted the reality of the threat, the more illusory it seemed. While Blair was acting out his existential drama, the US military was consulting Hollywood filmmakers about how to handle terrorist threats. The army asked the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) to ‘create a group from the entertainment industry’ to help them ‘think outside the box’. The ICT, established at the University of Southern California in 2000 with a $45million US army contract, was set up to conduct computer modeling and simulation research with applications for the media, film, games, theme park and IT industries as well as the military. Extending this cooperation from technical research to policy brainstorming is a sign of the policy elite’s desperate search for ideas (43). Never mind the postmodern ironists, the political and military elite appear to have only a tenuous grip on reality.

Traditional ideological standbys – such as celebrating a martial, national or Western identity – now seem to cause disquiet instead of cohering support. This was why news audiences witnessed the Stars and Stripes being proudly hoisted in Iraq one minute, only to see it hauled down in embarrassment the next. This happened at Umm Qasr at the start of the war, and again when the flag was draped over the face of Saddam’s falling statue on 9 April 2003 – an image that reportedly caused ‘a moment of concern’ in Washington (44).

There were also worries about appearing too militaristic, as exemplified by the debate in the UK about whether to hold a victory parade, a ‘cavalcade’ or a church service after the Iraq campaign. In the event, a ‘multi-faith service of remembrance’ was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, designed to be ‘sensitive to other traditions, other experiences and other faiths’, including Islam. The service commemorated Iraqi military and civilian dead as well as British losses. As the Dean of St Paul’s explained: ‘I don’t believe in today’s world we can have a national service behaving like little Brits.’ (45) Similar considerations applied beforehand, one journalist revealed: ‘We were not allowed to take any pictures or describe British soldiers carrying guns. I was told that there was…a decision made by Downing Street that the military minders of the journalists down there were to go to any lengths…to not portray…the British fighting man and women as fighters.’ (46)

An inability to celebrate victory or to portray soldiers as soldiers is symptomatic of the elite’s lack of confidence. Conservatives such as John Leo may complain that the US campus reaction to 9/11 was marred by ‘cultural relativism and non-judgmentalism’, but the leaders of war on terror have reacted in a similar way, making a great show of ‘respect’ for Islam. Bush visited a mosque in the wake of 9/11, for instance, and Blair claimed to be reading the Koran. Meanwhile, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was forced to apologise for saying that Western civilisation was superior to Islam. After his remarks provoked a ‘storm of condemnation from the European Union and the US’, Berlusconi said it was a ‘great’ religion for which he had ‘deep respect’ (47). Even the name of the attack on Afghanistan had to be changed when it was found that ‘Operation Infinite Justice’ could be seen as offensive to Muslims.

These problems have not gone unnoticed in the military itself. As the authors of an article in the US army’s Parameters journal observe: ‘militaries now lack a shared interpretative framework with their publics. As a result, post-modernist and anti-institutionalist cultural shifts in public attitudes and opinion further devalue the military institution and its absolutist ethos.’ (48) Another contributor to Parameters illustrates the ‘absence of absolute values’ in the military with a number of anecdotes of political correctness:

  • In 1997, the secretary of the army hired somebody as a temporary consultant who advocated replacing a ‘masculinist’ with an ‘ungendered vision’ of military culture;

  • In 1999, the US army chaplaincy recognized the neo-pagan Wicca as a legitimate faith. More than 40 active-duty ‘witches’, male and female, celebrated the Rite of Spring at Fort Hood, Texas;

  • The American Federation of Government Employees filed a complaint after a squadron commander ordered a male civilian Air Force employee to change his attire. The man had been wearing a dress, bra, and makeup (49).

Similarly, after a row about airmen scrawling offensive slogans, such as ‘High jack this, fags’, on bombs dropped in the Afghan war, the US navy instructed commanders to ‘keep the messages positive’, and US troops sent to Iraq had to go through a ‘cultural boot camp’ to educate them about Arab culture (50). A culturally sensitive army of non-masculinist, cross-dressing Wicca sending ‘positive messages’ to the enemy while killing them from afar is an absurd but telling symptom of the West’s ideological incoherence.

In the spirit of Baudrillard, one could conclude that the ‘war on terrorism’ is not a proper war, and certainly it will never be won. As Coker argues: ‘post-modern societies are principally interested not in victory but in safety; they are primarily interested not in attaining the good but preventing the worst. And they are plagued by risks and threats.’ (51) The collapse of grand narratives makes war a matter of risk management at the same time as it gives rise to an exaggerated feeling of vulnerability. The inability to cohere society around any inspiring, future-oriented project empties war of meaning even as it makes war more likely as an attempt to discover some common, unifying values.

Philip Hammond is senior lecturer in media at London South Bank University.

(1) Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, Christopher Norris, Lawrence and Wishart, 1992

(2) ‘The Post-Modern State’, Robert Cooper, in Re-ordering the World: the long term implications of September 11, Mark Leonard (ed), The Foreign Policy Centre, 2002

(3) What Ails the All-Volunteer Force: An Institutional Perspective, Parameters , Summer 2001

(4) ‘Attacks on U.S. Challenge the Perspectives of Postmodern True Believers’,New York Times22 September 2001; ‘The Age of Irony Comes to an End’, Time, 24 September 2001; ‘Campus hand-wringing is not a pretty sight’,, 30 September 2001

(5) The Politics and Costs of Postmodern War in the Age of Bush II, Douglas Kellner, c. February 2002; ‘Postmodern War’, Victor Davis Hanson, National Review Online, 7 March 2003; ‘America’s hyperreal war on terrorism’, Dawn, 5 November 2001

(6) The Politics and Costs of Postmodern War in the Age of Bush II, Douglas Kellner, c. February 2002

(7) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Jean Baudrillard, Indiana University Press, 1995, p74

(8) BBC2 Newsnight, 8 April 2004. For further discussion of Baudrillard’s relevance to the 2003 invasion see ‘From the “Death of the Real” to the Reality of Death: How Did the Gulf War Take Place?’, Shelia Brown, Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media, Vol.1, No.1, 2003 and Back to Baudrillard, by Josie Appleton

(9) Introduction, Paul Patton, in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Jean Baudrillard, Indiana University Press, 1995; Triumph of the Image, Hamid Mowlana, George Gerbner and Herbert I Schiller (eds), Westview Press, 1992

(10) ‘From Vietnam to the Gulf: Postmodern Wars?’, Douglas Kellner, in The Vietnam War and Postmodernity, Michael Bibby (ed), University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, p218-219

(11) Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, James Der Derian, Westview Press, 2001, pxix

(12) Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict, Chris Hables Gray, Routledge, 1997. See also ‘Posthuman Soldiers in Postmodern War’, Chris Hables Gray, Body and Society, Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2003

(13) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Manchester University Press, 1984, pxxiv

(14) The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson, Verso, 1998, p29

(15) Jean-Francois Lyotard quoted in The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson, Verso, 1998, p27

(16) Quoted in ‘Ordering the New World: Violence and its Re/Presentation in the Gulf War and Beyond’, Simon Chesterman, Postmodern Culture, Vol. 8, No. 3, May 1998

(17) The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 2002

(18) ‘The Post-Vietnam Condition’, Michael Bibby, in The Vietnam War and Postmodernity, Michael Bibby (ed), University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, p167, n15; p162

(19) ‘From Vietnam to the Gulf: Postmodern Wars?’, Douglas Kellner, in The Vietnam War and Postmodernity, Michael Bibby (ed), University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, p200, 216

(20) ‘One war that Bush has already lost’, by Mick Hume

(21) ‘Ordering the New World: Violence and its Re/Presentation in the Gulf War and Beyond’ Simon Chesterman, Postmodern Culture , Vol. 8, No. 3, May 1998

(22) ‘The United States and the ethics of post-modern war’, Christopher Coker, in Ethics and Foreign Policy, Karen E Smith and Margot Light (eds), Cambridge University Press, 2001, p 157

(23) Quoted in Writing Security, David Campbell, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p3

(24) Quoted in ‘Ordering the New World: Violence and its Re/Presentation in the Gulf War and Beyond’, Simon Chesterman, Postmodern Culture , Vol. 8, No. 3, May 1998

(25)Quoted in ‘Clarifying the CNN Effect’, Steven Livingston, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, 1997, p7

(26) Culture War with B-2’s, New York Times, 22 September 2002

(27) Daily Mirror, 29 January 2002

(28) ‘Condemnation Without Absolutes’,New York Times, 15 October 2001

(29) Full Text of Tony Blair’s Speech, Guardian, 5 March 2004

(30) ‘Reinventing the West’, Foreign Affairs November/December 2003

(31) ‘Europe and the United States: An End to Illusions’, in War in Iraq: Combat and Consequences , Jonathan Eyal, Royal United Services Institute, 2003, p40

(32) ‘Escape and Evasion’, Seymour M Hersh, New Yorker, 12 November 2001

(33)‘Public Affairs Guidance on Embedding Media During Possible Future Operations/Deployments in the US Central Commands Area of Responsibility’, Department of Defense, February 2003

(34) ‘So who really did save Private Jessica?’, Richard Lloyd Parry, Times, 16 April 2003

(35) ‘Down and Out’, Jonathan Glancey,Guardian, 10 April 2003

(36) BBC Radio 4, PM, 19 March 2004

(37) Keepers of Bush image lift stagecraft to new heights, Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, 16 May 2003

(38) BBC Radio 4, PM, 3 May; BBC1, 10pm News, 2 May 2003

(39) Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Constable and Robinson, 2003, p34

(40) ‘The Age of Irony Comes to an End’, Time, 24 September 2001

(41) Quoted in ‘From the “Death of the Real” to the Reality of Death: How Did the Gulf War Take Place?’, Sheila Brown, Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media, Vol.1, No.1, 2003, p60

(42) Full Text of Tony Blair’s Speech,Guardian, 5 March 2004

(43) Epidemic of fear by Frank Furedi; Hollywood on terror, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 October 2001. For details of the ICT see Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, James Der Derian, Westview Press, 2001

(44) BBC News 24, 9 April 2003

(45) ‘Anger and tears as families remember the victims of Iraq war’, Independent, 11 October 2003

(46) Correspondent, BBC2, 18 May 2003

(47) ‘Berlusconi hails “great” Islam’ BBC Online, 2 October 2001

(48) ‘The Future of Army Professionalism: A Need for Renewal and Redefinition’,Parameters, Autumn 2000

(49) ‘What Ails the All-Volunteer Force: An Institutional Perspective’, Parameters, Summer 2001

(50) ‘Gulf War meets Culture War’, by Brendan O’Neill

(51) ‘The United States and the ethics of post-modern war’, Christopher Coker, in Ethics and Foreign Policy, Karen E. Smith and Margot Light (eds), Cambridge University Press, 2001, p163

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