The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Revisited

Burning oil wells. Kuwait, March 1991.

Jean Baudillard thought that Operation Desert Storm should not be considered a war. Rather, despite containing the material features of one, it was at once real, and a simulation. Baudillard’s logic is that the term “war” was used to legitimise a performance, and it is critical to apply his logic to the War on Terror. 

Critics of Baudrillard’s 1991 book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, often note the provocative title. Obviously a war took place, and the title is not meant to be taken literally. Baudillard is subverting the logic of Desert Storm through black humour and parody, with particular consideration to the argument that a “smart war” was being waged through technologically precise bombings and missile attacks. He saw a complete break in the reality of the conflict as it was actually taking place, and the narrative power of its media presence.

His analysis remains timely. George Gerbner writes in Persian Gulf War, The Movie that Operation Desert Storm was “the first major global media crisis orchestration that made instant history,” owing to how “the power to create a crisis merged with the power to direct the movie about it.” The actual campaign was an irrelevant appendage to the campaign as spectacle, that is, how newscasts and the historical record discussed what was going on.

Popular opinion on Desert Storm was shrouded in illusion, not only as it was going on through the manipulation of unprecedented live broadcasts, but also after the conflict through instantly setting the tone of the historical record. For instance, cable news documentaries were released almost immediately that touted the heroism of American military might.

Utilising techniques that were perfected in Grenada, Panama, and the Falkland Islands, war was being treated on purely symbolic terms. The purpose was to rehabilitate the image of the United States military machine, particularly domestically. It allowed for what Baudillard calls “the perfect semblance of victory,” that is, one that would heal Americans of what the first President Bush called “the Vietnam syndrome.”

Baudillard understood this as an expression of international capitalism. Marx wrote that as capitalism evolves, “all that is solid melts into air,” and Baudillard saw this reflected in Desert Storm, as though it were an allegory for capitalism’s destructiveness. The French philosopher made clear that war had become abstract, electronic, and informational, in a manner that paralleled the nature of finance capital.

Desert Storm was about how people were entertained by the war, not the fact that it had illogical strategic objectives, or that many Allied soldiers never actually saw the Iraqis that they were supposedly fighting. Rather than being an adversarial encounter between two parties, Desert Storm was only said to be a war because the term “war” offered legitimacy to a spectacle of combat. That spectacle ended up setting the tone for American regional dominance.

It also disciplined Saddam Hussein in a manner that could allow for the “domestication of refractory forces” in coming decades, both in the threat of interstate violence, and convenient narratives that discouraged alternatives to the emerging US-led neoliberal order. Saddam was offered to global audiences as something vulgar, to be destroyed by military action. It was a portrayal that relied on Orientalist imagery of an irrational megalomaniac that defied Western civilisation.

The result was not only that the Global South would be more hesitant to oppose the economic system that “Western civilisation” implies. It also ensured that Westerners would express similar hesitation.  Here we can begin to discuss the War on Terror. It is Baudillardian in its conflation of spectacle (“war” and “terror”) with reality, in an attempt to frame various military actions (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen) as legitimate. Critical is the image of “terrorism,” which is able to function as an embodiment for the anxieties of a Western liberal-democratic audience.

If Saddam “vulgarised everything,” then the representation of the terrorist has vulgarised everything that was left. As Baudillard wrote, “the Americans can only imagine and combat an enemy in their own image,” with the actual behaviour of groups like al-Qaida, the Taliban, and Islamic State being insignificant to their symbolic quality.

The violence of the War on Terror rests on the presumption that these groups are timeless horrors, beyond the scope of rationality, and with it, the ability to be considered human. This is exactly why it is so easy to argue that they don’t deserve legal and ethical protections. The reality of war can occasionally line up with these portrayals, given these groups’ brutal tactics and stated positions, but it is irrelevant. Militants are subjected to violence as a result of their being a chaotic projection of what societies want to repress, namely, the uncertainties of a globalised era.

That opens the question of what purpose the War on Terror is actually meant to serve. This is especially important given that, as Baudillard argued, in an inversion of Clausewitz, war has become “an absence of politics pursued by other means.” How does the spectacle of fighting terrorism factor into the uncertainties of global governance?

Photograph courtesy of airborneshodan. Published under a Creative Commons License.