Has the Gulf War taken place yet?
Shortly after the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999,
Michael Ignatieff published a book called 'Virtual War'1.
In it he argued that Kosovo was a new type of conflict, marked most particularly
by the ability of Western nations to wage what he called 'war with
impunity'. This impunity had two defining characteristics. Firstly,
'the citizens of the NATO countries ... were mobilized not as combatants,
but as spectators. The war was a spectacle ... The events in question
were as remote from their essential concerns as a football game'
(p.3). Secondly, the sheer wealth of the West means that, even with relatively
small defence budgets, we can afford to fight wars and not suffer noticeable
changes to our standard of living. Both these conditions, Ignatieff argued,
were new, and fundamentally altered the nature of global power relations.
'If Western nations can employ violence with impunity, will they
not be tempted to use it more often? The answers ... are not obvious.
For the future depends not on us but on our enemies. They, like us, are
drawing their own conclusions from the way we seek to avoid the mortal
hazard of war' (p.5). Contained in Ignatieff's words is a warning:
as we continue to enjoy such absolute asymmetry of power, we find ourselves
inexorably drawn into other asymmetries: the only options available to
the 'enemies' of such nonchalant belligerence are terrorism
and guerilla warfare.
So it is that only three years after the book's publication, its
prophesies having come to pass, we must yet again find new theorisations
of the global order, even whilst that order is still mutating. It has
been suggested that we should put our deliberations to one side until
the sandstorm abates and the vista becomes clear again; however, is it
not possible that this new state of flux is (for some time to come, at
least) the new world order? 'Stability' is supplanted by contingency,
impunity by uncertainty, war without end, Amen.
If we return to Ignatieff and consider the way in which he describes the
nascent phenomenon of 'virtual war' at the end of the twentieth
century, we might find some ways of drawing out historical threads that
can reconnect us with the world before September 11th 2001, when Ground
Zero initiated an American Year Zero every bit as all-consuming as that
of the Khmer Rouge or the Jacobins. We might trace some background to
current crises in conceptions of 'democracy' and 'society',
in addition to offering some correctives to what may be an occasionally
deterministic or premature account on Ignatieff's part. This is a
complex investigation, however, since we're dealing with two sets
of schismatic events; first the 'virtualisation' of war, as
Ignatieff sees it, with all the changes concomitant to that, and subsequently
the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and the commencement
of the War on Terror. We therefore have to address two mutually interdependent
determinisms, both of which are claiming, to a greater or lesser extent,
to have witnessed the end of the world as we previously knew it.
Most of Ignatieff's book is composed of articles and essays republished
from other sources; only the concluding chapter (also called 'Virtual
War') was written specifically for the book. It's this chapter
and its contentions that I want to consider in detail here, and to follow
up. Before I begin that consideration, however, I want to examine some
of the different potential meanings of the term 'virtual'; Ignatieff
uses it pointedly, in a specific context, but it has a variety of resonances
that we should not overlook. These days, the word is most often used to
refer to concepts and technologies connected with cyberspace and 'Virtual
Reality' (a technology which, significantly, is almost always considered
in terms of video games). Underlying all three of the meanings or connotations
described below is a sense of some schism between the 'real'
and the 'simulated'2. War, it is routinely and blithely
asserted in the media and by philosophers, political theorists and strategists,
is now little more than a computer game3; Ignatieff comments,
'The bombing of Baghdad was the first war as light show and the aerial
bombardment of Iraqi forces was the first battle turned into a video-arcade
game' (p.168). Bear in mind two things, as you read on. Firstly,
the phrase 'shock and awe' was briefly registered as a trademark
by Sony, before they decided that this was in 'bad taste' (does
this mean that the war in Iraq will not be coming to a Playstation
near you soon? Of course it will, they just decided to do it with better
taste). Secondly, the ubiquitous web video provider, Real.com, made this
the first pay-per-view war. It 'offered' users of American media
websites such as CNN.com and ABC.com the 'opportunity' to pay
a subscription to view their live video streams from Baghdad.
Most immediately, then, 'virtual' refers to the way in which
not only the everyday citizenry, in the West, are now removed from the
fighting (mobilised, in the overwhelming majority, as spectators, rather
than as conscripts or munitions workers), but so also are the military
leadership themselves. According to the rhetoric of 'precision bombing'
and 'smart warfare', war is fought remotely, with computer-
and satellite-guided armaments.
The second level of virtuality concerns the increasing mediatisation /
mediation of the war, the manner in which it has been delivered to 'us'
spectators - as in a recent history of war reporting, from Vietnam
to Qatar, Basra and Baghdad. Following the significant impact that images
of the fighting in Vietnam had on public opinion in the US (and remember
here the UK and US governments' contrived dismay at Al Jazeera's
broadcasting of images of civilian casualties4), Western governments
knew that, as communications technologies developed, much tighter control
of the media would be required during wartime. The Falklands war took
place only twenty years ago, and yet at the time footage still took two
weeks to make its way back to TV studios in London. Reporters in the Falklands,
'embedded' as they were with the military, were generally much
more compliant than their colleagues had been in Vietnam, taking a clearly
'patriotic' line rather than raising issues about the worth,
or conduct, of the conflict (hardly surprising when even Michael Foot,
then Labour leader, was falling over himself to express his support for
the war). For the military, the Falklands was a media success, questions
concerning the sinking of the Belgrano only emerging some time after the
It was not until a decade later, however, that the so-called new technologies
started to change fundamentally the manner in which war was covered; nor
was it necessarily in the way that is so often described. War reporters
in Kuwait were the first to be able to take advantage of new satellite
transmitters portable enough to be used in the field, meaning that live
pictures of a war could, in theory, be beamed around the world; in addition,
CNN was the first broadcaster to be able to offer twenty-four hour coverage
of a war5. However, military concerns about what live TV coverage
might potentially mean for the execution of a war strategy led to tight
controls, such as the pooling of sanctioned video footage. Thus the news
networks had all the technology required to cover the war as it happened,
but were able to say almost nothing about it. What we were offered instead
was the war as a pyrotechnic display, at a safe distance, even when, paradoxically,
the images might be coming from the nose of an airborne Cruise missile.
Successive technological developments in the ten years since the Gulf
have accentuated this dichotomy between filling the schedules of rolling
news channels and extended bulletins and actually finding something to
report. Sony made an earlier appearance in the virtualising of war when
it transpired that their walkman-sized DV editing decks were a great favourite
with the Kosovan Liberation Army. The KLA became extremely adept at turning
out propaganda and handing it, broadcast-ready, to journalists desperate
for a story. It seems that US and British forces have taken this tactic
into the mainstream with some relish in recent weeks; and now, of course,
the journalists are conveniently placed within the army, ready to receive
the story 'as it happens' (or perhaps, as it is 'helped
Finally, there is a sense in which the war in Iraq is virtualised simply
because the political systems which justify (demand) it are themselves
no more than the simulation of politics. In a supposedly 'post-industrial',
'post-ideological' age, we are denounced as naïve if we
even lament this turn. Thus Baudrillard famously described the Gulf War
as 'the absence of politics pursued by other means'. Public
political life no longer exists in the neo-liberal even-newer world order,
where pragmatism rather than principle dictate policy. A simulated politics
gives rise to a rolling war with no clear justification or endpoint (currently
the choice is between régime change and the destruction of weapons
of mass destruction, and there's no clear indication yet where the
roadshow will visit next).
Debunking the myth of isolationism (a further aside)
Isolationist exceptionalism - the sense of the United States being
a city on a hill, safe from the fratricide of Europe - runs deep in
the American electorate (pp.178-79).
It's become a cliché to describe the way in which September
11th roused the US from its slumber, forced it to slough off its isolationism,
to re-engage with global politics, and so on. The truth of these statements
is usually seen as self-evident, but should proof be required, America's
former unwillingness to commit even to humanitarian and peacekeeping missions
around the world (or at least to commit its infantry) is cited.
The idea that America pursued anything approaching an isolationist policy
in the decade after the end of the Cold War is blatantly untrue. The 1980s
saw a series of both covert and open interventions in Latin America, and
continued US support for friendly despots elsewhere. Following the implosion
of the communist bloc, the US Army did not abandon its many bases around
the world, nor did the CIA cease to seek to influence the geopolitical
order on the basis of US self-interest. That the US assists the continuing
illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine is but one example of this, although
Israel is one of very few steady themes in what is otherwise a capricious
and opportunistic foreign policy.
The point of all this is simply to reiterate that 'virtuality',
in all the above senses, has not delivered us into a 'post-territorial'
age. And whilst there seems to be an overwhelming urge in the media and
in political circles to describe the way in which everything changed after
September 11th, such that the rupture threw up 'new realities',
this is also misleading; what we find, in fact, after September 11th are
persistent themes made more clear. One is that the physical presence of
US forces in bases around the world is not only more important now than
it was before (indeed the US can only conduct its wars with such impunity
by both maintaining and strengthening these commitments), but that this
global presence never really went away just because of the onward march
of virtuality. Furthermore, even though openly illegal unilateral wars
may have been frowned upon by the Clinton administration, the idea that
before September 11th the US was a sleeping giant, a benevolent superpower
reluctant to interfere in the affairs of others, is quite clearly and
demonstrably a myth.
Precision bombing, virtual armies, propaganda, lies and the new nation
Ignatieff claims that 'precision weapons', armaments that could
be remotely guided and controlled, were first developed in Vietnam, a
war definitely not fought with impunity. He describes the way in which
new conventional weaponry became a necessity due to the nuclear stalemate
of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (MAD):
"The beauty of such weaponry was that, unlike the nuclear arsenal,
they could be used. But only in a certain way. To make the use of these
politically and morally acceptable, it was essential to increase the precision
of their targeting; ... and to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk to
those who fired them ... " (p.164).
He goes on to state that Western advances in computer technologies, often
explicitly led or commissioned by the military, finally sealed the fate
of the Soviet Union. As Moscow clung to an industrial economy of scale,
the US responded by committing itself to the new technologies. Ignatieff
cites Mikhail Gorbachev, who described evidence of Star Wars (Reagan's
short-lived space-based Missile Defence System, recently revived by Bush
Jnr.) as the one development which forced the Soviet Union's capitulation6.
Ignatieff goes on to describe some other attributes of precision warfare,
noting that 'the aim of post-modern warfare' is not 'attrition
and destruction', but 'to strike at the nerve centers - command
posts, computer networks - which direct the war-machine ... Command
and control can be attacked both by direct missile bombardment and also
by information warfare: electronic jamming, release of computer viruses,
disinformation and propaganda' (p.169). This is virtual warfare in nearly
all senses of the word.
'Cyberwar' is just an extension of the old-style propaganda
warfare that Psychological Operations (PsyOps) teams have been churning
out for decades. It's notable, however, now that journalists are
on the battlefield and able to send their stories back instantaneously,
how the propaganda war is much more consciously waged on the Home Front.
Surely this is a central part of the 'post-modern war'? David
Leigh, writing recently in the Guardian, highlighted three types
of 'disinformation'.7 He summarises these as follows.
'Level 1: Unconfirmed false reports presented as fact to make exciting
news stories ... Level 2: Disputed events presented as fact for propaganda
purposes ... Level 3: Military disinformation.' There are many
ways in which news agencies and embedded journalists conspire, whether
consciously or not, to assist in the propagation of these various levels
of lying. Into what category, for example, would we place the infamous
ITN pictures of Bosnian prisoners at Trnoplje? In that case, ITN camera
crews, journalists and editors conspired to give the false impression
that prisoners at Trnoplje were kept behind barbed wire in a 'concentration
camp' (the barbed wire behind which prisoners were seen actually
comprised the animal pen into which ITN had placed their camera)8.
Much more recently, the toppling of the statue of Saddam in Fardus Square
(conveniently just outside the Palestine Hotel where the international
press were staying) has been shown to have been a stunt organised by the
US military and its 'official' Iraqi opposition, flown in by
the Pentagon a few days previously. No more than around 75 non-US personnel
were present at the event, and the square itself was sealed off by US
Marines while the stunt went ahead9. An equally important level
of disinformation, which requires a great deal of complicity between reporters
and the military, is that of simple omission. In recent arguments about
the ethics of embedding, journalists have striven to assert that their
integrity, their ability to smell a rat, to maintain their cynicism, remains
intact. What the military realised early on, however, was that, so long
as the agenda was set by them, it didn't really matter how
it was reported. Could this be why 'non-embedded' journalists
in Baghdad were labelled as the mouthpieces of the Iraqi régime
by David Blunkett? (The vague accusations made by Blunkett were almost
certainly directed most categorically at the Independent's
The arguments surrounding precision bombing themselves come into the frame
of the propaganda war:
"While precision guidance weaponry is supposed to reverse the twentieth-century
trend towards ever greater civilian casualties, warfare directed at a
society's nervous system, rather than against its fielded forces,
necessarily blurs the distinction between civilian and military objectives.
The most important targets have a dual use. Television stations transmit
military signals as well as information. Power stations run military computers
as well as water pumping stations and hospitals. There is no guarantee
that war directed at the nervous system of a society will be any less
savage than war directed only at its troops (p.170)."
After the negative publicity generated by the bombing of the TV station
in Belgrade10 during the Kosovo campaign, the British government
in particular was anxious to be seen to prosecute this war in as 'sterile'
a manner as possible: this was the war in which the lights would be left
on, demonstrating that in the four years since Kosovo precision warfare
had once again advanced immeasurably. At the time of writing, the power
and water are still off in Baghdad after several days (this no doubt due
to the dastardly machinations of the otherwise invisible Ba'ath régime).
This often repeated intention of the government, to strike at the régime
and somehow leave the Iraqi people unmolested, alerts us to another 'new
reality' that Ignatieff does not address. Whilst the government and
media (and large, particularly hypocritical parts of the anti-war movement)
assert that 'we' are fighting this war, collectively, as a nation,
'we' are not fighting 'them' (the Iraqi people, collectively,
as a nation). So what entity, exactly, are we at war with? What is nationhood
if it is not nation states who fight wars? Is it too now virtualised,
in some way? The people of Iraq, we are told, are glad that the United
Kingdom and United States - us - have liberated them, because 'we'
have taken on their régime. Then again, the people of the United
Kingdom clearly did not approve of this conflict before it started. This
is, we learn, a new, oxymoronic phenomenon: an imperial war of national
liberation. This should alert us to some profound difficulties in
our understanding of what exactly the nation state is in this virtualised,
post-September 11th world. It seems infinitely mutable; on the one hand,
the 'democratic' nations who wage this war presume that the
executive is entirely inseparable from the people who confer its legitimacy;
on the other, the despotic 'rogue states' against whom this
war is waged have an exclusively parasitic relationship to their subjects.
Unfortunately there are plenty of good despots whose relationship with
their people is as yet undetermined. In all cases the same dictum seems
to apply: the Leader is the People.
Having won the Cold War by virtue of its high-tech, post-industrial economy,
the West is now caught in a peculiar paradox of the 'virtual war'. Even
though they allow servicemen's and women's lives to be saved
and wars to be fought 'with impunity', the military resists
the wholesale adoption of the new technologies and the new warfare, simply
because it, like the old Soviet Union, depends on economies of sheer scale.
A large army is 'reassuring' precisely because it mobilises,
by implication, the threat of attack. As long as this cycle continues,
the army can be confident that its future is guaranteed. A scaled-down,
technological army, even if it possesses all the firepower and might of
its predecessor, appears to be an acknowledgement that the 'threat'
has diminished, and thus one of two things must happen: either people
start to feel less secure, or, conversely, they understand that their
security is no longer dependent on a large national army, and the armed
forces' insulation from the vagaries of the information economy disappears.
Ignatieff takes up this theme: 'If you have Cruise missiles, why
do you need all those airplanes? If you have precision guided weapons
launched from submarines, why do you need all those aircraft carriers
and destroyers?' (p.172)11.
Kosovo, then, was not really the 'virtual war' that it might
have been, because the military did not want to adopt all the new technologies
that the administration wanted to deploy. And in many ways, the war in
Iraq has been both 'more new' (politicians now realise that
they must at least make the appearance of wanting to kill fewer civilians,
however credible that may be) and 'less new' (ground forces
with heavy artillery were deployed, and tanks laid roads behind them in
order to establish supply lines). Ignatieff highlights a previous conflict
between generals in the army and defence chiefs in the Pentagon:
" ... the central claim of the new technological gospel was that
computers, battlefield sensors and spy satellites could dispel the 'fog'
of war - the chaotic uncertainty in which battles unfold; and eliminate
the 'friction' - adverse terrain, climate, equipment failure,
troop morale and other incalculable factors - standing in the way of
military victory. Generals like Norman Schwarzkopf were skeptical: they
had bitter combat experience of both fog and friction in Vietnam. They
also knew that the 'systems analysts' of the Pentagon had promised
then that new technologies married to new tactics ... would dispel the
fog and grease the friction of warfare. And they hadn't.
"Vietnam veterans like Schwarzkopf were also angered by the argument ...
that putting troops on the ground was no longer necessary ... Sooner
or later, they argued, the army would need to put its soldiers on the
ground to fight their way in and take and hold ground (p.173)."
The very recent and open disagreements between General Tommy Franks and
Donald Rumsfeld about the size of force that would be needed in Iraq are
only the most recent example of a conflict that has been continuing for
at least the last fifteen years.
Kosovo, Ignatieff maintains, occurred 'in mid revolution'. 'America ...
has not yet reorganized its troops around the strategic doctrine which
the revolution in military affairs makes possible: air-lifted maneuver-based
warfare by lightly armed squads, working in and around enemy lines, to
call in high precision fires from naval and space based assets12.
To some extent, America and its NATO allies fought a virtual war because
they were neither ready nor willing to fight a real one' (pp.175-6).
This throws up some confusion. After September 11th, should we conclude
that the 'revolution' has been completed, since the tactical
pattern Ignatieff describes sounds very much like that deployed in Iraq
(at least those parts we know about); or is there a certain amount of
'fog' surrounding this too? Was this war more 'real',
in that it (eventually) was waged in the most part by large infantry and
Marine battalions, or more 'virtual', in that it deployed tactical
airstrikes and 'precision bombing'?
Virtual democracy, virtual humanitarianism, 'virtual consent'
and other hollow noises
Writing only three years ago, Ignatieff was able to claim that '[l]eaders ...
address their electorates and afterwards pollsters consult samples of
citizens to see just how far they support what the leader has in mind ...
When leaders call for more risk than an electorate will support, the polls
pull them back into line' (p.177). Not this time. The government
of the United Kingdom very nearly unseated itself, such was its determination
to go to war in the face of public disapproval of such an action (including
the largest demonstration ever held in the United Kingdom).
In a section entitled 'Virtual consent' Ignatieff writes that
'[t]he power to give or withhold consent to war is an essential element
of the freedom of citizens' (p.176), but goes on to note that in
the years since the Korean War, no formal declaration of war has been
made by either Congress of the Houses of Parliament.
"This bypassing of the constitution is assisted by linguistic subterfuge.
Since constitutions state that war requires a declaration to be legitimate,
the word 'war' never passes a leader's lips ... The word
'humanitarian' figures prominently (p.177)."
In the recent simulation of political dissent that immediately preceded
this war, both on the streets and in the House of Commons, what actually
happened? Tony Blair was able to override the wishes of the British people
on this issue, not in spite of, but because we live in a 'democracy'.
The question we should be asking is not 'how could this happen in
a democracy' but 'what does democracy mean'. Members of
Parliament were able to enter the House and vote on a government motion,
and on various amendments, not on the basis of what their constituents
might have wanted (those whom they are elected to represent), but solely
on the basis of their consciences (and career ambitions). Thus 'consent',
such as it was, was given to an illegal conflict, and this was not anti-democratic
but part of our democratic system. There is surely yet another
irony in the fact that our own democratic system allowed the clearly-heralded
wishes of its citizens to be over-run in the name of providing 'democracy'
to someone else. 'Our vision for the future of Iraq is of a country
free of repression able to live peacefully alongside its neighbours and
develop in a way its own people choose. I believe it is a progressive
vision.' So wrote Tony Blair in a letter emailed to all Labour Party
members after the vote in the Commons.
"But if war in the future is sold to voters with the promise of impunity
they may be tempted to throw caution to the winds. If military action
is cost-free, what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to
force? ... Democracies may well remain peace loving only so long as
the risks of war remain real to their citizens. If war becomes virtual ...
democratic electorates may be more willing to fight especially if the
cause is justified in the language of human rights and even democracy
What has become apparent from the rhetoric that preceded and has accompanied
the war, is that we are entering a new era where 'democracy'
needs constant protection from a vaguely mobilised terrorist threat. That
this is a circular argument should hardly need reiterating by now. Nor
should it need to be said that 'humanitarian warfare' has delivered
us - and this time quite without irony - to a state where peace
is literally war. It's just so easy that way.
Ignatieff describes how the Anti-War campaign in the States helped to
bring the Vietnam War to an end. One lesson of the virtual war is that,
once it has started, it cannot be stopped by 'public disapproval'.
This war, which needed no public approval to begin, could theoretically
have been prevented by a sustained anti-war campaign, had that very clear
mandate been reflected in the House of Commons. If parliament had voted
against British involvement in the war, it is doubtful that American troops
could have fought the war alone, from both the north and south of Iraq.
However, once hostilities began, it was clear that the pretense of seeking
approval was over.
Some of Ignatieff's own conclusions can be held up and re-examined
in the light of subsequent developments. Whilst they remain useful, there
are a few points that are striking now for their premature obsolescence.
'Virtual war,' he writes, 'proceeds to virtual victory'
(p.208). This is clear enough. When we consider the conflict in Afghanistan,
can we say for sure when it ended, or even whether it has ended? The Gulf
War never really ended, since US and UK planes carried on bombing Iraq
in the subsequent twelve years. And what was the effective outcome of
Kosovo? 'Wars fought in the name of the human rights of other nations'
national minorities are bound to be self-limiting. We fight for victory
and for unconditional surrender only when we are fighting for ourselves'
But this time round, according to one of the excuses at least, we were
fighting for ourselves, to protect against the threat of Saddam's
weapons of mass destruction. Or were we fighting for the human rights
of the Iraqi people? Or to topple a régime that was no longer useful?
At least this much is certain, there appears to be no way this war can
ever really end, since there is no-one to surrender to the occupying army
('George Galloway', suggested one wag in the House of Commons).
And the power vacuum which immediately followed 'liberation'
has not gone away, despite the assertion that US and UK forces are now
policing the streets of Iraqi cities.
For Ignatieff, of course, the concept of régime change as an
overt policy was still a distant and unlikely possibility (even though,
as I have pointed out, the US has been changing régimes covertly
for many decades).
"A rogue state is judged to be better than no state at all. A Serbia
and an Iraq that remain intact, under despotic leadership, are both preferred
to societies dissolving into civil war. And since - a further contradiction - Western
nations believe in self-determination, they are unwilling to occupy these
defeated states and rebuild them from the bottom up in a properly imperial
Yet this is precisely what we find ourselves confronted by now: virtual
victory, for sure, in that it remains as inconclusive as any of the campaigns
that Ignatieff lists; but for different reasons. 'We' have toppled
the régime, and 'we' will set about installing a new
one, but in the interim 'we' do not want to take responsibility
for the anarchy that ensues. And the transition will be long, and complex,
and uncertain, and 'we' may not even get the régime we
wanted in the end ...
Ignatieff's arguments are tainted by a kind of determinism, an 'endism'
(linked to the arguments propagated originally by Francis Fukuyama that
we had reached the 'end' of history with the collapse of the
Soviet bloc), that we should always be careful to avoid. This applies
as much to prescriptions concerning the 'post-9/11 world' as
to Ignatieff's pre-September 11th arguments about virtual war.
We can close by reconsidering one of the themes with which began this
essay, that of terrorism. Conor Gearty, an expert on the way in which
Western nations use the threat of terrorism to curtail civil liberties,
wrote in 1997 on some paradoxes that this threw up13. After
signing the Oslo Peace Accords with the PLO in 1994, the Israeli government
was in a precarious position: it could not simply walk away from the White
House saying that the terrorist threat was no more, since the fear of
it had been so carefully fostered for the preceding 45 years. Nor could
it admit as much. Thus, by agreeing peace, the 'moderate' Israelis
effectively ensured their own downfall. The terrorist threat had to be
re-articulated, but the 'people' refused to credit this re-articulation14.
So the current terrorist threat must be kept alive, not diluted, if the
same fate is not to befall the neo-conservative administration in Washington.
'If Western nations can employ violence with impunity, will they
not be tempted to use it more often? The answers ... are not obvious.
For the future depends not on us but on our enemies. They, like us, are
drawing their own conclusions from the way we seek to avoid the mortal
hazard of war' (p.5). This is one of Ignatieff's prescient insights
that remains unchanged by subsequent events, indeed it is substantially
Speaking recently in Paris, Jean Baudrillard, who got into so much trouble
for stating that the Gulf War 'would not take place', 'was not happening'
and then 'did not take place', described a variation of this interrelationship15.
Re-animating the 'Master:Slave' dialectic of Hegel, Baudrillard suggested
that terrorism was now victorious. The Master, he said, was always that
which 'gave life' to the Slave, 'he who has no right to his own death'.
The suicide bomber, however, reclaims their own death, and thus unseats
or deposes the 'Master'. America, however, still engaged in the work of
mourning September 11th, is unable to control or 'own' its 'death(s)'
and so becomes the slave. As US forces wander around the globe in search
of retribution, they merely act a part which has already been written
for them. But this revenge can never be exacted; if it were, if terrorism
were 'defeated', 'we' should have to stop fighting it. Western governments
gave life to the logic of the terrorist threat, but it surpasses their
control, and cannot be readily extinguished, as Yitzhak Rabin discovered.
Perhaps this argument seems to overdramatise the effect that any informal
or guerilla resistance can have against the only global superpower: there
is really no 'dialectic' to speak of, we could argue, such is the asymmetry.
Furthermore, the threat presented by Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, and whoever
else may come into the frame, is massively overstated, for economic and
political ends. Baudrillard does not mention (as Gearty implies) that
if terrorism didn't exist, governments would have to invent it, so convenient
is the 'threat' in justifying the withdrawal or curtailing of civil liberties.
Whichever way we choose to approach this problematic, it seems 'we' have
got ourselves into a quite intractable predicament by attempting to virtualise
a world that, every so often, insists on asserting its own reality.
With thanks to Dan Fleming, Arshad Sharif, Stuart Watson and Chris Jewesbury.
1. Michael Ignatieff (2000) Virtual War (London: Chatto & Windus)
2. This is intensely problematic; virtuality is nothing new. Enlightenment
ontology and epistemology, by constructing the sovereign subject prior
to the world, also constructs the technological drive for mastery over
the world that is at the heart of Virtual Reality. The world is objectified,
turned into usable data, or 'standing reserve' in Heidegger's
terms. VR, which places us literally at the scopic centre of a fantastic
universe, fulfills the aims of modernity, rather than surpassing them.
See Martin Heidegger (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other
Essays (London: HarperCollins)
3. Bizarrely, one of those who has most recently criticised the media
for turning war into a 'spectator sport' and a 'reality
TV show' is none other than the gamesmaster himself, commander of
British forces Air Marshall Brian Burridge.
4. See also www.informationclearinghouse.info
5. See TBN, 'Video from the Battlefield', http://www.umich.edu/~newzies/main/satellite/satellitevideo.html
6. Star Wars operates as a very efficient 'virtualisation of the
threat'. Since governments rely on cultivating fear (of the threat
of terrorism, or of hostile states, or of economic instability) to justify
war (and thus maintain their power), Star Wars, a virtual weapons system
if ever there was one, itself escalates the conflict, rather than pre-empting
or preventing it. It is thus an offensive, rather than a defensive, weapon,
as Gorbachev surely recognised.
7. David Leigh (2003) 'False witness', The Guardian, April 4th
2003, p. 19
8. See www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000002D0E3.htm
for an account of how LM magazine was shut down for daring to report this
9. For a wide-angle shot of the square during the 'toppling',
go to http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article2838.htm
10. See http://www.srpska-mreza.com/library/facts/bombed-RTS.html
for a contemporary account of the bombing from a Serbian political website.
11. He notes that in the decade after 1989 defence spending in the US
fell from six to three percent of GDP (although after September 11th this
has begun to climb again). In a recent lecture, he comments that even
the reduced spending on defence (latest figures, for 2002, are $336 bn,
or 4% of GDP) represents an enormous amount of money: only such a rich
nation can put so little of its budget into defence and still fight wars
without feeling the economic effects at home.
12. What Donald Rumsfeld, with no discernible trace of irony, called 'lightning
war'. See http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2002/02/01022002104506.asp
13. Conor Gearty (1997) The Future of Terrorism (London: Phoenix). See
also Gearty, ed., (1996) Terrorism (Aldershot: Dartmouth)
14. Interestingly, the foremost theoretical proponent of the terrorist
threat was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, precisely the figure who
stood to gain from the downfall of the Oslo Accords.
15. For a French report on the discussion between Baudrillard and Jacques
Derrida in Paris on the 19th of February, see http://www.humanite.presse.fr/journal/2003/2003-02/2003-02-21/2003-02-21-058.html