Ten years after Simulacra and Simulation, as the USA assembled a coalition to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and geared up for Operation DESERT STORM, Jean Baudrillard published the first of a series of three essays: ‘The Gulf War Will Not Take Place’ (January 1991); followed by ‘The Gulf War is Not Taking Place’ (February 1991); and ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’ (March 1991). In these essays he argued that the stylised, selective representation of events in the media bore little relation to reality, and that the ‘war’ featured in the televisual and photographic imagery was in that sense fictional. In reality, there had been no war, but ‘an atrocity masquerading as a war’.
So in 1991 Baudrillard was still writing from a perspective of reality, despite his ‘death of reality’ announcement ten years earlier. The first Gulf War was the first fully televisual war, propagating a sanitised, pyrotechnic imagery of tracers and ‘smart’ bombs. Operators at their computer screens felt no difference from game reality, and nor, one supposes, did the public watching their TVs. It was presented as a new kind of war, an efficient, scientific application of precise, clinical strikes without collateral damage. The feel of a computer game was heightened by the use of point-of-view video relayed by cameras in the bombers and even the bombs. After Vietnam, the Pentagon prioritized imagery-control in the theatre of operations. ‘Embedded’ reporters, supervised within military units, were prevented from witnessing the only significant ground assault, the bulldozer attack on a network of Iraqi trenches near the Saudi border, which used anti-mine ploughs mounted on tanks and combat earth-movers to bury the Iraqi soldiers alive in the trenches. No infantry were used in this attack, with all US combatants encased in armoured vehicles.
Imagery-control broke down hours before the cease-fire, after an Iraqi convoy of 1,400 vehicles withdrawing from Kuwait was completely and wantonly destroyed by aerial bombing and strafing north of Al Jahra. Scenes of the most gruesome carnage and devastation were stumbled upon by journalists traveling (with military liaison) towards Kuwait in anticipation of the cessation of hostilities. The most famous image was of an Iraqi soldier incinerated in the act of trying to escape from his vehicle. The photograph, by Ken Jarecke, was censored in the US but published in the UK Observer newspaper, and caused controversy due to its graphic horror. In response, Jarecke published a copy on his blog with this handwritten caption:
“If I don’t photograph this, people like my mother will think that war is what they see in movies.”
And that’s Baudrillard’s point: that the death of the reality-principle in its citizens enables an empire to perpetrate its atrocities without public opposition. Once reality is dead for its own citizens, atrocities can be freely perpetrated in other regions. That in turn creates an opportunity for a terroristic counter-balancing of ‘reality’ against its own citizens at home.
And yet reality in terrorist events – as was seen in Italy, Germany and Belgium – is precisely the issue. What Baudrillard chose not to ask is whether the same system that saturates the collective mind with simulacra to degrade the reality-principle can encompass terrorists and terrorism too; creating enemy simulacra in the form not just of suddenly monstrous dictators whose countries must in all conscience be invaded, but of terrorist masterminds and their commandos, their ubiquitous sleeper cells ready to impose a terrifying surplus of reality on the dreaming herd.