PYROTECHNICS

 

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, 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’.

In 1991, then, Baudrillard was still writing from a perspective of reality. The first Gulf War was the first fully televisual war, propagating a sanitised pyrotechnic imagery of tracers and ‘smart’ bombs. It was presented as a new kind of war, an efficient, scientific war of precise, clinical strikes without collateral damage. The feel of a video 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 prioritised 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 their 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 a handwritten caption: “If I don’t photograph this, people like my mother will think that war is what they see in movies.”

iraqi soldier

And that’s Baudrillard’s point: that the West’s loss or suppression or fragmentation of the reality-principle in its citizens enables it to perpetrate its atrocities without public opposition. Once reality is dead for its own citizens, horrific surpluses of reality can be imposed on people of other regions. That in turn creates an opportunity for a terroristic counter-balancing of reality against its own citizens.

And yet reality in terrorist events – as we saw in Italy, Germany and Belgium – is precisely the issue. What Baudrillard chose not to articulate in The Spirit of Terrorism (2002) is that the same system that turns out political simulacra can encompass terrorists and terrorism too.

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NEXT: 5 ENTER THE PSEUDO-GANG

Dissimulation has been at the heart of the terrorist tactic from the beginning. If you terrorise people, you will only solidify the political resistance against your aims — making it impossible for elected officials to entertain your demands. Terrorism, therefore, is not an effective tool, and terrorists rarely realise their aims. It is only effective when deception is used to misattribute the event, passing it off as the actions of a designated enemy whom you wish to discredit or attack.

 

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