by Jarryd Bartle
Tuesday, 1
March 2022
Idea
07:00

The war in Ukraine: is it really taking place?

Jean Baudrillard's analysis of the 'virtual' Gulf War is more relevant than ever
by Jarryd Bartle
Jean Baudrillard in France, 1990. Credit: Getty

In the early 1990s, social theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote a series of articles responding to military action in Iraq, controversially entitled “The Gulf War will not take place”, “The Gulf War: is it really taking place?” and “The Gulf War did not take place”.

Baudrillard’s thesis was that the growth of instantaneous media reports of The Gulf War, rolling news coverage from organisations such as CNN, as well as the use of simulations and models for understanding military tactics had made Western experiences of the war purely virtual.

In previous wars, worried mothers and wives were never confident about their understanding of events overseas. Instead, they had to rely on snippets understood as partial and incomplete. However, the growth of mass media has led to a purely fictionalised theatre of war:

“[R]eal time” information loses itself in a completely unreal space, finally furnishing the images of pure, useless, instantaneous television where its primordial function irrupts, namely that of filling a vacuum, blocking up the screen hole through which escapes the substance of events.
- Jean Baudrillard

At the time, Baudrillard’s words were widely panned as a postmodern quackery, the kind of insensitive intellectualising that lacks seriousness in a time of high stakes military conflict. But his words resonate as we see the spectacle of the Ukrainian invasion flood our newsfeeds with Western consumers of war porn piecing together their own purely virtual perspective on events.

Take former chief strategist of the Bush-Cheney 2004 political campaign, Matthew Dowd, who bizarrely called Putin “Emperor Palpatine” and analogised the Ukrainian people and America as Rey Skywalker, Jyn Erso, and the Rebel alliance.

Or wrestler-turned-actor John Cena, who invoked his DC comics alter-ego, writing in a tweet “If I could somehow summon the powers of a real life #Peacemaker I think this would be a great time to do so”.

Peak absurdity came in the form of actress Anna Lynne McCord, with a self-indulgent beat poem about baby Putin where she imagines herself as a caring mother melting the heart of a dictator.

However, these are just the most obviously narcissistic takes virtualising the invasion. The old “West vs East” dichotomy which carves up the world in its image, is quickly coalescing in the minds of consumers of the spectacle — with eyes darting from Russia to China in a narrative which sees World War Three as predestined.

As political commentators decry the rise of misinformation, the harmful consequences of information overload and virtualisation tend to be lost. The sheer groundswell of images, data points and opinions brought about by social media have forced us as consumers of the spectacle to rely on short-hand narratives to give meaning to incomprehensibly complex and horrific real-time developments. As Baudrillard wrote on Gulf War coverage:

Information is like an unintelligent missile which never finds its target (nor, unfortunately, its anti-missile!), and therefore crashes anywhere or gets lost in space on an unpredictable orbit in which it eternally revolves as junk.
- Jean Baudrillard

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A Spetzari
A Spetzari
5 months ago

Never underestimate a French philosopher’s ability to disappear up their own fundament in a cloud of whimsical irrelevant gibberish.
Thanks, we needed a good laugh.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
5 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Sadly, he just ain’t funny anymore.
Edit:
My posts on the article “Ukraine is winning the online war” are being held “subject to approval”. This strikes me as somewhat ironic, given the subject matter. Recently, a couple of posters have complained about Unherd moderators removing posts without explanation.
Have other people experienced these problems?I’ll be blowed if I am expected to pay a subscription to be treated in this way.
PS: I was neither rude nor abusive!
Edit again: My posts are being removed, as are my posts pointing out that my posts are being removed. What are these clowns playing at?
Does anyone have an email address for the editor of Unherd, because I would like to request a refund of my subscription fee?
Reply to: [email protected]
Yes, I am getting annoyed!

Last edited 5 months ago by Terry Needham
Claire D
Claire D
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Me too.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I managed to excel myself recently by accumulating over a 100 downticks on a comment. At 50 it went into moderation and the entire thread disappeared for 1/2 day. At 100 the same thing happened. On both occasions my feed showed it being in moderation.

Yesterday I made fairly innocuous comments on two articles. Both have disappeared, seemingly for good, without any notification of moderation or reason.

Hopefully just an IT glitch but sort it out Unherd.

Claire D
Claire D
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Congratulations on 100 downticks, that’s tremendous. I must have missed it. I wonder what I would have done. I dare’nt ask you to repeat it, it’d probably disappear all over again.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
5 months ago
Reply to  Claire D

It was on the Were Masks a Waste of Time article by Geoff Shillenberger.

I ventured to suggest that making mask wearing a symbol of some bizarre freedom struggle was a bit OTT.

Never get involved in a Covid thread!

Last edited 5 months ago by Martin Bollis
Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I was one of those down ticks – but in the context of moderators taking down posts, I am completely on your side. The whole point of this website is supposed to be an open forum for us to state opinions which are unpopular.
No one, not even those supporting face diapers, should be censored!
Frankly, if this continues, I will be cancelling my subscription to this magazine.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

As a matter of fact I was one of your downtickers, because I disagreed with you. But your comment wasn’t offensive, and it’s absurd that it went into moderation.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

100 downticks still shouldn’t be removed. I want to see what you said!!’

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
5 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

It is still there, just kept going in and out of moderation.

I posted this reply yesterday but it never came out of moderation. Hope this does

Bruce Haycock
Bruce Haycock
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Perhaps Unherd simply buys in third party moderator software, preloaded with the vendors’ own political colorings of what is naughty

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Ha! I just posted to agree with you and it is ‘awaiting moderation’! Ironic.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Hang on a minute

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I am very sorry to hear this, Terry, since you are a valuable contributer to unherd. Only abusive comments should be removed.

This is not the times, after all!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Yeah I had a whinge at them yesterday for all comments, even entirely innocuous comments, being subject to approval.
I only get Unherd to see the comments to interesting articles and respond – if they take that away then I’m off.

Harry Child
Harry Child
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

So am I . In the real world people are being killed and cities destroyed by Russian thugs.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

This place presumably has a hidden karma system. That’s generally the number of all upticks subtracting the number of all downticks. Same as Reddit but not so visible. When negative, automatic moderation happens. I’ve been moderated after an unpopular comment.

Last edited 5 months ago by Franz Von Peppercorn
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
5 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Frog philo actually underwent an analytical turn during the 1990’s. I spent several months at a philosophical research institute in Paris in 2009/10, and it was all logic and proofs, and no Baudrillardesque silliness whatsoever.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago

I think this is an interesting perspective. The virtualisation of this war gives people a false sense of control over it. That, in turn, seems to make them more likely to accept outcomes that should in reality make us shiver: I just finished reading a comment from someone who said word to the effect that we shouldn’t be afraid of WWIII – “humans will survive WWWIII, but our humanity will not survive staying out of Ukraine.”
The video game-ification and news-ification of war may contribute to this kind of madness.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
5 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

People scared of masks and terrified of climate change are often gung ho for something that will definitely kill them, end civilisation and destroy the earth.

We probably stopped teaching about the dangers of nuclear war too soon. People should be very scared of any escalation.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
5 months ago

Baudrillard carefully following Rule 1 – if you have nothing intelligent to say, say it on the internet.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
5 months ago

and use long words….

Fred Sculthorp
Fred Sculthorp
5 months ago

I don’t know. Watching this unfold, Baudrillard’s comments seem too tied up by era in which he was writing. The unreality of the Gulf War was about the medium it was being consumed through, but also about how American foreign policy had essentially become a cynical PR exercise for the logic of the market.
Regardless of the medium through its being experienced, and the infantilised perspectives of a western elite, the motives behind this just seem too irritational to keep up with what Fukayama, Baudrillard and other ‘famous’ intellectuals saw in the 80s and 90s – all of whom were essentially guided by the belief that market sensibilities will always prevail.
This is about revenge and an old idea of history. It’s too irrational and ugly.

Last edited 5 months ago by Fred Sculthorp
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago

Jeez this has all been covered before endlessly in other contexts, the most popular being the Matrix movies.
Lets not waste our time on this cod philosophy.

Philip Kettle
Philip Kettle
5 months ago

I can’t pretend to understand the quote exactly – too many long words! – but I agree that coverage seems to have brought this down to a video game reality. My main concern though is that the rolling 24/7 coverage of the invasion means that all other important news items are squeezed out. It’s a bit like COVID or Brexit, which were all we talked about for up to 5 years. Poor journalism.

Drew Flint
Drew Flint
1 month ago
Reply to  Philip Kettle

The phrase ‘the medium is the message’ sums it all up. If anything the Ukraine situation is a collaborative proxy war game for economic and political gain. Unfortunately as Baudrillard said, just because something is simulated doesn’t mean people can’t get hurt.

Harry Child
Harry Child
5 months ago

I beginning to think that this rag should really be called “unhinged* for some of the articles appearing on a daily basis

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago

I think the photo of the ‘sage’ in his agreeable study with some verbose paradox rotating around his domed forehead after coffee sums it up.