Jean Baudrillard's analysis of the 'virtual' Gulf War is more relevant than ever
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.
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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:
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: