Jean Baudrillard’s (in)famous essays on the 1991 Gulf War – in which he predicted that the war would not take place; asked, once it had started, if itwas ‘really’ taking place; and maintained afterwards that it did not take place – convinced many commentators of his irrelevance (Norris, 1992). Equally, however, America’s second Iraq war a little over a decade later prompted many to revise that judgement (Appleton, 2003; Brown, 2003; Kampmark, 2003). This chapter oﬀers a re-reading of Baudrillard’s Gulf War commentaries in light of more recent events – not just the ‘war on terror’ but also the ‘humanitarian military interventions’ of the 1990s – and reassesses their strengths and limitations as political critique. What tended to annoy people about Baudrillard in 1991 was his denial of
the ‘reality’ of a war which at the time struck many as all too real. Other writers also highlighted the way that the sanitised media coverage – featuring much footage of ‘surgical’ strikes taken from the missiles’ perspective but little visual evidence of their deadly impact – made the war feel somehow ‘unreal’, or ‘like a video game’ (Chomsky, 1992; Knightley, 2000). But whereas, for most critics, the point was to contrast the misleading imagery with the reality of war’s eﬀects, Baudrillard’s assertion that the war ‘did not take place’ appeared to lack critical purchase. Where writers have taken up and elaborated Baudrillard’s Gulf War
commentaries, the focus has tended to be on relatively superﬁcial, technical factors, particularly the use of high-tech weapons to kill weaker opponents from a distance while keeping Western troops out of harm’s way; and the production of spectacular media coverage which only seems to show us what is going on (Hassan, 2004: 70-3; Hegarty, 2004: 98-9; Robins and Webster, 1999: 155-6). There is a tendency towards technological determinism in this discussion, whereby developments in military and/or media technology are understood as transforming the nature of warfare (Der Derian, 2003). The best treatments of the issue, however, by James Combs (1993) and Richard Keeble (1997), suggest that we should look at it the other way round: that the striking features of the 1991 war and its media treatment ﬂowed from, and were designed to solve, a political problem.