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  • Ordering the New World: Violence and its Re/Presentation in the Gulf War and Beyond
  • Simon Chesterman (bio)

Overture: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

—Nineteen Eighty-Four

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels.

—Henry IV, Part 2

Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like. We have seen what an ultra-modern process of electrocution is like, a process of paralysis or lobotomy of an experimental enemy away from the field of battle with no possibility of reaction. But this is not a war, any more than 10,000 tons of bombs per day is sufficient to make it a war. Any more than the direct transmission by CNN of real time information is sufficient to authenticate a war.

—Baudrillard (The Gulf War 61)

Less than two weeks before the American and British air attack on Baghdad and Iraqi positions in Kuwait in January 1991, Jean Baudrillard published an article in Libération entitled “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place” in which he wrote that this war would never happen.1

Baudrillard argued that war as a deterrent in the traditional sense had been internalised by the Western powers, producing a form of self-deterrence that left them incapable of realising their own power through the expressive medium of force. The unreal build-up, the asymptotic prelude that would allow a brush with war but no encounter, was symptomatic of hostilities in which it is the virtual that functions to deter the real event. In such a régime, all that is left is the simulacrum2 of war:

We are no longer in a logic of the passage from virtual to actual but in a hyperrealist logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual.


Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.

—Samuel Johnson

With the passage of war into the virtual, the potentiality of the Gulf War was said to exist ultimately as a figment of mass-media simulation, war-games rhetoric, or imaginary scenarios. In no “real” sense could these virtual preparations manifest in war. Like the political leaders, military personnel knew not what to make of their function of death and destruction: “They are pledged to the decoy of war as the others are to the decoy of power” (The Gulf War 28).

Surely, as diverse critics pointed out, Baudrillard was directly contradicted by the facts.3 Surely the massive aerial bombardment of Iraqi military and civil infrastructure, the ensuing air and land assault, the “turkey shoot” (Freedman and Karsh 402–03)4 of the retreating troops on the road to Basra which left in the order of 100,000 Iraqi casualties demonstrated that there had, in fact, been a war. Surely Baudrillard could not have been more wrong.

The surgical strikes against Iraq engendered a running sore which, though contained, continues to be picked at by a Western coalition resentful of Saddam’s failure to “play ball.” The sterilised images of video war in the Gulf were succeeded by the orgiastic fury of Bosnia and its eroticisation of atrocity. And crisis in the Gulf has given rise to a crisis of sorts in postmodern theory.

This paper takes Baudrillard’s discussion of the Gulf War qua non-event as the departure point for a consideration of the presentation and representation of violence in the post-Cold War era. I argue that although the deployment of violence has been transformed, as Baudrillard argues, this (re)formation is meaningless absent a conception of the space violence occupies in the hypothesis of international order. In this way, my interrogation of the face of violence merges into a critique of violence as such—a dynamic whose relationship to order is at once antagonistic...

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