This is Mark Steyn's latest column in NR. I'd like for any of you who don't like NR to look past your natural disdain and give some thought to the point of the article: that the first Gulf War wasn't really a war at all.
The other day, Jean Baudrillard, the leading French postmodern social theorist, died "” if, indeed, death is a concept he deigns to recognize. And yes, I blush to use the words "leading French postmodern social theorist" in National Review. But oddly enough I've warmed up to the old poseur. M. Baudrillard was celebrated for the theory that man today can no longer distinguish reality. He exists instead in a hyper-reality of "simulacra" created by the media.
This line turned out to be a goldmine for him, and he made some serious money out of it. Real money, that is. Baudrillard published a book called The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, which argued just that. Rather, he wrote, what happened in 1991 was that a simulacrum of a war had been staged on CNN. This was easy to mock at the time, and a lot of folks did. Just because a French intellectual suffering from fin-de-civilisation ennui is an easy target is no reason not to load up the rotten fruit. Yet, in fact, M. Baudrillard's thesis holds up a lot better a decade and a half later than most.
Baudrillard began with certain impressions "” the preference even of participants on the ground for viewing the war on cable TV "” and quirky facts: A U.S. serviceman was statistically in more danger of dying back home than in combat in the Middle East. From this, he deduced a whole grand theory: The "allies" were not waging war but merely dropping 10,000 tons of ordnance a day as a simulacrum of war. Saddam Hussein was also engaged in a simulacrum: Inverting the American model, he offered up large numbers of his own eminently disposable citizenry in sacrifice to the non-war, but kept all the stuff he would have used in a real war "” his air force, for example "” safely out of sight and hidden away. The two sides rarely engaged and, as Baudrillard saw it, in the end the defeated party had not in fact been defeated and the winners had not in fact won. Therefore, no war had taken place.
The author is not denying empirical evidence per se, so much as what the evidence means. The one shameful moment when the first President Bush forgot he was fighting a CNN war and confused it with a real one was when he called on Saddam's people to rise up against the tyrant. They did so, only to find that Bush had gone back to play-warmongering on CNN and wasn't there for them. They were slaughtered en masse by the supposedly vanquished dictator.
Were he a military historian rather than a Gallic poseur, Baudrillard might have formulated it slightly differently. The countdown to war began with Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and Mrs. Thatcher's advice to the president: "This is no time to go wobbly, George." But, by the time the troops went in, Mrs. Thatcher had been defenestrated from Downing Street and the Bush administration had chosen to mask wobbliness as a moral virtue. Traditionally, a nation that goes to war has war aims. But the U.S. forswore any war aims other than the restoration of the status quo ante (the return of Kuwait to its seedy princelings), preferring to prioritize coalition-building as an end in itself: The more nations that signed on, the less they signed on to.
In recoiling from real war, in assembling such overwhelming high-tech might for such attenuated goals, Washington thought it was projecting a kind of high-minded U.N. selflessness, when in fact it was communicating weakness. The reality was worse than Baudrillard's "hyper-reality." If you stage a devastating bombs-away video game on CNN and at the end the bad guy is still standing, it's not merely that "nothing has changed." If Team USA achieves a scoreless draw against the South Sandwich Islands, by definition that's a much better result for the latter than the former. In other words, the War That Did Not Take Place was perceived on the Arab street and beyond to have been won by Saddam. To be sure, an elaborate and expensive dictatorial management program was erected by the U.N. "” Oil for Food, no-fly zones "” but it proved to be a cash cow for him and ensured that the Americans and British spent the years before the 2003 war being berated by the Euroleft and the NGOs for wreaking ongoing humanitarian devastation on Iraq.
Whenever I bemoan the inconclusive end to the Gulf War, I receive letters from aggrieved veterans pointing out that they blew through Saddam's much vaunted Republican Guard in nothing flat. That's correct. But the reality "” which Baudrillard appeared to grasp and the realpolitik realists didn't "” is that war isn't a technical demonstration of superior power but about the willingness to use that power to achieve strategic ends. In that sense, the Gulf War did not take place.
On this fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam, there will be inevitable raking over of all the many mistakes made in the spring of 2003 and the years since. But, if the media, the Slow Bleed Democrats, and the White Flag Republicans are determined to transform Iraq into a tragedy, it's important to remember it's a tragedy in two acts "” and that the biggest mistake of all was made in 1991. Baudrillard's book took its title from Giraudoux's play of 1935 "” The Trojan War Will Not Take Place "” and thus places desultory uncommitted high-tech cruise-you-can-lose warfare in the same category of self-delusion as idealized pacifism. Even a French postmodern social theorist is right about reality once in a while. Which is a better strike rate than many of the realists.
war isn't a technical demonstration of superior power but about the willingness to use that power to achieve strategic ends
...sounded so much like Pale, I thought perhaps he had written it.