'The Gulf War didn't exist'

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.

This sentence...

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.


Interesting. I can definitely see the point of the article. Normally, we think of war in the context of WWII or Vietnam, where a mass amount of troops fight against each other and many people die.

In the Gulf War, we did just sit back and bomb for an extremely long period of time and then march in. It didn't fit the classic model that people grow up thinking a war should be. So while I agree with his point about the way the war was fought I still don't think it was a 'hyper-reality'. Potential was always there for a mass confrontation of ground troops ask any soldier on the ground who had to constantly drill, etc.

While I was in the Navy , Bush Sr. was on our ship for a day, this was while Clinton was in office, and I was able to talk to him along with some others and he told us he personally felt the biggest mistake he made as president was to NOT go in there and finish the job and get Saddam.

If you define war as something atrocious that you send young men off to die in, then he is correct in stating that the Gulf War wasn't a war for America.

If you define war as the bending of one state's will by another through the use of violence, then he's wrong.

The logic:
Americans didn't die so it isn't a war.
If it isn't a war then no political ambitions were thwarted.
If no political ambitions were thwarted then America didn't do anything.

Seems like a misuse of differing definitions in order to make a political or philosophical point. It's clever but it isn't rational.

karmajay wrote:

While I was in the Navy , Bush Sr. was on our ship for a day, this was while Clinton was in office, and I was able to talk to him along with some others and he told us he personally felt the biggest mistake he made as president was to NOT go in there and finish the job and get Saddam.

Strange. Publicly he's been insisting on the opposite, that it'd tear apart the Coalition.

Strange. Publicly he's been insisting on the opposite, that it'd tear apart the Coalition.

I remember him stating that while he was president, but this was well after his presidency was over.

First of all, this needs to be said: there never was a war. "How can you say that Bill?" Well, a war is when two armies are fighting. So you see, right there, we can all agree. Wasn't exactly a war.

/Obligatory Bill Hicks quote

He makes a good point, but I think this is kind of like someone saying WWI wasn't a real war because the people fighting hid in trenches with machine guns instead of marching toward the enemy in lines. Technology has changed and the nature of the enemy has changed. Why can't the face of war change?

If you want to get into the specifics of "this isn't a war because the other side doesn't have an army," well, yeah, it's hard to argue that either Gulf War was a conventional conflict, but that's really just semantics.

As for whether or not the illusion of "war" was created by CNN, well... Back during the "conflict" with Bosnia I was in high school, and one of my friends was a German foreign exchange student. He and I would talk about the war quite a bit since I really liked getting the perspective of a non-American. He told me that American media doesn't cover wars at all; all we have are clips of planes taking off and tanks rolling around.

Karmajay: you served in Navy? For some reason I always thought you were in the Corps. I think there even was a picture of you in camo fatigues somewheres.

I think this is an attempt to make the argument that Iraq was somehow untouched by the war, and thus justify the current invasion. It glosses over the fact that the Coalition was specifically limited in it's actions by the decision to include Arab neighbors of Iraq. The conditions they placed on the conflicted drove the return to to the status quo ante, not any weakness on Bush's part.

Likewise, he plays down the damage done to Iraq, which lost tens of thousands of men. And he also brushes off the actual fighting as a sham, somehow, something the guys I worked for who drowned together in the wreckage of their AC-130 might disagree with.

In doing all this, he takes the stated reason for the war - freeing Kuwait, with all it's attendant propaganda drama at the time - and reduces it to something less than a strategic goal, as if the actual cause and subsequent result of the war were somehow meaningless. Ask the Kuwaitis if they agree.

Iraq's air force was destroyed in detail, where it was not forced to flee. It took them years to fly jets again; flights after the war were primarily helicopters, easier to get and supply.

The idea that Hussein was essentially untouched, or even profited by the war, defies the facts. After the war and through the next one, the Iraqi military was blown, unable to conduct any serious operations on the ground. It's leadership was unreliable, it's troops coerced, it's equipment decayed and obsolete. Iraq's WMD programs were completely shut down, to the point where the "smoking gun" of their future capabilites was a baggie of frozen germ cultures and a cache of documents buried behind someone's house. Hussein himself may have made money off of the sanctions, but he was a dictator, and his country was far worse off under sanctions than before - surely that puts more weight on the scales of judging the war's effect.

When you read this article, the conclusion is that because Bush didn't go to Baghdad, he set up the pre-conditions for the current conflict, so that Bush II's actions could be read as inevitable, unavoidable, and hence not misguided or misjudged. That's revisionism, pure and simple, an attempt to gloss over massive information and policy failures in favor of a "we had to do it no matter what, because the job didn't get done before" argument. I'd guess that even Johnny would give serious consideration to the idea that simply continuing the sanctions as they were and acting covertly would have produced better results than the war we find ourselves in. That is, there were better strategies available, and we don't have to resort to identification with a guy who denied the existence of objective reality to justify our actions.

Much better for the people responsible for the ideology to stand up and say "We were simply wrong" than to literally appeal to a view of reality as fantasy to shift blame.

Gorilla - nope, Navy for almost 9 years. I'm pretty sure there are no pics of me in camo on the internet, unless they were taken in high school when I also wore Skidz.

So is this revisionist history? Or do you have to lie about what you did in High School to qualify for that?

A-ha! I confused you with Sanjuro!!! Sorry mate!