The 1991 war in the Persian Gulf was about the control of space. It was about the control of many different kinds of spaces--the geographic space of Kuwait and by extension Iraq (if not the whole Middle East), the psychic space of the American public on the massively mediated receiving end and, most notably, the electronic space within which the vast majority of the war was waged--the radio, phone, satellite, television and computer. That the Gulf War took place primarily in electronically generated spaces spawned a strong reaction and led to a tonnage of reporting in the press and the academy about the nature of warfare in a "postmodern" era. For many, Operation Desert Shield -> Sword -> Storm represented "a new virtual--and consensual--reality: the first cyberwar, in the sense of a technologically generated, televisually linked, and strategically gamed form of violence...[its] truth...constructed out of and authorized by spectacular, videographic, cyberspatial simulations of war." (Der Derian, 175-91)
This split between the "virtual" and the "actual," the "simulated" and the "real" was continually replayed and served to link many otherwise dissimilar reports together. The Gulf War as "prime-time videowargame," where the "real" horror and trauma of war had been replaced by electronic screens of various sorts, was the de facto starting place for many cultural critics writing about it. The belief that we had somehow lost touch with the reality of war was simply taken for granted. This essay takes a step back from this starting point--a point which constantly rearticulated in many different yet strikingly similar ways, the unnegotiable split between the "fictional" and the "factual"--in order to explore what it was about this war that generated a whole discourse about its being unreal, a war with a reality that masked it's own status as reality, and to question the role technology played in shaping its discursive field.
Contemporary arguments asserting that the preparation, execution and experience of warfare had undergone a fundamental shift were frequently predicated upon epistemological sensibilities reflective of the postmodern turn in science, art and literature. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard is without doubt one of the preeminent spokespersons charting this terrain. Baudrillard's central thesis is that dramatic changes in technologies of reproduction have led to the implosion of representation and reality where *simulacra* come to replace the reality they once only signified: "Today the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network. There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding..." (_Ecstasy of Communication_, 12). He goes on: "It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself... " (_Selected Writings_, 167).
As war broke out, Baudrillard was quick to provide an illustrative example of his thesis. In a 1991 essay published in English as "The Reality Gulf" he asserts that the strategic site of the Persian Gulf War was not the desert sands of Arabia, but the screens of the world's TV sets; war had been reconfigured as electronic artifice, stripped of its traditional trappings, it remained ungraspable, undefinable, technologically mystified (25). From his perspective, it was a war enabled by revolutionary advances in information technologies and constituted in its mass media coverage:
"We must now be satisfied with virtual reality...In our fear of the real, of anything that is too real, we have created a gigantic simulator. We prefer the virtual to the catastrophe of the real, of which television is the universal mirror. Indeed, it is more than a mirror: today television and the news have become the ground itself...Even soldiers have not been able to retain for themselves the privilege of real war." (25)
Following suit, English journalist Benjamin Woolley writes, "missile targets were not real locations but map coordinates displayed on a VDU, troop movements were formations of pixels in computer-enhanced, false-colour satellite images. From a postmodern perspective, the entire war, at least on the level at which anyone could make sense of it, was just patterns on a screen." (190-91)
War was no longer simply being mass mediated through the television, the news press and the theater, it was being mediated through the nosecones of missiles, remotely-piloted vehicles and computerized command control centers. The antiseptic imagery resulting from this type of technological mediation was a far cry from the battle images generated during Vietnam--little girls running naked down the street after being bombed by napalm, U.S. soldiers using cigarette lighters to torch an entire Vietnamese community--and evoked a sense of pleasure and excitement uniquely geared toward an audience, on the battlefront as well as the homefront, whose viewing habits had been honed by Hollywood special effect, videogame parlors and Nintendo home entertainment systems.
One didn't have to look too deeply into popular culture to see that the dominant discursive field of this war quickly became a technologized, and technofetishized, one--_Time's_ early reporting of how "Vast superiority in aircraft, tanks, training and logistics should help the U.S. score a quick knockout in a battle with Iraq" (January 21, 1991, 34-35), _Newsweek's_ cover story on "High-Tech Hardware" that included a pullout poster spotlighting the new "Weapons of War" (February 18, 1991), Topps' Desert Storm Trading Cards, Gulf War retrospectives produced for the network and cable TV, video footage of bunker blow-ups taken from the nose-cones of smart bombs, and simulated battle strategies, graphics, and logos generated on computer desktop publishing systems, all helped to make this point perfectly clear.
Temporal and spatial barriers had collapsed. New information technologies allowed us to get closer to war faster than ever before. Paradoxically, from the postmodern perspective, it was through the use of those same technologies that we were kept and/or chose to remain strangely distant, a distance reflected in the war's massively mediated representation: "It looks like a fourth of July display at the Washington Monument," shouted CNN's John Holliman in the network's (in)famous live broadcast of the Allied bombing of Baghdad. "I feel like a young athlete after his first football match," said one U.S. pilot during a post-bombing run interview. "Baghdad was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was tremendous!" "It was exactly like the movies," said others. "This is the war--brought live straight into your living room. The biggest computer game of all time fought out right under your nose," wrote Sue Masterson in the _Observer_. (Woolley, 193-97) And so the story went.
That the perceptual encoding of the war in the gulf would take place more within a field of pleasure and entertainment than horror and docudrama paid fitting homage to a growing body of academic literature concerned with articulating the experiential and phenomenological reception of electronic media. The basic assumption of such accounts is that different representational technologies offer radically different ways of being-in-the world, and hence, as film theorist Vivian Sobchack puts it, alter our subjective experience by exciting different "sensual pleasures, aesthetic responses, and ethical responsibilities" which serves to selectively and uniquely shape our "presence" to the world and our representation in it." (1)
Take for example the photographic. According to Sobchack, the photographic was dominant in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and is characterized by its ability to reproduce a moment frozen in time, previously only able to be captured so faithfully by the human eye. The image of the photograph is isolated and abstracted from the temporal flow. It is fixed in place and can be controlled, contained, circulated and possessed:
"The photograph 'freezes' and preserves the homogeneous and irreversible *momentum* of this temporal stream into the abstracted, atomized, and secured space of *a moment*. But at a cost. A moment cannot be inhabited. It cannot entertain in the abstraction of its visible space, its single and static *point* of view, the presence of a lived-body--and so it does not really invite the spectator *into* the scene..." (8)
The primary difference between the transcendental moment of the photograph and the existential moment of the cinema is precisely this difference between a photographic scene which can only be *contemplated*, and a cinematic scene which can actually be *lived*. (Sobchack, 8) But even more importantly, in terms of theorizing the phenomenological distance believed to be inherent in the technologically mediated experience of the Gulf War, was the character of the electronic, a character that is perceived to turn the analogic quality of the photographic and the cinematic into discrete bits of abstract, digital information that are then transmitted discontiguously and insubstantially across a network:
"[While] the cinematic exists as a visible performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of lived-body experience...[n]ot so the electronic, whose materiality and various forms and contents engage its spectators and 'users' in a phenomenological structure of sensual and psychic experience that seems to belong to no-body...Thus, the 'presence' of electronic representation is perceived at one remove from previous representational connections between signification and referentiality. Digital and schematic, abstracted from reproducing the empirical objectivity of realist Nature that informs the photographic and from presenting a representation of individual subjectivity and the modernist Unconscious that informs the cinematic, the electronic constructs a post-modernist meta-world where ethical investment and value are located in representation in-itself." (Sobchack, 17-20)
It isn't too hard to see that although Baudrillard's and Sobchack's paths are slightly different their destination is very much the same: "Without the temporal emphases of historical consciousness and personal history, space becomes abstract, ungrounded, and flat--a site for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action 'counts' rather than computes. Such a superficial space can no longer hold the spectator/user's interest, but has to constantly stimulate it like a video game. Its flatness--a function of the lack of temporal thickness and bodily investment--has to attract spectator interest at the surface." (Sobchack, 22) Presumably, what this all leads to in the end, as Baudrillard argues, is the "progressive divestment" of politics from the scenes of history, and the everyday. (_Ecstasy of Communication_, 12)
Because electronic space is all surface it cannot be inhabited. Because it disembodies instead of embodies, electronic representation, for theorists like Sobchack, "liberates" one from any deep structure of feeling and creates a free-floating and impersonal presence that is "dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria." (24) Thus, "we no longer partake of the drama of alienation," but instead float around rather aimlessly "in the ecstasy of communication." (_Ecstasy of Communication_, 22) If one is persuaded by this logic it becomes much easier to explain the celebratory nature of so much of the Gulf War experience. From the postmodern perspective, a war so dominated by electronic imagery, as was the Allied assault in the Persian Gulf, would naturally be experienced as a playful yet shallow abstraction of its former photographic and cinematic splendor. But the phenomenological shift this logic asserts was, for many wartime observers and armchair participants, exceedingly difficult to digest. Not surprisingly, this digitally enabled move into the analog(ue) realm of the simulated, a kind of electronically encoded foray into ontological uncertainty about the status of the "real," created considerable anxiety.
It was this surreal sense of celebration, playfulness, and the perceived lack of any deep and meaningful engagement that unleashed a barrage of trenchant commentary attempting to recapture and foreground what was seen as the more rightful horror and reality of war. In a book entitled _Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War_ American literary theorist Christopher Norris starts his first chapter by rhetorically asking: "How far wrong can a thinker go and still lay claim to serious attention?" He quickly answers: "One useful test case is Jean Baudrillard, a cult figure on the current postmodernist scene, and purveyor of some of the silliest ideas yet to gain a hearing among disciples of French intellectual fashion." (11)
Norris' resentment is anchored in a rejection of what he takes to be the outcome of adopting a far too fashionable and politically irresponsible, "postmodernist position" which believes "reality just is whatever we make of it according to this or that predominant language game, discourse, or mode of signifying practice." (24) According to Norris one need simply reject this mystifying premise and the "real-world" war in which "countless thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed daily" will become more visible and, once visible, generate a morally appropriate outrage from viewers that would ideally lead to "real-world" political action. Indeed, as Elaine Scarry put it in her article "Watching and Authorizing the Gulf War," what this critically necessary rejection entails is a concerted effort to work out of our "infantilized position" in order to "regain the actual powers of military and civil deliberation that were the population's to begin with," ("Watching and Authorizing the Gulf War," 69) powers that disappeared with the spectacular immobilization of the American public, and now take purely mimetic form.
According to Norris, our collective migration into Baudrillard's realm of purely fictive or illusory appearances stems from the misguided belief that truth has gone the way of empiricist reason forcing an epistemological move to a point where there is no last ground of appeal to self-deluding enlightenment values that once possessed authority: "...the Gulf War figures as one more example in [his] extensive and varied catalogue of postmodern 'hyperreality.' It is a conflict waged--for all that we can know--entirely at the level of strategic simulation, a mode of vicarious spectator-involvement that extends all the way from fictive war-games to saturation coverage of the "real-world" event, and which thus leaves us perfectly incapable of distinguishing one from the other." (13-15)
This inability to distinguish fact from fiction was adopted by more than a few writers attempting to respond to the dangers they saw as endemic of uncritically accepting this transition to the hyperreality of war. American philosopher Douglas Kellner perhaps best epitomizes the resentful social critic struggling to see through the smokescreen of images created by the mass media before, during, and after the fighting. In a nearly five hundred page tome entitled _The Persian Gulf TV War_, he makes his agenda clear right at the beginning: "In this book, I concentrate on how the mainstream media in the United States presented the Gulf War, though I am also interested in 'what really happened' and thus draw on a variety of sources to put in question the mainstream account of the war [and to] debunk the version...presented on television..." (7)
When it was perceived that the primary sight/site of the Persian Gulf War was electronic battlefields of various sorts, sights/sites that inhibit any deep structure of feeling, sights/sites that are moving evermore toward the virtual and artificial, sights/sites that preclude the possibility of embodied inhabitation, relegating the receiver to fragmented yet playful parodies of some formerly unified and ontologically grounded ego state, the prospects for political action are pretty poor--at least political action of the persuasion that theorists like Norris and Kellner seem to be hoping for.
We saw how ineffective organized political action was in the gulf, how easily rendered silent and obsolete. That was because Operation Desert Storm had a 1990s sensibility, where autonomous, isolated individuals who were capable of *using* technology had the potential to do far more damage than some collective body that was only capable of being *used* by it. Power was far more systemic and embodied in and through the machine. A lone hacker, distant in time, space and maybe even political intent, had far more power to bring down a complex system, to "jam the code," through the introduction of some digital disease, than any unified group of activists carrying placards and lobbying for change. This is the kind of politics that now, more than ever, provides a vision of our VIRtuAL future.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THESE PICTURES
The jingoism, nostalgic remembrances, hero worship and massively marketed production and consumption were all part and parcel of the perceptual unreality generated by the technological mediation of the Persian Gulf War. The struggle to render visible the disfigured and disembodied phantoms haunting this war--illustrated so well by theorists like Norris and Kellner--revolved around subverting the master narrative by marshaling evidence to support the contention that it was not a clean war, it was not a particularly precise war, and the mass mediated imagery simply did not capture that. Thus we never had a "real" picture of the battle. But from the point of view of the vast majority of the audiences polled on the receiving end, the technocrats responsible for plotting, planning and managing the war, and the companies producing the human and inhuman materiel, the representations of the battle in the Persian Gulf, and more importantly the consequences of those representations, were as real as they come. They just weren't very grotesque.
The Desertification of Iraq served primarily to dissolve spatial and temporal boundaries rather than reinscribe them, the traditional goal of most warring activity. American literary theorist Avital Ronell put it this way: "...the war in the Gulf has destabilized our understanding of location, and has instituted a teletopical logic: a logic of spaces aligned according to technological mappings, where the near is far and vice versa, and where systems of boundaries and borderlines will have to be entirely rethought." (76)
Such locational destabilization provided the space for, on the one hand, postmodern scholars like Baudrillard, Woolley and Der Derian to struggle to understand how war had become a fragmented, decentered and staged event, a perfect copy that has no original, a playful parody of its former horror. On the other hand, it simultaneously allowed "enlightenment" scholars like Norris, Kellner and many others, to find such theorizing politically problematic because of the perception that it caused one to live in a state of "terminal indifference with regard to truth and falsehood." (Norris, 22)
So here we have a group of writers who (seemingly) have serious philosophical and epistemological differences but who nevertheless remain uniformly critical of what they see as a shifting mediascape where there is an increasing "separation of the sign from what it signifies, culture from nature, truth from reality," and where all we are left with is "a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential." (Woolley, 198-99) The enlightenment scholars simply hold out more hope that lost territory can be reclaimed. However, postmodernist or enlightenment, both positions are obsessed with, or at the very least their rhetorical force relies upon, counterposing "reality" against "unreality," whether in order to assert reality has become a simulation and we better just get used to it, or to reject the simulation reality has become.
It is senseless to speak of a technologically induced shift from some prior historical moment that granted access to the real, to some present moment of unreality characterized by nothing but an endless multiplicity of free-floating signifiers. To make such an argument presupposes that in a different time and place it was possible to directly experience an umediated reality, that a one-to-one correlation between the experience of some thing and the interpretation of that thing existed, and that the type of information we now produce, disseminate and consume is somehow less "authentic," either because it is an ephemeral presentation or a failed one.
The Operation in the desert showed us that, contrary to the popular perception that postmodern warfare had been fundamentally transformed, in many ways it remained very much the same, we just had some exciting new ways to screen it. We experienced a hypervisibility of a different sort, the sort the press, and by extension the public, did not or should not want--the sort that was a hell of a lot more fun. The aesthetic component remained, and emerged in a way that gave it more prominence than ever before; but this aesthetic component was not unprecedented--it was simply the latest version, an (il)logical extension of all that had gone before. The new was fused with the old in interesting and idiosyncratic yet representative ways. Culture, technology and politics continue to come together in war, making it evolutionary in the sense that war is always marked by distinctive sociocultural formations, formations that must continually be re-read, re-mapped, and up-dated.
Yes, the perceptual field of the Persian Gulf War was a massively mediated one. It was massively mediated by the various agencies actively producing and disseminating information about it (privately and publicly owned news outlets, the federal government, special interest groups, significant others) and it was massively mediated by the technologies (planes, tanks, radars, satellites, televisions and computers) used to wage it. And as weapon sight continued to extend human sight on the battlefield, as technologically enabled imagery continued to bombard the battlefront and the homefront, and as responsibility for premature death and destruction continued to shift from human operators to machinic ones, the fires feeding the sense of unreality so frequently discussed and disparaged by the mass media and the academy were furiously and in certain cases enthusiastically fanned.
But the central point to be made is that *reality*, or lack thereof, is not the ontological or philosophical problem, *simulation* is. If it is perceived that we are losing touch with the real, that everything is now questionable, because it is "simulated," "artificial" and before long "virtual," where all we can do is playfully uninhabit electronically generated spaces, it mistakenly implies that reality is not always already socially constructed, mediated and (un)intentionally made to mean. The Gulf War meant a lot of things to a lot of people, none of which can in any objective sense be ontologically privileged.
Simulated battlezones, whether in flight and tank trainers, living rooms and theaters, or the killing fields themselves, were as real as any other, the reality they represented simply resided in the realm of the electronic. To retheorize the psychosocial impact of electronically mediated representations of war it is far more politically productive to reject the belief that technologically generated spaces are inherently unreal, separate from the social-self, and serve only to take us ever further away from the reality of death and destruction, and instead shift the focus in order to look more closely at what the reality of death and destruction have become. Indeed, the biggest myth generated about the war in the gulf was that it could not and did not "really" take place in digital and analog(ue) space.
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Baudrillard, Jean. _Guardian_. "The Reality Gulf." January 11, 1991: 25.
Baudrillard, Jean. "La Guerre du Golfe n'a pas eu Lieu." Paris: Galilee. 1991.
Der Derian, James. _Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War_. Oxford: Blackwell. 1992.
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_Newsweek_. February 18, 1991.
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Ronell, Avital. "Support Our Tropes: Or, Why in Cyburbia There Are a Lot of Cowboys." _The Yale Journal Of Criticism_. (1992) Vol. 5, No. 2: 73-80.
Scarry, Elaine. "Watching and Authorizing the Gulf War." _Media Spectacles_. Marjorie Gerber, Jann Matlock, Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds.). New York: Routledge. 1993: 57-73
Sobchack, Vivian. "Materiality and Technologic: A Phenomenological Meditation on the Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic." Abridged From "The Scene Of The Screen." In _Materialities of Communication_. Ed. H.U. Gumbrecht. 1993.
_Time_. "Advantage: the Alliance: Vast superiority in aircraft, tanks, training and logistics should help the U.S. score a quick knockout in a battle with Iraq." January 21, 1991: 34-35.
Woolley, Benjamin. _Virtual Worlds_. Oxford: Blackwell. 1992.