The latest US-led air strike on Syria, purportedly as punishment for Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on the town of Douma last week, reminds me of Baudrillard’s short book of essays on the first Gulf War The Gulf War did not take place.1 The third essay, which bears the title of the book, begins:
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.
The key point here, of course, is not that the strike has led to the destruction of the Assad regime – far from it. Rather, it is that the whole event was pure theatre. Apparently the Russians were consulted in advance, during and afterwards, which meant presumably that the Assad regime knew exactly what was going to happen, most probably where, and had plenty of time to prepare. And, to top it all, the strike was also tweeted in advance by Donald Trump, which means we now have military strategy being formulated on Twitter! So, to paraphrase Baudrillard: since the strike was staged in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.
Or perhaps it might be better to say that a staged event is not the same as a real one; therefore whatever the outcome of the staged event we will never know what would really have happened. Of course, in Baudrillard’s world, there is no such thing as a ‘real’ event: everything is staged, simulated – including war and death. Real history is eclipsed by re-enactment and docudrama; class struggle is replaced by identity politics; real suffering and existential angst is replaced by psychotherapy and psychodrama.
But perhaps we should also take note of what Baudrillard writes later in the same essay:
…the consequences of what did not take place may be as substantial as those of an historical event. The hypothesis would be that, in the case of the (first) Gulf War as in the case of the events in Eastern Europe (the collapse of communism), we are no longer dealing with “historical events” but with places of collapse. Eastern Europe saw the collapse of communism, the construction of which had indeed been an historic event, borne by a vision of the world and a utopia. By contrast, its collapse is borne by nothing and bears nothing, but only opens upon a confused desert left vacant by the retreat of history and immediately invaded by its refuse.
Perhaps it’s not stretching things to far to suggest that Cold War 2.0, and its proxy in the Middle East, is essentially operating within places of collapse (post-Soviet Union, post-Western liberal democracy, post-second Gulf War, etc). And what we are left with is indeed ‘a confused desert left vacant by the retreat of history’. But, as Baudrillard is quick to point out, such a desert is soon invaded by the refuse of (real) history, its remainder, which in this case appears to be the rhetoric of Cold War 1.0 (which some might argue was itself a simulation of World War Three). In other words, politicians on all sides appear on TV and make serious pronouncements and denouncements about the conflict that is not taking place, whilst all the time the (real) death and injury count in Syria continues to mount by the day.
But one has to ask: what purpose is being served by this psychodrama of war? As with all drama, as with all staging and enactment, the purpose is deadly serious: to circumscribe, to make sense of, something that is beyond the grasp of meaning. And this something is precisely the desert that occupies the places of collapse; the trauma left by the collapse of history, of meaning itself. In this sense the Cold War rhetoric that is being espoused in response to recent events in Syria (and even. one might perhaps argue, to events in Salisbury) could be seen as a desperate attempt to try and get a grip on (real) events that seem to be spiralling out of control and make very little sense.
- Baudrillard, J. (1995) The Gulf War did not take place. Indiana University Press. [↩]