Will the real war please stand up?
In 1991, the French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard published an article in which he claimed that the Gulf War never happened. He argued that the way the war was reflected in the American media blurred the boundaries between the real and the representation of the real.
In 1991, the French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard published an article in which he claimed that the Gulf War never happened. Readers unfamiliar with Baudrillard might have been forgiven for thinking that he had lost his mind. But Baudrillard's intention was not to deny the actual occurrence of the war. He argued that the way the war was reflected in the American media blurred the boundaries between the real and the representation of the real, and that the ultimate result was that the entire world was "held hostage" to self-infatuated media.
It is not by chance that Baudrillard put forward this thesis, as his writings deal with the place where the "real" ends and its representation begins. He maintains that the representation of the "real" resembles the real but is not the same thing. It blurs the concrete results of the events, causing the meltdown of history. His favorite image is Disneyland, where the indigenous American natives, the Indians, are represented by colorful figures made of rubber and plastic that look so authentic that the real Indians - those who are wallowing in poverty, drugs and crime on their reservations in the United States, those who fought for their land - are erased as if they never existed. Henceforth only the amusement park's Indians exist in the memory of the visitors to Disneyland.
The same pattern unfolded in the 1991 Gulf War, Baudrillard argues. CNN showed a "smart bomb" that can penetrate a bunker and blow it up. The green images sent to the viewer are received from the lens of the camera that is installed in the bomb or on the bottom of the plane that dropped it. There is no din of bombing, there are no desperate screams of the wounded, there is no agonizing by the pilots. This sterile picture of the world prompted Baudrillard to wonder whether the war actually took place.
Now, at the outset of the second Gulf War, the question has to be asked whether this mode of representation will repeat itself. In Gulf War I, the Internet was in its infancy. During the war, IRC software, which links users from all over the world by means of text-based chat rooms, served as an alternative source of information. The few who had heard of the Internet back then read the first testimonies about the events in the Gulf in IRC chat rooms.
A dozen years later, the Internet is entirely different. The broadband revolution, globalization and its ability to eliminate the middleman - which was what blurred the boundaries in the first war - may cause the collapse of the possibility that the world will view another virtual war. True, Iraq is far from being considered a technological powerhouse where Internet connections are commonplace, but a working telephone line and a browser are enough to send reports from local people who will be able to provide information about the "real war," not about the Indian wars in Disneyland.
In the past year, the appearance of the "blog" (short for Web log), referring to online personal diaries of "ordinary people" who decide to share with the world their feelings and the information in their possession, has become the major cultural phenomenon of the Internet. Surfers no longer turn to news sites to hear about the latest developments in the courtroom; instead they connect to the Web site, the blog, of say, one of the lawyers involved who describes the events first-hand and relates what passed through his mind when the judge reprimanded him in one of the hearings. This phenomenon could well intensify in the weeks ahead.
The U.S. forces, for their part, are fighting the online alternative by nourishing the traditional media that are dependent on them. According to the alternative media sites on the Web, in the past few weeks the U.S. military has been working actively to hack into the computer systems of the Iraqi media in order to plant reports that will serve the American interest. These reports, which are of course difficult to prove or refute, say that the planted items will appear to come from local media and will then be picked up and quoted by the international media. Once again communications will become a tool on the sand table.
It will be difficult for Baudrillard to persuade the millions of Israelis who may be forced to rush to their shelters after hearing the detonations and donning their gas masks, that the Gulf War was a collection of representations. For us, the war was very real indeed, as at least part of it took place on the threshold of our sealed rooms.
However, what will a Norwegian or a Czech think as he views television news in the days to come? Will he be looking at the true horrors of the war or will his gaze pass over its representations, which the Americans create and the media broadcasts? Baudrillard claimed that it makes no difference, because we will always be slaves to what appears to be real but is not. But the Internet in its current form has the capability to affect, however slightly, the representations of the war. Will it succeed? That's far from certain.