ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)


Introduction: Baudrillard and War

Dr. Dan Öberg
(Department of Military Science, Swedish Defense College, Stockholm).

I. Baudrillard and the study of war

As the contributions to this special issue illustrate, the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard (1925-2007) is intricately linked to the notion of war. Partly, this is because his writing often engages with contemporary wars, but also since Baudrillard’s thought itself at times seems to be part of a war against reality, banality, and/or stupidity. It is therefore quite surprising that so little has been written about the relationship between Baudrillard’s thought and war.1 So what is Baudrillard’s status in the study of war? If one looks closely, a number of theoretical debates on war find resonance in, and are in many ways indebted to, his thought. One example is the debate on virtualization and war. It is not far-fetched to read this debate as a side product of Baudrillard’s classical books The Gulf War did not take place and Simulation and Simulacra.  Without them, there probably would have been no James Der Derian (2001) outlining the Military-Industry-Media-Entertainment network and no Michael Ignatieff (2001) writing on ‘virtual war’. The contemporary debate on war, warfare and peacekeeping in relation to visual culture, virtualization, digitization, and cinema also testifies to Baudrillard’s continued influence in the field (see Behnke 2002, Lacy 2003, Pugh 2003, Power 2007, Joenniemi 2008,Philpott 2010, Nusselder 2012, Adey and Anderson 2012). 

Moreover, if we look towards the more critically oriented literature on war and the military which has emerged recently2  the relationship with Baudrillard’s thinking on war is more obvious. This literature has increased in the last years and deal with theoretical topics such as the phenomenology- and the ontology of war (Brighton 2011, Barkawi and Brighton 2011), war as undoing (Holmqvist, 2013a; 2013b), and war as disappearance (Öberg and Nordin 2013). It also discuss the experience of war and the everyday (Sylvester 2010; 2014, Parashar 2014), war as policing (Holmqvist 2014, Bachmann 2014), the interplay between representation and warfare (Shapiro, 1997, Behnke 2006, Butler 2009), and the relationship between war, liberalism and power (Reid 2003, Jabri 2007). As we shall see below there are a number of intersections between this literature and Baudrillard’s thought on war. However, since this is also a new research agenda Baudrillard’s possible impact on the study of war is still very much undecided. To engage with Baudrillard’s thinking on war we need to appreciate that his world is enigmatic and uncertain and constantly undergoes change.  This means that neither does he produce theory for scientific application (as is the case in traditional military science) nor does he look to theory to ‘offer a normative framework that can help to make sense of global events’ (Parashar 2014: 624) as is perhaps the case in the critical study of war. Rather he outlines theory as a challenge to reality by transversing the distinction between fact and fiction (Baudrillard 1987: 125, 2006b: 11).

This introduction provides a mapping of, and an engagement with, his challenge on war, outlined as three distinct critiques. The first part looks at the alleged shift from real to virtual war. Baudrillard starts this by discussing what took place in the aftermath of the Second World War and its relationship to the notion of deterrence. The second part looks at the way war endures after the end of the Cold War particularly by discussing the Gulf War and its lack of symbolic encounter, its simulated aspect, and the way it relates to war as processing, scripting, and modelling. Finally, the third part outlines the relationship between war and ‘the policing of events and singularities’ particularly in relation to the War on terror. This part ends with a short discussion of what Baudrillard calls ‘fractal’ war’: the way society is in many ways at war with itself (see Pawlett, 2014 in this special issue). Each of the three critiques are outlined and expanded on through theoretical contextualizations from Baudrillard’s writings, secondary literature from Baudrillard studies and critical War Studies, as well as contributions in this special issue. Engaging with the three critiques also helps us to ask the follow up question: what kind of theory of war remains after Baudrillard’s critique? Arguably, what is evident is that Baudrillard’s thought does not so much result in a revised theory of war as it challenges and displaces war as an object. We will return to this question in the final part of this introduction.

II. Deterrence and the shift from real to virtual war

As many have noted Baudrillard is first and foremost a ‘critic’ (Ranciere 2006, Grace 2000: 1). To Baudrillard it is not so much a theory of war that is lacking but a proper critique of war’s ontology. So what does his critique imply? Arguably he was well ahead of his time with regards to understanding how war related to advertisement, mass media, and the television. More than three decades before Ignatieff wrote about ‘virtual wars’, Baudrillard had already noticed how the virtual leaked into the real with regards to the Vietnam War.  For example, in 1967 he claimed that the TV images of the war takes us away from human reality (and classical conceptions of war) towards a world of advertising (2001: 42). This was a time when, for Baudrillard, as for Marxism in general, war was mostly seen as an integrated part of the capitalist system (1975: 145 and 1998b: 55, 57, 121). In the beginning of the 1970’s, particularly after the book The Mirror of Production and his definitive break with Marxism, Baudrillard’s view on war changed. So what does this change imply?

It might be easy to associate his thinking on war with what took place (or did not take place) in the Gulf in 1991, but to Baudrillard this was merely a symptom of other more complex underlying logics. Perhaps we might say that the most intriguing aspect about the Gulf War was not its build up, conduct, or media-coverage, but what this illustrated about war as such.3 He starts his essay ‘The Gulf War will not take place’, written before ‘the war started’ by stating that: ‘(f)rom the beginning we knew that this war would never happen’ (Baudrillard 1995: 23). It is therefore not a matter of whether the US starts bombing en masse or not (after a build-up phase of seven months) but something quite different: the Gulf War is about the ontological status of war itself (Baudrillard 1995: 32). Therefore, the impact of his thinking on war goes well beyond the Gulf. To grasp these logics we need to go back to his writings on the Cold War and particularly the notion of deterrence. Long before the Gulf War, Baudrillard had already identified deterrence as a key factor to understanding war. As he argues, ever since the end of World War II – when politics was still dependent on the distinction between war and peace – the world had been taken hostage to the logic of deterrence. This means that he sees deterrence, not as simply dictating behavior (through for example coercion or intimidation, as in Schelling 1966) but as something which makes the underlying principles of reality disappear. While traditional theory around military strategy would think of deterrence as something to manage through bargaining or rational behavior, Baudrillard sees it as something which puts an end to the possibility of military strategy and has severe consequences for our understanding of events, history, and politics:

Deterrence precludes war – the archaic violence of expanding systems. Deterrence itself is the neutral, implosive violence of metastable systems or systems in involution. There is no longer a subject of deterrence, nor an adversary nor a strategy – it is a planetary structure of the annihilation of stakes (Baudrillard, 1994a: 32-33, my emphasis)…/…Everywhere where irreversible apparatuses of control are elaborated, everywhere where the notion of security becomes omnipotent, everywhere where the norm replaces the old arsenal of laws and violence (including war), it is the system of deterrence that grows, and around it grows the historical, social, and political desert. A gigantic involution that makes every conflict, every finality, every confrontation contract in proportion to this blackmail that interrupts, neutralizes, freezes them all. No longer can any revolt, any story be deployed according to its own logic because it risks annihilation. No strategy is possible any longer, and escalation is only a puerile game given over to the military. The political stake is dead, only simulacra of conflicts and carefully circumscribed stakes remain (Ibid.: 33-34).

The consequences for war’s being are therefore severe. These consequences are perhaps best illustrated ‘in reality’ through the way the excess of high-tech weapon systems, so characteristic for the Cold War, participate in making war lose its character (Baudrillard 1989). During the Cold War countries like the US and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear warheads to destroy the human civilization many times over. With the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (increasing range and effect) and atomic submarines (giving second strike capability), nuclear warfare reached a ‘hyperefficiency’ which also made it useless for waging war. Baudrillard sees this uselessness as part of a larger social context which indicates a: ‘disgust for a world that is growing, accumulating, sprawling, sliding into hypertrophy, a world that cannot manage to give birth’ (Baudrillard 1989: 31). The Cold war thereby helps to produce a ‘stillborn’ world with an excess of memories, archives, documentation, sophisticated weapon-systems, plans, programs, and decisions that does not lead to either wars or events (1989: 31). Therefore any war that is being waged as real is always circumscribed by the overkill-capacity of nuclear war, in turn becoming less and less warlike and more and more a simulation of war. As Baudrillard concludes in Cool Memories V: ‘(w)ar is impossible, and yet it takes place. But the fact that it takes place in no way detracts from its impossibility. The system is absurd and yet it functions. But the fact that it functions in no way detracts from its absurdity’ (2006b: 25). War has become absurd, but no less deadly for that matter.

To Baudrillard the notion of war has therefore entered into a definitive crisis, best illustrated by how deterrence erases political stakes and supplant them with virtual stakes precluding events of war. The end of the Cold War does not put an end to deterrence but rather continues through new means such as drug wars, debt wars, or soft wars (1996: 87):

The powerful of this world are gathered in Rome to sign a treaty ‘that puts a final end to the Cold War’. In fact they do not know they are starting a new war, of which they are the first victims: they remained parked on the tarmac, surrounded by armoured cars, barbed wire and helicopters – the whole panoply of this new cold war, the cold war of armed security, of perpetual deterrence and faceless terrorism (2006b: 45-46).

Much of Baudrillard’s writings on war after the end of the Cold war grapple with these ‘new characteristics of war’ and its relation to history, politics, events, media, or economy (see for example Baudrillard 1995: 24-26, 65-68). If seen through the prism of real and virtual war we can appreciate the difference between Baudrillard’s account and Marxism. As stated in the previous part Marxism tends to consider war an integrated part of the capitalist system. Baudrillard on the other hand illustrates how war is the victim of a separation in kind as it is turned into an object without use-value but with simulation-value (1990:56) something which became all the more obvious during the build up for the war in Iraq 2003 and the WMD debate which was used as a rationale for invasion.

If we accept that real war has disintegrated and lost its principles under the virtual catastrophe of total nuclear and orbital war (Baudrillard 1993: 29; 2002b: 21-22) – we are forced to reconsider what a theory of war implies:

Traditional theorists of war must be…at a loss before the explosion of their object of study. For, paradoxically, it isn’t the bomb which has exploded, but the war-object, which has exploded into two separate parts – a total, virtual war in orbit and multiple real wars on the ground. The two have neither the same dimensions nor the same rules…(2002b: 22-23).

Hence, to Baudrillard, war consists of two inseparable but incompatible forms with two kinds of logic. Moreover, through this virtual, simulated version of war, the ‘real’ war (just like ‘real’ production or ‘real’ economy) is also dislocated (Baudrillard 1993: 31, 1994a). The referent changes from being one of battles between armies to one of the simulation of this battle. Uncertainty seeps into war (‘is this really a war?’) and what used to be at stake in a war of violence (such as conquest or domination) are no longer the underlying principles of war’s ontology. This uncertainty spawns wars of ‘pure speculation’ waged as advertisement campaigns (Baudrillard 1995: 28-29).

III. Symbolism, simulation, and war-processing

In The Gulf War did not take place Baudrillard explicitly states that his take on the war relates to ‘deterrence and the indefinite virtuality of war’ (1995: 49). This helps us appreciate the way in which the rules of the game have changed and something new and uncanny has emerged: incidents and events without meaning (Baudrillard 2000: 47-48). To think “war” after the Gulf is, in Rex Butler’s words, to ‘speak against…simulation when there is nothing to which to compare it, when there is nothing outside of it or when that outside can only be imagined in its terms’ (Butler 1999: 24).4 It is within this context we can understand how the Gulf War, ‘a war stripped bare of everything that makes it a war’ (1995: 64) illustrates a change in the ontology of war. Let us look into Baudrillard’s argument on the Gulf War to see precisely what it lacks. 

William Merrin categorizes Baudrillard’s discussion of the Gulf War as three particular critiques: its lack of symbolic encounter (between friend and enemy), the simulated aspect of war, and war as processing and modelling (Merrin 2005: 83-84). The first aspect goes back to war being considered (in the classic, Clausewitzian sense) as an encounter between two opposing forces. To Baudrillard, this conception of war as a symbolic act is lost in the Gulf. Rather, the US wages war as if it is a business strategy, in a detached manner: ‘(t)his is the rule of the American way of life: nothing personal! And they make war in the same manner: pragmatically and not symbolically’ (Baudrillard 1995:39). And this is equally true for the war in the media: ’(t)he Americans fought the same war in respect of world opinion – via the media, censorship, CNN, etc – as they fought on the battlefield (Baudrillard 1994b: 63).  They thereby miss the insight that traditionally war is a symbolic exchange between two counterparts that have a relationship (and might hate each other but still need each other). Instead the US wages a clean, surgical, mathematical, punctual and efficient war.  A war in which the Other is denied his status as the Other as the United States refused to engage in a relationship or even recognize its enemy. This in turn humiliates and eliminates instead of creating an antagonistic relation (Baudrillard 1995: 40, 44, see also Behnke 2004, Holmqvist 2013b). Baudrillard’s point here is not so much that a war with symbolic aspects is better or more preferable than one without. The point is rather that the American way of waging it changes the underlying parameters for what war is and does. Therefore, it is not only that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’ in the sense that a classical war wasn’t waged. The two opponents (the US-coalition and Iraq) also viewed war differently – so that there was in a sense a war over the definition of war. This became obvious in 2001, when the Twin Towers were attacked through an event that the US could not anticipate, understand or properly respond to.

The second aspect, the shift from real to virtual, has already been discussed to some extent in the previous part. So what is meant when one claims that the Gulf War was a ‘virtual war’? Paul Patton, James Der Derian and others have outlined various ways in which the virtual is being associated with how the military employ electronic technology and communication devices. The Gulf War displayed new kinds of virtual technology which not so much displaced actual war as it became an integral part of it. Training through simulators is one example of such a ‘virtualization’ which helps blurring the boundaries between the real and the simulated (Patton 1997: 124-126, Der Derian 2001: 116-117). Baudrillard discuss this with a focus on ‘new media’ such as real-time TV, CNN-effects, high-speed information.  Arguably, it is helpful to understand his argument about the Gulf War not as a simple shift from something ‘real’ to something ‘virtual’. Rather, it should be thought of as an overwhelming (to use a term by William Bogard 1994: 319) implosion where the virtual in many ways appropriates the real and becomes ‘more real than the real’. This occurs in the same way as notions like the symbolic are appropriated by the semiotic (as outlined particularly in the ‘early-Baudrillard’) or illusion is appropriated by the transparency of simulation and modelling (as outlined particularly in the ‘later-Baudrillard’).

Seen in this way it is possible to think virtual war, not in terms of a shift from one state to the next (as in Ignatieff), but rather as an implosion which severely challenges how we think social reality, as it saturates war with ambivalence and lack of distinction.  War becomes reversible as it might mean anything and everything, evident in notions like (Orwell’s) ‘war is peace’ but also as a general implosion which affects the relationship between war and television, technology, advertisement, social media, and the economy. This implosion is by no means limited to a particular space (such as the Gulf) or a particular time (such as 1991) but is rather marked by a lack of distinction which also affects other things. For example in its relation to cinema, evident in how  Baudrillard argues that the motion picture Apocalypse Now and the war in Vietnam were ‘cut from the same cloth’, and that the film is as much part of the war, as war is part of the film (1994a: 60). Or, by drawing upon Francois de Bernard, that the Iraq war is not so much ‘like a film’ but rather is a film: ‘with a script, a scenario that has been implemented without diversion’ evident in how ‘operational war becomes a gigantic special effect, cinema becomes the paradigm of war, and we imagine the “real” war as if it was only a mirror of its filmic being’ (Baudrillard 2007a: 119).

Perhaps we might say that if the Iraq war was a motion picture, Ibrahim Al-Marashi played the lead. In an astonishing auto-biographical piece Al-Marashi (2014, this special issue) outlines how his doctoral research on Iraq’s history was plagiarized and used as a security dossier by the UK government in order to justify the 2003 Iraq War. The simulations of war appropriated him as a mediated persona which seriously affected not only his career but any prospect of having a ‘normal’ life. Untangling these webs of simulation Al-Marashi concludes that not only the 1991 Gulf War but also the 2003 Iraq War did not take place. Both Michał Kłosiński and Alan Shapiro’s articles in this special issue also deal explicitly with the war in the Gulf. The first mentioned asks what it means that particular wars “take, or do not take place” or whether war has, or can find, “a proper place”. He illustrates how Baudrillard plays with the notion of place in order to challenge its degeneration and displace it while “the place of war” is dissolving in favor of a global war (see part three in this introduction). Shapiro on the other hand contextualizes Baudrillard’s thinking on the Gulf War and makes a rare comparison with Albert Camus’ thought on the Algerian war. Shapiro argues that there are several overlaps between the thinkers regarding war suggesting that they might be well worth reading in relation to and against each other.

The third point Baudrillard raises is how the (non-)events in the Gulf turns war into ‘war-processing’  (2005a: 30, 2008: 128). This term indicates how warfare drifts into rationalization and technicalization and becomes a force directed, not against adversaries, but abstract operations (Baudrillard 1995: 34, 45). In ‘war-processing’, warfare has been supplanted for the model of warfare. This turns war into a replica of its own simulated modelling, devoid of passions and contingency: a war we no longer believe in as it has become purely operational (Baudrillard 1994b: 16, 58; 1995: 61, 73, 77). Baudrillard argues: ‘for the Gulf War computers, there were no others, no Iraqis, no enemies (not even any Americans, in the end); the whole thing was played out in a closed circuit on the basis of calculation’ (Baudrillard 2002b: 162) with the result that ‘war itself is indefinitely postponed [since] it has to be tested first in all its possible consequences’ (Baudrillard 1990: 172). And we might add, in an era in which the military constantly strives to make warfare more comprehensive, networks more seamless and combined, targeting more efficient and effects-based, the notion of ‘war-processing’ might have particular relevance (see Nordin and Öberg, 2013).

In conclusion, what might we say about war after its implosion into other modes? With regards to the Gulf the result is a war which becomes its own simulation (Baudrillard 1994b: 60, 65). Baudrillard’s infamous critique of Disneyland as being ‘a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real’ (1994a: 13) is therefore helpful in order to understand the impact of the Gulf War. Just as Disneyland is there to mask that the rest of America is in fact a Disneyland, the Gulf War helps to obscure that it is war as such which has disappeared. And, let us give Baudrillard the last word on this as he relates the two:

(D)o you know how General Schwarzkopf, architect of the US Gulf War strategy, celebrated his “victory”? With a gigantic party at Disneyworld. Such revellings in the mecca of the imagination were surely a worthy conclusion to that virtual war…They are even rebuilding an exact replica of Disneyland Los Angeles at Disneyworld in Orlando. Like a kind of second-level attraction, a simulacrum raised to the second power. This is the same job as CNN did on the Gulf War – the prototype of the event which did not take place because it took place in real time, in the instantaneity of CNN. Today, Disney might well restage the Gulf War as a global attraction. Christmas at Eurodisney was celebrated with the Red Army choirs. Everything is possible, everything can be recycled in the polymorphous world of the virtual (Baudrillard 2002b: 151).

IV. Fractal war and global policing

Up to now we have seen that Baudrillard’s critique illustrates how the Cold War, due to nuclear arms and deterrence, the changing role of media and IT, and high-tech weaponry force war to split into a real and a virtual mode.  One important example of this is the way the Gulf War, waged as a business or advertising campaign, enables simulated models and technological processing to appropriate war’s being. The end of the Cold War therefore signifies how particular aspects of deterrence continue through other means and in so doing give rise to new effects. To Baudrillard, one of the most important effects is a constant policing of singularities, events, or any kind of potential political subversion. Baudrillard first identified this tendency in the Vietnam War (see below) but a more recent example which is equally relevant is the alleged shift from ‘enemy centric’ to ‘population centric’ counter-insurgency (see Kilcullen 2007). This illustrates an overlap between his thought and recent discussions on policing in critical War Studies. This discussion has engaged with the way war and policing intersects in contemporary Western interventions. It particularly focuses on understanding war as ordering, othering, and spatializing logics which force the distinction between war and policing to break down (Holmqvist 2014 and Bachmann 2014). So what is Baudrillard’s take on war as policing in relation to this particular debate?

Baudrillard identified the Vietnam War as a means to violently reshape the social (a “generative” aspect of war which has also been debated in critical War Studies, see Barkawi and Brighton 2011). To him the Vietnam War was interesting first and foremost in how it masked both a peaceful coexistence between two blocks (East and West) and how it aimed to liquidate ‘savage’ and archaic societal structures. He argues that the war took place as long as there was a wild subversive element to the uprising (illustrated by the Viet Cong). But as soon as Vietnam as a country ‘showed’ the world that it was no longer unpredictable, the war ended (Baudrillard 1994a: 36-37). Therefore, the war in Vietnam masks not only the status quo of the Cold war but also the fact that:

(B)ehind this simulacrum of fighting to the death and of ruthless global stakes, the two adversaries are fundamentally in solidarity against something else, unnamed, never spoken, but  whose objective outcome in war, with the equal complicity of the two adversaries, is total liquidation. Tribal, communitarian, precapitalist structures, every form of exchange, of language, of symbolic organization, that is what must be abolished, that is the object of murder in war – and war itself, in its immense, spectacular death apparatus, is nothing but the medium of this process of the terrorist rationalization of the social – the murder on which sociality will be founded, whatever its allegiance, Communist or capitalist. Total complicity, or division of labor between two adversaries…for the very end of reshaping and domesticating social relations (Baudrillard 1994a: 37, my emphasis).

Baudrillard therefore reads the Vietnam War as one illustration of a kind of global policing which not so much revolved around the two adversaries opposing each other but rather on the way in which deterrence enabled liquidating, reshaping, and domesticating social relations. This is also evident in the Gulf War as the aim there was to ‘impose a general consensus by deterrence’ (Baudrillard 1995: 83) which is no longer the bipolar deterrence of the Cold War but a monopolistic deterrence ‘under the aegis of American power’ (Ibid.: 84). Such a policing through war works as a way to eradicate the possibility of subversion in everyday life and thereby police not only the Gulf but also the heart of Europe (Ibid.: 52). More than anything this is a matter of policing the simulation of democratic consensus as consensus. A matter which Baudrillard ominously invokes as a continuation of war through a violent conditioning of the social:  ‘…(T)omorrow there will be nothing but the virtual violence of consensus, the simultaneity in real time of the global consensus: this will happen tomorrow and it will be the beginning of a world with no tomorrow’ (Ibid.: 84).

And here we might pause and ask, are the Russian wars in Chechnya or Georgia, the second Israeli war in Lebanon or interventions in Gaza, the interventions in Afghanistan (2001-) and Libya in 2011, not possible to see in terms of such policing? This would indicate a breakdown of the distinction of peace and war in which the same police-style violence is evident in both (Baudrillard,1998a: 17). But also, it would indicate that these are wars which aim to police the simulacrum of liberal order itself. If seen in this way we might appreciate how Baudrillard outlines a type of policing which goes towards the spatial through controlling a population and an area (linking it to the debate on policing in critical War Studies). But, more importantly, Baudrillards critique of war as policing points to the way interventions attempt to (1) police the past by whitewashing events so as to justify them retrospectively and (2) police the future through policing the consensus. Baudrillard reads the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan as having 9/11 as focal point and thereby becoming what he calls ‘rituals of exorcism’ which tries to justify the event and the trauma of the past. But also in the sense that interventions aim to police the future through a systematic reprogramming and neutralization of not only possible crimes (or subversive movements) but of every possible future friction that might challenge the order of things (2005a: 118-119; 2007a: 114, 118).

If war continues through policing, one of its “side effects” – Abu Ghraib – also, perhaps, suggests that “war as policing” necessarily gives rise to “war as incarceration”. Andreja Zevnik’s ‘War Porn: an image of perversion and desire in modern warfare’ (2014, this special issue) picks up on Baudrillard’s analysis of Abu Ghraib and the images of torture which became overexposed in the media around 2005.  She engages with Baudrillard’s essay ‘War Porn’ (2005b: 205-209) by looking at the way underlying ideologies and logics make such simulations possible, as well as help to reproduce them. By coupling notions of porn and obscenity with the Lacanian notions of law and perversion, the article illustrates how war’s violence has a tendency to perpetuate its own principle. And indeed, if we follow Baudrillard’s diagnosis, it is precisely as a mirror and an allergy to the violence perpetuated by this ‘unbearable power’ (Baudrillard, 2002a: 18, 5) that events like 9/11 occur.

Terrorism would thereby be a virus caused by the sickness of globalism, indicating a type of war: ‘no longer between peoples, states, systems, and ideologies, but rather, of the human species against itself (Interview with Baudrillard in Der Speigel 2004). Baudrillard argues:

With each succeeding war we have always moved close to a single world order. Today that world order, which has virtually reached its end, finds itself grappling, in all the current convulsions, with the antagonistic forces spread throughout the global dimension itself. A fractal war of all cells, of all singularities, rebelling in the form of antibodies. A clash so elusive that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular set-pieces like the Gulf War (Baudrillard 2003: 63, my emphasis).5

The suggestion that contemporary wars function as masquerades to obscure the fractal war against a “globalist” world order might be the most overtly political aspect of Baudrillard’s thought on war. If the appropriation of the real through the virtual indicated a shift in Baudrillard’s thinking from war as a derivative of the capitalist system (the Marxist view) to war as its own simulation (as outlined in part II of this introduction), this would indicate that this simulation hides a war which ‘haunts every world order, all hegemonic domination…for it is the world, the globe itself which resists globalization’ (Baudrillard 2002a: 12).6

Several articles in this special issue engage with this fractalization of war. William Pawlett (2014, this special issue) provides a reading of Baudrillard’s position on complicity and collusion particularly in relation to the notion of (and as a means to defy) hegemonic domination. Samuel Strehle (2014, this special issue) argues for a War Studies that take the undecidability of thinking (and the challenge to theory that this implies) as its founding principle, and in the epilogue Gerry Coulter (2014, this special issue) discusses Baudrillard’s war against cultural homogenization and sameness. Arguably Pawlett, Strehle, and Coulter all elucidate aspects of how to think ‘fractal war’ in relation to global policing of events and singularities. Moreover, Astrid Nordin (2014, this special issue) further investigates the implications of Baudrillard’s challenge as she inquiries into whether his thought might be extended to understanding the wars of “Others”. Engaging with China’s participation in the global “war on terror”, particularly the way contemporary Chinese rhetoric places itself as a (peaceful) alternative to the West  and represents itself through war in relation to its neighbors, Nordin shows convincingly that there is no respite from our problems in the thought of ‘the Other’. Following Nordin and Coulter we realize that dividing lines between self and other do not run between the West and China, but rather in relation to the fractal particles at war in each and every one of us. As the texts illustrate, regardless of whether we agree with, or oppose Baudrillard’s critique against western globalism, it is important to notice (Coulter 2014, this special issue) that this critique is not a matter of simple ‘anti-Americanism’. William Merrin argues that Baudrillard in his challenge sets his eyes on a wider target: the entire Western semiotic culture (2005: 106). However, as Nordin convincingly shows this target might be less ‘Western’ than Baudrillard would acknowledge.

Baudrillard is often read as being ‘neither for, nor against’ war, as his writing tends to question the possibility of reality rather than how it is conceived (Baudrillard 1995: 58, 67, see also Shapiro 2014 in this special issue). But perhaps we can find, in his notion of ‘fractal war’, a ‘deeper No’, not to war as such but to the virtual ordering of past, present and future consensus which contemporary war obscure: ‘(t)his no, which comes from the depths, should not be understood as a work of negation or of critical thought. It is simply the response of defiance against a hegemonic principle descending indifferently from a great height for the consent of the people’ (Baudrillard, 2006a). Where does this ‘no’ take us with regards to war? Perhaps we might say (with the risk of oversimplifying) that war, despite its disappearance as symbolic act due to virtualization and processing, returns as a radical challenge. This would be a war which has little or nothing to do with Clausewitzs’ “war as a continuation by other means” (or the Foucauldian reversal of this) but rather refers to a duel between a systematic and technocratic globalist challenge (often exemplified by, but never reducible to, Western interventions) and a radical refusal of this expanded as resistance and counter-violence. This duel should not be confused with a clash between the West and Islam but is rather one which potentially involves us all (Baudrillard 2010: 68-70): a duel beyond the end of war where the past, present and future of events and singularities are constantly at stake.

V. Postscript: ‘I am not a messenger’

I was fortunate enough to witness Baudrillard speak at one of his many visits to Japan. The event took place in early October 2004 in a very hot lecture hall at Waseda University, Tokyo. It was packed to the brim with students, researchers, and media, some of whom were literally hanging in from the windows to catch a glimpse. During the Q&A after the lecture Baudrillard was asked by one of the professors whether he had a message to all the young people in the audience. The professor argued that since many students were born in the 1980’s and thereby steeped in the era of virtualization which Baudrillard spent more than three decades criticizing, he might have some advice on how they should navigate the future. Baudrillard’s response to the question was swift. He simply stated ‘I have no message. I am not a messenger’ (Baudrillard cited in Tsukahara 2004: 70-71). Although Baudrillard followed this up with a lengthy discussion on the topic it was one of the most memorable parts of the lecture for me. Particularly because it would have been so easy for him to pose as the well-intending messenger by engaging with present social concerns of the students: unemployment, societal insecurities or the precarious aspects of global life. In hindsight it seems to me that his “no” was not so much a refusal to talk about the future of the students, as it was a “no” to the blackmail that the well-intended question entails: a “deeper no” directed towards the ordering of reality.

So if Baudrillard was not a messenger in that lecture hall in Waseda University what was he?7 One of the characteristics of Baudrillard’s thought is illustrated by this constant attempt to disengage from the issues at stake while at the same time orbiting around them, working to dissolve or displace them in return.8 Ryan Artrip and Francois Debrix (2014 this special issue) discuss the violence of the representation of war in relation to dissemination and proliferation and urge us to learn how to ‘recognize the symptoms’ of this representation in the very things we cherish, such as democracy and the progress of digital technology. Taking in this dual aspect of images and language they outline how each representation of war at the same time thickens the “fog of war”. Acknowledging the tension that they make explicit and at the same time ask Baudrillard for a ‘message’ (be it on war or on the future of Japanese university students) would be akin to missing the crucial insight that the response always inadvertently participates in making reality appear real (Öberg 2014 this special issue). On the other hand, what is the role of theory if it is not at the same time a message? Moreover, does not invoking Baudrillard’s critique also imply a paradox since it demands acceptance while at the same time urges us to refuse the role of messengers “simulating Baudrillard”?  As Gerry Coulter put it at the ‘Baudrillard and War’ colloquium at the Swedish Defence College in Stockholm: ‘Baudrillard had no choice to be Baudrillard, but we cannot choose to be Baudrillard’. So what can we be as (Baudrillardian) theorists of war?

Perhaps the most important point of Baudrillard’s three critiques of war (outlined in this introduction) is how they aim to challenge the alleged irreversibility of contemporary imaginations of war or warfare, while refusing to reify them as real. At the end of his life, Baudrillard himself acknowledge that this was something he always had struggled with, stating that writing is ‘like trying to walk in the snow without leaving footprints’ (2007b: 125). The question ‘do we still have a theory of war after Baudrillard’, absurd as it might seem to the mainstream theorist of war, should therefore not be shrugged off too easily. What if contemporary war studies – in its fervor to explain and understand war – leaves us with the ‘rotting corpse’ of a ‘dead war’ (Baudrillard 1995: 24, 23), that not only media but also theorists do their best to revive and resuscitate? The question would then be, not what Baudrillard’s theory of war is, but what a theory of war that differs from war could possibly look like. Such ‘anti-empiricism’ might be hard to stomach for many mainstream students of war. But when listening to the former General Rupert Smith stating to public acclaim (two decades after Baudrillard) that ‘war no longer exists’ (Smith, 2008) one is left wondering if the theory of war is not already more spectral and hollow than its proponents would care to acknowledge.


A special thanks to IJBS editor Gerry Coulter (Bishop’s University) for his enthusiasm, encouragement and professionalism in making this project happen. Also thanks to William Pawlett (University of Wolverhampton) and Caroline Holmqvist (Swedish Institute of International Affairs) for reading and commenting on previous versions of this introduction.


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1. There are exceptions but they are few and far between. For example, Mike Gane (2000) has a chapter entitled ‘War’ in one of his books on Baudrillard (but this chapter deals predominately with Paul Virilio). Paul Patton (1997: 121-136) and William Merrin (2005: chapters 5, 6) as well as others discuss the Gulf War in detail. But the most explicit work on Baudrillard and war is probably Philip Hammond’s writings (2007; 2009: 118-136).

2. Notable examples are Christine Sylvester (2010), Shane Brighton and Tarak Barkawi’s articles arguing for a ‘critical war studies’ (2011) resulting in amongst other things a section on this topic in Cambridge review of international affairs, as well as the emergence of the journal Critical Military Studies. For a study which explicitly links critical war studies with Baudrillard see Nordin and Oberg (2013). 

3. I will not go through Baudrillard’s stance on the Gulf War in detail. Numerous writers have dealt with the book and the response it received (for example the critique of Christopher Norris). See Merrin (2005: 81-97), Paul Patton (1997: 121-135) or Philip Hammond (2009: 118-135).

4. It is exceptionally difficult to write in this manner. However, Alan Cholodenko’s article (2014 in this special issue) manages to do so. Cholodenko links Baudrillard’s work on film, reality, war, The Bomb and the Holocaust with Baudrillard’s work on the global, the universal, and the singular, treating all in terms of animation, in this case anime in general and Akira in particular, while marking the coimplicated challenges of anime to American film animation and Japan to America, and vice versa.

5.Baudrillard’s statements might be far-fetched for the mainstream student of war. But paradoxically, the idea that the system creates the condition for possible retaliation is also evident in military science. For example, it is often stated in theory on insurgency and counterinsurgency that warfare is an assymetric phenomenon which aims at ‘targeting vulnerabilities and of doing the radically different’ (Thornton 2007: 2).

6.It might be naïve, or even impossible to try to explain or understand such a war without getting caught in the same trap as Baudrillard’s critique of simulation outlines (a point made by Gary Genosko 2014). See also note (4).

7. Mike Gane (1991:3) once claimed that there were two Baudrillard’s: one which responds to questions and has a tendency to fall into the interviewer’s logic, making surprising concessions that seem at odds with his writing, and then another Baudrillard which writes and never concedes. Two decades later I noticed nothing of this sort. Rather, the answers indicated a person who had made it into an art-form to disengage enough with the subject so as to challenge the indirect reality that the question helped constructing.

8. For a lengthy example of this consider the exchange between him and Philippe Petit in the book Paroxysm (1998a).