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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

War Porn1

Jean Baudrillard
(Paris, France)

Translated by Dr. Paul A. Taylor
(Institute of Communications Studies, Leeds University, United Kingdom)2

...tomorrow 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. ...This is what the Americans seek to do, these missionary people bearing electro-shocks which will shepherded everyone towards democracy. It is therefore pointless to question the political aims of this war: the only (transpolitical) aim is to align everybody with the global lowest common denominator, the democratic denominator... ...the New World Order will be both consensual and televisual. That is indeed why the targeted bombings carefully avoided the Iraqi television antennae...The crucial stake, the decisive stake in this whole affair is the consensual reduction of Islam to the global order.3

*      *      *

World Trade Center: shock treatment of power, humiliation inflicted on power, but from outside. With the images of the Baghdad prisons, it is worse, it is the humiliation, symbolic and completely fatal, which the world power inflicts on itself – the Americans in this particular case – the shock treatment of shame and bad conscience. This is what binds together the two events. 

Before both a worldwide violent reaction: in the first case a feeling of wonder, in the second, a feeling of abjection.

Abu Ghraib Prisoner Under American Control. 
© Washington Post

For September 11th, the exhilarating images of a major event; in the other, the degrading images of something that is the opposite of an event, a non-event of an obscene banality, the degradation, atrocious but banal, not only of the victims, but of the amateur scriptwriters of this parody of violence.

The worst is that it all becomes a parody of violence, a parody of the war itself, pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power.

These scenes are the illustration of a power which, reaching its extreme point, no longer knows what to do with itself – a power henceforth without aim, without purpose, without a plausible enemy, and in total impunity. It is only capable of inflicting gratuitous humiliation and, as one knows, violence inflicted on others is after all only an expression of the violence inflicted on oneself. It only manages to humiliate itself, degrade itself and go back on its own word in a sort of unremitting perversity. The ignominy, the vileness is the ultimate symptom of a power that no longer knows what to do with itself.

September 11th was a global reaction from all those who no longer knew what to make of this world power and who no longer supported it. In the case of the abuse inflicted on the Iraqis, it is worse yet: power no longer knows what to do with itself and cannot stand itself, unless it engages in self-parody in an inhuman manner.

These images are as murderous for America as those of the World Trade Center in flames.  Nevertheless, America in itself is not on trial, and it is useless to charge the Americans: the infernal machine exploded in literally suicidal acts. In fact, the Americans have been overtaken by their own power. They do not have the means to control it. And now we are part of this power. The bad conscience of the entire West is crystallized in these images. The whole West is contained in the burst of the sadistic laughter of the American soldiers, as it is behind the construction of the Israeli wall. This is where the truth of these images lies; this is what they are full of: the excessiveness of a power designating itself as abject and pornographic.

Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false. From now on and forever we will be uncertain about these images. Only their impact counts in the way in which they are immersed in the war. There is no longer the need for "embedded" journalists because soldiers themselves are immersed in the image – thanks to digital technology, the images are definitively integrated into the war. They don¹t represent it anymore; they involve neither distance, nor perception, nor judgment. They no longer belong to the order of representation, nor of information in a strict sense. And, suddenly, the question whether it is necessary to produce, reproduce, broadcast, or prohibit them, or even the "essential" question of how to know if they are true or false, is "irrelevant".

For the images to become a source of true information, they would have to be different from the war. They have become today as virtual as the war itself, and for this reason their specific violence adds to the specific violence of the war. In addition, due to their omnipresence, due to the prevailing rule of the world of making everything visible, the images, our present-day images, have become substantially pornographic. Spontaneously, they embrace the pornographic face of the war.  There exists in all this, in particular in the last Iraqi episode, an immanent justice of the image: those who live by the spectacle will die by the spectacle. Do you want to acquire power through the image? Then you will perish by the return of the image.

The Americans are having and will make of it a bitter experience. And this in spite of all the "democratic" subterfuges and the hopeless simulacrum of transparency which corresponds to the hopeless simulacrum of military power. Who committed these acts and who is really responsible for them? Military superiors? Human nature, bestial as one knows, "even in democracy"? The true scandal is no longer in the torture, it is in the treachery of those who knew and who said nothing (or of those who revealed it?).

In any event, all real violence is diverted by the question of transparency – democracy trying to make a virtue out of the disclosure of its vices. But apart from all this, what is the secret of these abject scenographies? Once again, they are an answer, beyond all the strategic and political adventures, to the humiliation of September 11th, and they want to answer to it by even worse humiliation – even worse than death.

Without counting the hoods which are already a form of decapitation (to which the decapitation of the American corresponds obscurely), without counting the piling-up of bodies, and the dogs, forced nudity is in itself a rape. One saw the GIs walking the naked and chained Iraqis through the city and, in the short story Allah Akhbar by Patrick Dekaerke, one sees Franck, the CIA agent, making an Arab strip, forcing him into a girdle and net stockings, and then making him sodomize a pig, all that while taking photographs which he will send to his village and all his close relations.

Thus the other will be exterminated symbolically. One sees that the goal of the war is not to kill or to win, but abolish the enemy, extinguish (according to Canetti, I believe) the light of his sky.

And, in fact, what does one want these men to acknowledge? What is the secret one wants to extort from them? It is quite simply the name in virtue of which they have no fear of death. Here is the profound jealousy and the revenge of "zero death" on those men who are not afraid – it is in that name that they are inflicted with something worse than death… Radical shamelessness, the dishonor of nudity, the tearing of any veil. It is always the same problem of transparency: to tear off the veil of women or abuse men to make them appear more naked, more obscene...

This masquerade crowns the ignominy of the war – until this travesty, it was present in this most ferocious image (the most ferocious for America), because it was most ghostly and most "reversible": the prisoner threatened with electrocution and, completely hooded, like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, crucified by its ilk. It is really America that has electrocuted itself.

Abu Ghraib Prisoner Under American Control.
© Washington Post


Jean Baudrillard is among the most important theorists of our time. He has been employing theory to challenge the real for many years.  His recent books include Le Pacte de Lucidité, The Vital Illusion, The Spirit of Terrorism, Requiem For The Twin TowersCool Memories IV, and Passwords.  He is an editor of IJBS.

Paul Taylor (translator) is Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory at the Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds, England. He is author of "Hacktivism & Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause?" (with Tim Jordan) Routledge, 2004; and "Digital Matters: Theories and Culture of the Matrix" (with Jan Harris) [Routledge forthcoming]. He is an editor of IJBS.


1 This is a translation of Jean Baudrillard. “Pornographie de la guerre” In Liberation, Wednesday May 19, 2004. http://www.liberation.com/

2 The author expresses his gratitude to Dorota Ostrowska, University of Edinburgh for her assistance with this translation and to Dr. Gary Genosko for his assistance in the publication of this translation.

3 Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c1991). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995:84-85.  This quotation has been added to this article by the Editor.

©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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