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Gulf War Was A Perfect Television War Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3602 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The media representation of wars has significantly changed over last years. Previously being just an instrument of coverage and propaganda, now media are considered a competent weapon. The war of real objects is partially being replaced by the war of pictures and sounds, information war (Virilio, 2002). On the one hand, information technologies can be regarded as humane weapon, because they lead to the fewer amounts of victims. On the other hand, they directly influence the mental structures, can fulfill the conscious with false images or distort the perceptions, spread moral panics or create virtual enemies and thus are an intelligent weapon of mass distruction.

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One of the famous works about the usage of information technologies in the war belongs to French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, and his concept of the Gulf War 1991 as the first television war will be assessed in the essay in correlation with his theories of hyper reality and simulacrum. Those concepts are applied to the media representation of the conflict in South Ossetia. The usefulness of the concept of television war for understanding modern conflicts is proved in conclusion.

Hyper reality, simulacrum and information wars

Philosophical approach of Baudrillard’s works is concentrated around two main notions -hyper reality and simulacrum. Both terms are related to the reality of the consumer society. According to Baurillard, we all live in the world, dominated by organized perceptions, while people loose an ability to perceive the real surrounding. Instead they face artificial or adapted environments: assembled chronicles of military operations, coverage of suicidal terrorist acts. Baudrillard (1996) claims that the reality is not only possible to represent, the reality should always be ready for representation – and thus it becomes a hyper reality, existing only in simulation. It consists of media and cultural images that simulate the real world. Some of this images are representations of real objects, but aggressive information technologies, television and particularly advertisement create special images, deceiving representations of non-existing objects, which Baudrillard (1998), following Plato, calls simulacra. In postmodern culture, dominated by TV and Internet, the notions of true and false representations are destroyed, as people have access only to simulations of reality, which is no more real than the simulacra representing it. Moreover, we start to believe the “maps” of reality as more real than own experience and take the hyper reality as the actual environment (Mann, n.d.). Consequently, simulacra, which lost any connection to real things, don’t have original or prototype, and can parallel some objects, change the notion of counterfeits or false.

So a correlation appears that hyper reality becomes the battlefield and the simulacra – the intellectual weapons in conflicts of all levels, from the business competition to wars between countries, which gradually turn into information wars.

The most widespread technique of symbolic images’ usage in information war is propaganda, but now in the form of marketing or PR campaigns. Such campaigns provide the basis for military operations and are a perfect tool to make conform to one side or type of thinking. Thus they are the most integrated and hidden, but also the most pervasive parts of the new wars. The censorship is widespread, because the military-media campaigns require a gap between the event and the audience, and censorship breaks the flow of information, while propaganda specialists “feed” media with false information (Snow, 2003). In these terms coverage of military operations is now able to influence their process – as it was, for example, in the movie “Wag the dog”, where imaginary war actions of American troops in Albania, staged to shift public interest from the reputation crisis of the president, led to real military response.

So, the role of media in the modern wars is not limited to news coverage or propaganda, the media now should be regarded more likely as the “fourth front” of war. The reasons for it could be different. According to sociologist Paul Virilio (2002), the escalation of cybernetic wars of persuasion and propaganda is the result of graduate changes in weapons. The first, prehistorical, wars were tactical and used weapons of obstruction (ramparts, fortresses). The epoch of political wars made them strategic and reliable on weapons of destruction (bows, missiles). The new period of transpolitical wars is characterized as “logistical” and uses weapons of communication (telephone, radar, satellites, information carriers), which emerged due to global information networks and tele-surveillance. The turning point of modern epoch is the integration of media and industrial army, “where the capability to war without war manifests a parallel information market of propaganda, illusion, dissimulation” (Virilio, 2002: 17). The image prevails over the real space and substitutes it, changes the landscape from physical to audiovisual by technological accelerants – satellites, internet and high-quality video on TV.

The level of media influence is dependent on the communication forms, in which it is carried, because it is possible to frame the report, provided with knowledge of certain medium’s advantages (Cottle, 2003). Television with live broadcast and reliance on spectacular images, simulacra, is in these terms the best communication “weapon”. It makes inefficient the object, but concentrates on its representation; it is not a reality, but a construction of it (Webster, 2002). TV news is often watched with the belief that it indicates, the reality, but in fact it is a version of events, shaped by journalists’ values and morality. The whole reality begins and ends on television screens, and any critical attitude emerges not an original version of event, but creates other symbolic representation in live images (Webster, 2002). According to Virilio (2002), the live image attracts not critiques, but emotion, apprehension. Thus it involves the spectator to the situation, makes him dependent on televisual interface, even if the problem doesn’t concern him directly. All these advantages were used strategically for the first time in the Gulf War, which Baudrillard (1995) called both a non-existing and a first “television war”.

Gulf War 1991: the first television war

Three essays of Baudrillard, referred to events in Iraq during January and February 1991, were published originally in the Liberation and the Guardian and lately collected in one book “The Gulf War did not take place”. Before the actual war, during the strengthening of American military and propaganda, he claimed that the Gulf War will not take place in reality. During the military actions his catchy slogan was that the Gulf War is not taking place and right after the operation he said that the Gulf War hadn’t taken place, because the Western public perceived it just as a series of hyperreal TV images. For Baudrillard, media and especially television do not provide the opportunities for effective communication. Television is the technology of non-communication because it limits the interaction needed for symbolic exchange by giving the large amounts of signs impossible to critically analyze and react (Groening, 2007). A war demands a struggle between counterparts, exchange, communication and interaction (Webster, 2002), while Baudrillard (1995) argued that the USA overloaded the symbolic communication space in this war and moreover, the goals of George Bush and Saddam Hussein were so different that they couldn’t even be considered as counterparts. Hussein, a former US ally, was not regarded as the real enemy, and the outcome of the war was predictable both for participants and for “audience” of war (Mann, n.d.). Researchers express the controversial idea that bombing was the most precise in history and civilian casualties thus were minimized (Kellner, 2008). Consequently, the war can be regarded as hyperreal and overloaded by media provocations.

The Gulf War was understood by Paul Virilio (2002) also as a turning point in history. He called it the first information war of images, media-staged event or the first electronic war in the form of televised series, broadcast live by satellite. The difference is that Virilio accepted the idea that the war really had taken place, but it moved to the “fourth front” of communication weapons and instant information. He warned about the doubling of the front, a communication between place of action – the Middle East – and place of its immediate reception – the whole world, which extends widely over the Iraqi-Saudi border. Turning the battlefield into a theatre with the symbolic counterparts- Hussein and CNN – emerges the risk of turning TV audience into “fans” on the stadium, counting casualties like goals of the favorite team. In comparison with Baudrillard, Virilio considers TV as establishing interactivity between those making war and those watching it. But he has the same idea about the role of common people in war – “impotent tele-spectators, victims of “intelligent” weapons and the people who serve them” (Virilio, 2002: 47).

It is obvious that Baudrillard didn’t intend to act like a “devil’s advocate” and decline the existence of the Gulf War. He agrees that a massive bombing of military and civil objects took place in Iraq in 1991. And lately he (2002) told readers that official casualties in Iraq were estimated in order of 100 000, not counting the losses due to consequent hunger and diseases. But the question is why so few US soldiers died in this war, that it was named “a war of zero casualties on the side of allies” (Virilio, 2002: 97).

After analyzing Baudrillard’s work, it becomes clear, that despite a catchy slogan in title, in fact the author compares real events with their interpretation, and the central conclusion is that the consequence of real events could hardly be named “a war”, while a consequence of those events’ representations was perceived as a real war. This effect was a main reason why he called a Gulf War the first and the perfect television war.

US-led coalition relied highly on the television. On the first night of military operation, in Kourou, Ariane rocket launched two broadcasting satellites (Virilio, 2002), and it was a sign of parallel intervention of real forces and television. The leaders’ decisions were significantly based on intelligence reports, coming not from eye-witnesses, but from news and images. Bush recruited CNN and its owner Ted Turner to transit messages to Iraqi people and thus held diplomacy through interposed images (Virilio, 2002). Coalition forces were ordered not to get engaged in the direct battles with Iraqi army, but to use the means of virtual war in response to Iraqi attempts to turn the conflict into traditional. After interviewing soldiers, who were on the battlefield, Baudrillard (1995) claimed that the Western TV channels, especially CNN, offered audience highly edited reports from Iraq under the shape of live feeds. ABC News’ through life coverage of the Gulf War convinced the nation that Star Wars works (Bass, 2002). But Hussein used media even more cynically, creating a consequence of the images of hostages and the crying children.

Attractive simulacra with no meaning behind were promoted by media of both sides: the CNN journalists with the gas masks in the Jerusalem, drugged and beaten prisoners on Iraqi TV, sea-bird covered in oil and pointing eyes into the Gulf sky (Baudrillard, 1995) and the quintessential symbol – the Stealth F117, undetectable bomber, that nobody have seen, but everyone knew. The first object, destructed by F117, was also symbolic – the building of Hussein forces’ communication centre (Virilio, 2002). The effect could be correlated with the essence of the conflict’s media coverage: it is possible to see it only in time it happens, there is no time to prepare for it and no sense to watch it afterwards. As the victims of F117 see it just in the moment of action, viewers see the live broadcasts at the same time with the military journalists.

The last reasons for perceiving the Gulf War as a television war are its results. Baudrillard and Virilio agreed that nobody fully lost or won in the conflict. Defeated in fact, Hussein remained in power and moreover won the information war. In spite of abilities given by Pentagon, CNN lost that television war, because American government issued a document, restricting the “real time” of operations from the TV “present time” (Virilio, 2002). Trying to prevent the American audience from communication weapons of Iraq, US officially imposed censorship and turned the public to the search for new information sources.

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To conclude, Iraq in 1991 was a place not of real war, but of massive violence and a remote enough zone for creating simulacra and holding a perfect television war. The TV Gulf War could have seemed a perfect simulacrum, a hyperreal situation. It is possible to partially agree with Baudrillard’s and Virilio’s argumentation, as it may be really the first example in the war history, when the TV technologies were used as a competent weapon and the whole war was “spectacled” on TV. But from the humane point of view, the statement “the Gulf War did not take place” undermines the seriousness of the Iraqi civilians’ massacre, the consequences for the political situation in Iraq and such consequence as the spread of international terrorism, which now is often perceived as the same symbolic non-event (Baudrillard, 2002): it catches the eye on TV screen when happening somewhere, but is not fully understood as possible to happen with the viewer. Nevertheless, Baudrillard’s theory is useful for understanding representations of other modern wars, for example, the recent conflict between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia.

South Ossetia 2008 media war

Conflict in South Ossetia will remain in the history of the post-Soviet area as a first war, which media helped to spread from the inter-country to cross-continental level. Known as Georgian-Ossetian war, the conflict in August 2008 turned into confrontation between Georgia and USA on one side and Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other. On the 8 August Georgia started a bombing of its separatist region South Ossetia. The next day Russia deployed troops in Ossetia and started military operation against Georgia. The USA government expressed eagerness to intervene, but on the 16 August the ceasefire was signed. The actual political result is recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia by several countries, leading by Russia, and high tensions in the region. The number of casualties is still discussed and differs from 160 to 2000 on Ossetian side and from 60 to 400 on Georgian.

Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreal television war is the perfect way of understanding this simulacra-rich conflict. The date of its beginning was a sign itself – it was the day of opening the Olympic Games in Beijing, when by ancient traditions all the conflicts should be postponed. The violation of symbolic tradition instantly attracted the attention of world’s media. Artillery system “Grad”, used by Georgian forces as well as totally destructed building of hospital in Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, became symbols of civilian massacre. The anecdotic situation, when American audience mixed the Georgia as the Caucasus country and the US state, and started panics, was spread by media. Russian media discussed the interview with the 12-year-old ossetian girl on the Fox News, where she accuses Georgia, while being roughly interrupted by the journalist (Kukolevsky, 2008). And even unaware people remember Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, nervously chewing his necktie during the live TV interview.

All those images were born by the war, which Georgian minister Temur Yakobashvili called a war for international public opinion (Collin, 2008). The media became a crucial battlefield in the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow. The Georgian side claimed that it tried to reconquer its territory while Russian troops illegally invaded into it. Russians responded that Georgian government organized genocide, while Russian mission was to enforce peace. Both sides accused each other of spending millions of dollars on propaganda. Both sides even employed European PR agencies to promote their viewpoint.

Georgia, backed by Western allies, from the beginning dominated in the information war. Started with cyberattacks and blocking of Russian TV, it used the help of USA and Great Britain, who didn’t engage into real conflict, but actively engaged in the information one. All the leading global media – CNN, Fox News, BBC, Sky News, Reuters, Associated Press – were pro-Georgian. For example, Sky News showed a video report about the bombings of Tskhinvali by Georgian troops with a title “Russia bombs the Georgian region South Ossetia” (InoSmi, 2008; CNN, 2008). Georgia used a main advantage of Baudrillard’s television war – that the world revealed the war from TV news. European audience, unaware of remote Caucasus regions, didn’t know that some American and European correspondents presented the videos from Ossetian Tskinvali as the videos from Georgia (Vesti, 2009). Even Russian Foreign minister Sergej Lavrov agreed, that Russia lost that information war, but presented it as evidence, that Russia is not an aggressor, otherwise it would have prepared a successful strategy (RIA Novosti, 2008).

Nevertheless, I consider the results of Russian-Georgian information war as controversial as the results of real week-long conflict. The aim of attracting Western support wasn’t achieved by any side. For example, German press claimed the conflict broadened the tensions between Russia and the West (Mannteufel, 2008), while some of British media found evidence of Georgia being an aggressor, guilty in war crimes (Milne, 2008). Some analysts consider Georgian media campaign as more effective because, for example, English-speaking ministers were always available for interview (Collin, 2008), but the media coverage was often favorable to Russia.

The Russian strategy in this war could have been more effective, if used the overviewed simulacra images actively, because they all were really catchy and could influence the target audiences. Also Russia could have provided the world media with evidence of Georgian genocide by opening an access to a war zone for journalists. Moreover, it could be useful to prepare a strategic crisis communication plans for the possible conflicts of this kind. But anyway, the negative image of Russia, popular among Western media, could undermine by now any communication efforts. To change the situation, Russia should become a part of global media system, which is impossible because of American domination.

The main idea of case study is that in August 2008 South Ossetia became a centre not of a real war, which ended in one week, but of an information war, which lasts till now. On this battlefield a little Georgia, backed by Western transnational media, can beat the huge Russia and create herself an image of a victim of Russian military machine (Zinenko, 2008). Thus it proves the thesis of Baudrillard and Virilio, that the wars of new generation are being won or lost in the space of media and information technologies.


The theoretical concepts of information and especially television wars by Baudrillard and Virilio, engaged in the essay with the real wars in Iraq 1991 and South Ossetia 2008, emerge the question of what Kellner (2005) calls a centrality of media politics in advanced foreign policy. Of course, the idea of hyperreal television war is an ideal model, and by now there was no conflict that has been totally televisual. Critiques of Baudrillard draw an attention to his hyper-postmodern approach (Hegarty, 2004) or lack of meaningful political engagement (Economic expert, n.d.).

Nevertheless, the fact remains – in both analyzed war cases and in numerous other conflicts of the last decades the media opened the “fourth front”, created a hyperreal space of mutual information attacks and marketing-style campaigns, used the simulacra-like images to influence the audience and to attract it to one side. Moreover, media become a means of searching allies or oppositely turn back to life the old confrontations, like in case of South Ossetia they emerged a new spiral of Cold War between Russia and the USA (RIA Novosti, 2008). Consequently, the governments of new generation should consider media campaigns as a part of any successful military operations, and the people, who don’t want to be manipulated be spectacular images, should try to be less ignorant and more human-oriented.


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