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Wars that Never Take Place: Non-events, 9/11 and Wars on Terrorism

by Binoy Kampmark

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According to French social theorist and cultural provocateur Jean Baudrillard, the Gulf War never happened: “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.”1 Virtual simulation and simulacra had rendered it a hyperreal event, a sham event that could not resuscitate a concept of war that the Cold War had killed. The Gulf War embodied “the spectacle of the degradation of the event and its spectral evocation”.2 Baudrillard’s critiques of both the Gulf War and September 11 present radical, ironic interpretations of “events” and “non-events” through his theory of a tension between “symbolic” reality and the disenchanted simulacrum.3 His theory offers a corrective to the liberty and security narratives that presently describe the war on Iraq. This paper proposes to interrogate 9/11 and the “wars on terror” - Afghanistan and
Iraq - in the light of Baudrillard’s theory. The limits to this analysis are also discussed, including the extent to which Baudrillard tends to be inconsistent on key issues such as deception and simulation. But this inconsistency, I argue, is consistent with the parodic self-irony that is characteristic of Baudrillard’s “high risk writing strategy.”4 Baudrillard, as one key text puts it, felt “that this burden [of “recklessness” and contradiction] is bearable in a world which has, in his view, become totally artificial and parasitic.”5

Baudrillard’s provocative critique of the non-event has shifted in response to the terrrorist attacks of September 11. There were, according to Baudrillard, two different “events” associated with the attacks. The attacks themselves he designates as an example of his own understanding of an “event”: a happening that confronts and exposes the simulation and deception classically exemplified by the Gulf War. But the subsequent “war on terror” was much more a “non-event” where the historical protagonists (President Bush, bin Laden, Al Qaeda) refuse to commit to a legitimate “event,” engaging in strategies of deception and simulation from the earlier conflict.

In the recent conflicts in Aghanistan and Iraq, there has been continual bluff in line with Baudrillard’s Gulf War thesis. The suggestion of weapons of mass destruction that are impossible to find; the notion that the coalition was always intent on avoiding the war; the claim that the US is well supported in this conflict. Whatever Saddam Hussein did in response to the demands of the US and its allies (disarmament, weapons destruction), the gestures were as empty as the demands themselves. Moreover, in a situation entirely congruent with Baudrillard’s theorisation of simulation, the ending of the war offers no genuine head-of-state to try, no genuine Saddam; indeed in a very Baudillardian move, during the war and possibly after it, his identity and whereabouts are concealed by the multiple copies that operate in Iraq.

Despite the explanatory value of the Baudrillardian thesis, we must also recognise its limits. There are inner contradictions in his theorisation of “reality,” especially with regard to how the concepts of simulation and dissimulation play out in his arguments. But, I would suggest, it is precisely these contradictions that must be embraced in order to account for the peculiarities of postmodern war.

The “non-event”

“From the beginning we knew this war would never happen.”6 Why would there be no war for Baudrillard in the Gulf? The Gulf War was a weak successor to both the “violence of conflict” in the form of the Second World War or the “balance of terror” of the ensuing Cold War. The Cold War, with its suspension of conflict in the form of deterrence theory and mutually assured destruction has killed war, argues Baudrillard. In 1983, Baudrillard was already claiming, in his analysis of nuclear deterrence, that, “Like the real, warfare will no longer have any place – except precisely if the nuclear powers are successful in de-escalation and mange to define new spaces for warfare.”7 In 1990, Baudrillard wrote that, “America, Saddam Hussein and the Gulf powers are fighting over the corpse of war.”8 The death of “war” had been assured by the freeze of hot conflicts in the Cold War global system. “Hot” war was impossible: it would have resulted in nuclear destruction.

Baudrillard’s reading of the Gulf War can be contextualised within a framework of scholarship that insisted on such terms as “the long peace” or the ruling out of war as a means of “settling foreign disputes or securing new arrangements of international power.” 9Unable to fulfil its potential in catastrophic nuclear war, superpower hegemony resorted to simulation and the telematic control of images, “deterring” the historical event through a “virtual exercise of power”.10 “The Gulf War is … a place of collapse, a virtual and meticulous operation which leaves the same impression of a non-event where the military confrontation fell short and where no political power proved itself.”11 Where there is no war, there is a confrontation of images that occur beyond war: “World War III did not take place and yet we are already beyond it, as though in the utopian space of a post-war-which-did-not-take-place”. “Empty war” reminds Baudrillard of World Cup football matches, “to be decided by penalties (sorry spectacle), because of the impossibility of enforcing a decision”.12 Baudrillard’s Gulf War critique suggests that both George Bush Snr. and Saddam Hussein abided by the logic of deterrence, a pact made to provide “a poultice or an artificial purgative” through “deterrence” against more radical elements in the global system such as fundamentalism.13 Baudrillard was certain that the “real” event had been killed: “The prodigious event, the event which is measured neither by its causes nor consequences, but creates its own image and its own dramatic effect, no longer exists.”14

Baudrillard’s theories can be understood as questioning the notion of “reality” which he categorised as a problem of semiology. First order signs are characterised by a “reality” disguised by appearance. The second order involves “production”, where “appearances create their illusion of reality”. Simulation marks the final order, where “images invent reality.”15 At this stage, “the real is not only what can be reproduced but that which is always being reproduced”: the “hyperreal”.16

One might argue that the Gulf War thesis confuses acts of dissimulation with acts of simulation. A distinction might then be drawn between the ruse of the existence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, 9/11 and the strategies of simulation deployed by Saddam and bin Laden that purport to confirm their continued existence. The first instance involves no telematic, visual images, while the reproduction of Saddam or bin Laden images involve “simulation.” But in fact in Baudrillard's theory there are no meaningful grounds for distinguishing between deception and simulation. Simulation, as Slavoj Žižek observes in relation to virtual reality, “generates the semblance of a non-existing reality – it simulates something that does not exist.”17 This has evidenced itself in the present conflict: with the fantasmic space created by Washington’s “simulation” of Iraq’s non-existing weapons; with the preparations for chemical or biological warfare (with chemical suits and so on) that proved needless. A Baudrillardian response would regard dissimulation as meaningless in the simulacrum since the latter is the only “reality.” As far as “events” are concerned, this constitutes what Baudrillard called the “(immoral) truth of news, the secret purpose [destination] of which is to deceive us about the real, but also to undeceive us about the real.”18 French social critic Alain Benoist has conceded that after 9/11, “reality ... imitates virtual reality or that the simulacrum precedes reality.”19

Where deterrence is the governing principle, the image (simulation) and signs (simulacra) eclipse “symbolic reality.” Simulacra engender “disenchantment” through abolishing “symbolic relations,” an example which William Merrin cites from Baudrillard, being the pornographic image, an “obscenity” that establishes the visible without any distance. Pornography brings the image into a relation of extreme immediacy with the viewer, abolishing any “exchange” between the viewer and the image. Symbolic exchange or “symbolic reality,” by contrast, posits a “cyclical, reversible relationship between things”.21 In the “symbolic ‘scene’” the Maussian22 “reciprocal relationship” establishes an “exchange” between objects and concepts, while simulation and hyperreality divest the need for such an exchange: “we have nothing to add, that is to say, nothing to give in exchange.”23 In the Gulf War thesis, Baudrillard extends his critique of the sign to the historical event. Simulation “triumphs over both the reality principle and the death principle.”24 The Gulf War exemplified a new sanitised war, a war sterilised through the simulacra of television and computer simulation. CNN “seeks to be a stethoscope attached to the hypothetical heart of war, and to present us with its hypothetical pulse.”25 But a war that occurs in real time is only happening as a hypothetical statement. “History in real time is CNN, instant news, which is the exact opposite of history.”26

A strategic shift is evinced in Baudrillard’s account of September 11, which moves beyond the triumph of hyper-simulation that was the Gulf War, and past the rationale of “deterrence,” since the architects of the attacks were not directed by such theoretical limits to engagement. September 11 was no “non-event”. It proved to be a “prodigious event [that] creates its own dramatic effect”. “With the attacks on Washington and the WTC, the absolute event, the ‘mother’ of all events – the pure event that embodies within it all other events which never took place – has arrived.” Baudrillard is careful to rule out any suggestions that “reality” has entered through the backdoor. “A surplus of violence does not suffice to open up reality.”27 Far from it, September 11 reflects something more potent than “reality”: a symbolic response to the simulacrum.

Baudrillard’s article “The Spirit of Terrorism” provides a new critique that suggests that the terrorist attacks of September 11 acted against the simulacrum, or at least the disenchanted simulacrum which destroys the play of symbolic exchange. An anticipatory hint towards this terroristic opposition to the simulacrum is carried in Baudrillard’s pre-Gulf War writings when he suggests that it was better to die “in the convulsions of terrorism” than anonymously like comatose ectoplasm numbed by media.28 If there is no return to the “real,” there is the response of something superior to the “real”: an event that cannot be duplicated and exchanged. “To a system whose surplus of power does not allow any challengers, terrorists respond with a definitive act also impossible to duplicate.”29 Rex Butler’s analysis of Barudillardian theory proves useful here: exchange is “real, actually excluded from the system, and virtual, the very thing that means nothing is excluded from the system.” Hence, there is a “doubling” of the system; Baudrillard posits the “real” in order to refute it by suggesting “it does not yet exist.”30 September 11 becomes a genuine “model” of extremist violence, whilst the “war on terror” acts as “a superimposition of the model over the event, i.e. an artificial stake”.31

This is Baudrillard at his self-contradictory best. If we read the terrorist attacks as aspects of the “symbolic,” one would assume a “symbolic” exchange. Yet Baudrillard directly contradicts himself by suggesting that the 9/11 was non-exchangeable. This might show that Baudrillard himself had no answer to 9/11 – it had defied his system by transcending a situation of symbolic responses altogether. The events of September may well have driven his system to collapse and have broached a realm beyond theory in which there can be no exchange. There might be an underlying “truth” to his system after all, despite his suggestions that “truth” is beyond the system. But is Baudrillard really saying this? If 9/11 was an event beyond exchange, it was only so vis-à-vis the simulacrum, which is antithetic to it.

This can be gathered from his statements as to how “reality” was “absorbed” in the attacks. Baudrillard does not seek to defend the “real” but a radical illusion more playful than any “reality.” The real has “absorbed the energy of fiction, and become fiction”, or an “additional fiction – a fiction that goes beyond fiction.”32 The attack on the Twin Towers “radicalized the relation between image and reality” whilst radicalising the “global situation”.33 Baudrillard reveres the terrorists for providing “an even more real eruption of death, i.e., symbolic and sacrificial death, i.e., the absolute event without possibility of appeal.”34 The terror of the simulacrum can only be confronted by something outside the system of representation: another symbolic act of terrorism.

This would seem to be impossible. Because it is unprecedented, there is no adequate response to the terror event from the force that it effectively targeted – there is no exchange of the terrorist act of September 11 and the “technocratic” global system it confronts. The simulacrum ultimately attempts to overcome the terrorist transformation, and the “war against terrorism” reverts to the Gulf War model using “deterrence” as its motivating ideal. Ultimately, the very means of symbolic resistance that September 11 implies seems to run its course through self-defeat: if the “Fourth World War” is upon us, then it is terrorism itself that becomes the system, producing its own simulacral effects through the effect of its own doubling. Terrorism initiates its own rules of the system, thereby ceasing to be particular: “Since [Sept 11] turns every individual into a suspect, does it not also turn all innocent persons into potential terrorists?”35 If the simulacrum is the “reality,” then it becomes too powerful to combat. In Bogard’s words, “the system [order of simulation] is not only already indifferent to limits, it reproduces them in simulation, thereby mocking this very indifference.”36 In other words, while 9/11 transcends Baudrillard’s system by moving beyond it as an ideal that counters simulacra, the Coalition of the Willing, headed by the United States, simply returns to simulacrum. The simulacrum returns in triumph in the discourse of a liberated Iraq.

Binoy Kampmark is currently Hampton Scholar at St. John's College, University of Queensland.

'Wars that Never Take Place: Non-events, 9/11 and Wars on Terrorism' continues in Part 2


1. Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Original published as La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu: Éditions Galilée, 1991; Sydney: Power Publications, 1995), p. 38. The author thanks the referee for constructive comments and keen interest shown on earlier drafts of this paper, and Andrew Bonnell for his support.
2. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 49.
3. For his critique of 9/11 see Jean Baudrillard, “L’esprit du terrorisme,” Le Monde, November 3, 2001; trans. Kathy Ackerman as “The Spirit of Terrorism,” in Telos, no. 121 (Fall 2001): 134-142.
4. Paul Patton in preface to The Gulf War, p. 6.
5. Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner, eds., Forget Baudrillard? (London: Routledge, 1993), p. xi.
6. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 23.
7. Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, ed. Jim Fleming (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990), p. 191.
8. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 23.
9. John L. Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Midge Decter, “Anti-Americanism in America,” Harper’s Magazine, 236, 1415 (April 1968): 39-48, 45.
10. P. Patton, “This Is Not A War,” in Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1997), pp. 121-35, 130.
11. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 70.
12. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 33.
13. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 38.
14. Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 21.
15. Tseëlon Efrat, “Fashion and Signification in Baudrillard" in Douglas Kellner, ed. Baudrillard: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994, pp. 119-132, 140.
16. Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, (New York: Semiotext(e)), 1983, p. 146.
17. Slavoj Žižek, The Abyss of Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 62.
18. Baudrillard, The Illusion, p. 61.
19. Alain Benoist, "The Twentieth Century Ended September 11", Telos, no. 112, (Fall 2001), pp. 113-133, 114.
20. William Merrin, “To Play With Phantoms: Jean Baudrillard and the Evil Demon of the Simulacrum,” Economy and Society 30, 1 (February 2001): 85-111, 98.
21. Rex Butler, Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real (London: SAGE Publications, 1999), p. 4.
22. Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), whose theory of the gift and exchange in primitive societies proves invaluable in Baudrillard’s discourse: see Mauss, The Gift: Forms of Function and Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (London: Cohen & West, 1969).
23. Quoted in Merrin, “To Play With Phantoms,” p. 98. According to Merrin, Baudrillard seeks to overcome it through combating the simulacrum with the “symbolic”, a technique that has roots in Durkheimian social anthropology.
24. Jean Baudrillard, “Symbolic Exchange and Death,” in Mark Poster, ed. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), pp. 119-148, 147.
25. Baudrillard, The Gulf War, p. 48.
26. Baudrillard, The Illusion, p. 90.
27. For quotes in the paragraph see Baudrillard, “Spirit,” pp. 134, 141.
28. Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1990), p. 5.
29. Baudrillard, “Spirit,” pp. 135.
30. Butler, Baudrillard, p. 121.
31. Baudrillard, “Spirit,” p. 142.
32. Baudrillard, “Spirit,” p. 141.
33. Baudrillard, “Spirit,” p. 140.
34. Baudrillard, “Spirit,” p. 137.
35. Baudrillard, “Spirit,” p. 138.

36. Bogard, “Baudrillard,” p. 316.

'Wars that Never Take Place: Non-events, 9/11 and Wars on Terrorism' continues in Part 2

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