Saturday 28 November 2015

Simulating War Against Islamic State

The sometimes mischievous French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard earned himself a bit of notoriety in the wake of Operation Desert Storm by declaring that the the Gulf War did not take place. Of course, he wasn't suggesting it didn't take place in the sense that conspiracy theorists maintain NASA didn't land men on the Moon. Baudrillard's observations noted instead the simulated character of the war. Simulated because it was less a war and more a massacre as the large but antiquated Iraqi military was bombed to bits by the very latest weapons technology the Western coalition had at their disposal. Simulated because the fighting, from the perspective of the coalition military, was done at arms' length - ground operations were little more than skirmishes, were infrequent, and not germane to the eventual outcome. And simulated because the media fixated on camera-mounted missiles, guided artillery, footage of warplanes embarking and returning from their sorties, and so on. Viewers of Western news bulletins could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a piece of Hollywood militaria with state-of-the-art whizz-bang effects.

The media being the media, Baudrillard was attacked by the dumb empiricists who took his provocative title literally. Yet he was right. Since 1991, Western military adventures - with perhaps the exception of Blair's largely-forgotten Sierra Leone outing - have all followed this pattern. If anything, the strides in drone technology have increased the distance between Western combatants and the front line. For their operators, you could be forgive for thinking war is shading into the simulated environments of the video game, with the exception that the destruction their actions wreak are very real.

When politicians on both sides of the House move to vote on bombing Syrian again next week, it is this form of warfare they have in mind. Something smart, surgical, and trained on the bad guys. Yet, if the government carry the vote, and it looks like they may, it will mark yet another step toward the virtualisation of warfare. When I was a kid, playing a game was playing for its own sake. Likewise, the extension of the RAF's bombing of IS targets in Iraq into Syria is an exercise of war for war's sake.

As it happens, I'm not a pacifist. There are just wars, and unjust wars. IS, or whatever you want to call them, are a disgusting bunch of thugs armed with a theology that justifies and excuses their brutality. They are the very opposite of mainstream Western values, let alone the politics of labour movements and of socialism. As such, I have no principled objection against burying them under a barrage of heavy ordinance. Though motivated for their own reasons, when the US Air Force were ordered to provide the Kurdish YPG with cover in Kobane and offensive operations against IS, that was a good thing. It'd be even nicer if the US took the PKK off their terrorism list and told Turkey to stop bombing PKK positions in northern Iraq too. Here there was a clear objective and today the US still provides targeted bombing for the only unambiguously democratic and secular force in Syria. The alternative to this had the US not intervened would have been wholesale slaughter and a further strengthening of the blackest reaction.

What price our non-intervention in the Syrian conflict? With Russia, France, the US, and a motley crew of Gulf states already charging about the desert skies it's difficult to tell what difference a handful of RAF jets can make. Are there bits of IS infrastructure the others require super special British skills for? I somehow doubt it. Are there forces on the ground we can provide air cover for? The Free Syrian Army, Dave's favoured outfit, are more interested in fighting Assad than concentrating their efforts on IS. With the Russians pounding their positions in support of the government it's highly unlikely they'll transfer assets and fighters to combat IS on fronts that aren't as threatening, regardless of what the British ask of them. The al-Nusra front are unlikely to be getting any support, and for whatever reason - perhaps to avoid upsetting Erdo─čan - the UK isn't keen on the cut of the Kurds' jib. The fighters Dave spoke of in the Commons last week were but 70,000 figments of his imagination.

Without ground support, without a strategy, what then can bombing IS hope to achieve? Nothing, apart from the most extreme form of a simulated war yet. Combine everything that Baudrillard said about the Gulf War with a series of actions lacking objectives, actions that are taking place to make it look as though we are "doing something" against IS, this simulation is all about keeping up appearances - of the UK looking tough and standing with France against IS. It's not going to work simply because it's not setting out to achieve anything. It's war for war's sake, an exercise that, unfortunately, will do more harm to the civilians caught up in the bombing than damage to any terrorist infrastructure. The cynicism of it all, the very absence of any compelling case for this type of operation makes shows the proposed actions to be unjust and unwarranted.


Anonymous said...

Well said. And it his amazing when you say you are opposed to the bombing of Syria under the present circumstances, and in the view of the fact we switched target sine 2013, the pro bombing' s answer is always : we just can't do nothing!very poor reason (and wrong, there is plenty we could do)for killing probably more civilians than Isis fighters!

Speedy said...

Agreed, it's pointless. JC is right about this, if for the wrong reasons. There should actually be a full scale ground intervention and re-partitioning of the region according to ethnic groups (or those less inclined to murder each other).

Of course this would be seen as far too "imperialistic" now, and JC would certainly not support it, but it is the only thing that will solve the situation. The alternative is pseudo-warn and suffering without end.

badger said...

Speedy's "full scale ground intervention" shows an imagination as vivid as Dave's 70,000 armed moderates. Like Phil, I can only give support to the Kurds in a tragedy that matches baddies on one side with baddies on the other. What little influence we have should be put to the thankless and extremely difficult ( if not impossible) task of achieving some sort of compromise peace amongst most of the local actors ( excluding ISIL and Al-Nusra) and the intervening regional and international powers. However unlikely such a peace is, it seems a racing certainty compared to a "strategy" of lobbing in a few more bombs. Corbyn, whatever you think of him in general, has got this right and the vultures in the PLP are wrong.

jim mclean said...

70000 armed moderates would split into 10 x 7000 different militias within a few weeks

Gary Elsby said...

Hasn't Tom Watson said that the Prime Minister has made a 'compelling case' for intervention?

Now where have I heard that before?

Now what will Chilcot II say in 2020?

Gary Elsby said...

Reading Ruth in the paper, she's all but on the runaway, suited and booted and with a full cargo to be delivered.

Listening to her on the radio a few days later, her alter ego, Judy Garland/Mother Theresa/The sound of music......she's 'not all that convinced yet.....and I need to hear the whole argument....

Yeah, ok.

Boffy said...

I am just writing something on this, but an interesting thought just struck me. Where have many of the foreign fighters, such as Jihadi John, who have wreaked havoc in Syria come from. he, and many of them, like all those who also went to fight in Iraq, and Libya, came from Britain.

Jihadi John was born and grew up in Britain, was well educated in Britain, and then along with thousands of others of British born jihadists went to murder people in Syria.

So, on that basis that it is actually Britain, that is shipping off thousands of its young people to commit acts of terror in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, should Assad, and his Russian backers have every right to come and bomb Britain, where those jihadists have been originating from?