BOOK REVIEW OF ‘VIRTUOUS WAR: MAPPING THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL-MEDIA-ENTERTAINMENT NETWORK’
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 9 Oct 2009
By James Der Derian, New York and London: Routledge, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-77239-6, Second Edition.
Are we gaming our way into war? Two years before Saddam Hussein’s fateful decision to cross the border with Kuwait, in 1990, US intelligence discovered that Iraq was running simulations of the invasion using a computer program purchased from an American software company. This fascinating snippet, related in James Der Derian’s influential book, first entered the public domain via a newspaper interview by General Norman Schwarzkopf, by then reinvented as ‘Stormin’ Norman’ following his appointment to run Operation Desert Shield and, later, Desert Storm, the first major war of the post-Cold War era.
Before this – and for all his carefully cultivated image as a grizzled veteran of ‘real’ combat, a self-styled “mud soldier” – Der Derian notes that Schwarzkopf held an administrative post, in charge of “a paper army without troops, tanks or aircraft of its own” (p 15). His “affinity for computer simulations was unsurprising”, then, and, on the General’s own account of the period, took up most of his time, programming one scenario after another for war in the desert.
These were already, 20 years ago, becoming highly sophisticated, and Der Derian uses the anecdote to open up a question central to his thesis in this book: “was there a paradox here, that the closer the war game was able to technically reproduce the reality of war, the greater the dangers that might arise from confusing one with the other?” (p 14).
In prelude, the text of President – formerly General – Dwight D Eisenhower’s farewell address of 1961 is reproduced in full. This was where the phrase, “the military-industrial complex” entered common parlance, and Der Derian updates it to take account of technological changes, as MIME-Net, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network. It’s an attempt to map the implications of Eisenhower’s warnings over the “unwarranted influence” of the arms industry on to the much later concept of the network society, where the power of capital is seen as being located in patterns of flow rather than points of accumulation. Manuel Castells, whose terms these are, is not named in the book, but the debt to his thinking is made clear early on, in characterising the “virtual revolution in diplomatic and military affairs” which is “enabled by networks not actors” (p xxx).
In another sense, Der Derian is suggesting, we are all turned into actors, in a Hollywoodisation of global conflict. The early part of the book recounts his adventures as an invited observer at US military exercises to simulate various battle scenarios. He has an “epiphany” in the Mojave Desert when he strays into the path of an oncoming Abrams tank, which, though loaded only with blank ammunition, still menaces anyone who comes too close.
He pushes his luck with one of the escort officers, asking how close we are now to the fictional scenario from the Terminator movies, where the Skynet computer system took over the earth after becoming self-aware and setting off a nuclear holocaust. There are occasional apercus concerning the mirror shades worn by zealous military types, their resemblance to Arnie or Robocop, their lack of any sense of irony concerning such matters and so on.
Joining the virtuality of war is a moralising dimension, with the post-Cold War space having proved receptive to “new ethical and economic imperatives for global democratic reform and neoliberal markets”, which has enabled military ‘interventions’ to be depicted as virtuous: hence the book’s title. Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia, in the Kosovo “operation” of 1999, was a prototype, refined and expanded for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is an updated version of Der Derian’s original text, with a revised introduction and four new chapters added for this second edition, and he writes, quite justifiably, as one whose interim conclusions have been borne out by subsequent events, notably (p 263) the “evangelical” rhetorical sweep of the National Security Strategy published by the Bush Administration in 2002. One is reminded, however, of Philip Hammond’s complaint that theorists of the postmodern have often been too ready to detect the impossibility of political agency when they were really looking at the weakness of the Left at a particular historical moment (2007: 8).
Der Derian is right to connect the technological onward march of the military with the spread of neo-liberalism, which has seen state prerogatives, up to and including the monopoly of legitimate force, subordinated to the overriding priority of increasing corporate profits, but he perhaps underestimates the degree of agency it has required to roll back social democracy in the rich world, in the 1980s, and roll out market nostrums across the rest of the world in the 1990s and beyond.
The 1986 ‘Big Bang’ in the City of London, removing restrictions on the financial services industry, followed the historic defeat of the year-long strike by the National Union of Mineworkers over keeping open ‘uneconomic pits’. Governments in India, the Philippines and Nigeria, to name but three, are struggling to hold the line against rebellions explicitly aimed at pushing the other way. There is a danger of being interpreted as technologically determinist, and Der Derian pays perhaps too little attention to the job of distinguishing himself from that.
If there is agency at work, then it can be opposed, and if there is one area in which Der Derian’s text is remiss, it is in discussing how. The counterpart of computerized war simulation is “media dissimulation”, he avers (p 264), and the pictures from nose-mounted cameras on smart bombs from Desert Storm, which merged the imagery of TV news with that of the video game, hid the grim reality of thousands killed, the more so in the invasion of 2003; the advent of Al Jazeera, in the meantime, serving only to emphasise the chasm in perceptions on either side of the conflict.
Years earlier, Der Derian attended a seminar in London with Mary Kaldor of the LSE, called, in this case, to discuss what to do about Bosnia. She told him that “less media attention on the violence, and more on the nonviolent action of civic groups – and to treat them as legitimate actors – is essential to any long-lasting remedy” (p 75). Here are two elements of peace journalism – attention to ‘their’ victims as well as ours, and a willingness to reach out beyond the charmed circle of ‘official sources’ (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 28-31) – a discursive practice that has grown and spread alongside the developments Der Derian narrates here. If excessive media credulity over the claims of virtuous war helped bring us the disaster of Iraq, then the rapid and conspicuous unraveling of propaganda claims that sold the policy is also attributable to journalists. ‘The media’ constitute a domain containing more contestation than Der Derian sometimes seems to allow, though anyone wishing to engage in it would certainly be better equipped, conceptually, for having read his book.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Oct 2009.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: BOOK REVIEW OF ‘VIRTUOUS WAR: MAPPING THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL-MEDIA-ENTERTAINMENT NETWORK’, is included. Thank you.
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