by Noel Malcolm
After the end of the Gulf War, the fashionable French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published an amusing little book in which he pretended to argue that the war had never happened at all: it was all a fiction, he claimed, cooked up by a conspiracy of Western governments and television networks.
To this, several responses were possible. One might have been to point out that there is no theory so silly that you cannot find a French intellectual willing to formulate it for you. Another could have been to take it as a laboured essay on a familiar theme: the problem of how we know that any historical events have really happened. (So familiar is this problem, indeed, that it was best expressed by an eccentric Oxford don, Richard Whately, as long ago as 1819, in a brilliant spoof entitled `Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte', which argued that Napoleon had never existed.)
But if Baudrillard's book deserved to be taken seriously at all, it was because it did contain a tiny kernel of intriguing cultural commentary about the nature of modern high-tech warfare. His point was partly that the conduct of war now seems more cut off than ever before from the belligerent state's own political, social or economic life: the commitment of French troops to this massive military operation in the Gulf had had no visible effect whatsoever on the nature of life inside France.
And the other part of his message was that a strange convergence was taking place between the nature of our knowledge of the war and the nature of the war itself: both, increasingly, depended on `information technology', to the point where even the missiles had television cameras mounted in their noses to record their targets as they approached them.
Since Baudrillard, it has become de rigueur for writers on modern warfare to add a dash of post-modern cultural commentary. Saying what happened in the war is not enough; they want to tell us what they think the war tells us about our own society. And if, as sometimes happens, their knowledge of the war is largely confined to what they have seen on television, their tendency is to tell us that - surprise, surprise - we are now living in a world where only television is real.
Michael Ignatieff's new book looks at first sight like a classic example of this modern genre. His grand theme is that the Kosovo conflict was, from Nato's point of view if not from that of the Serbs or the Albanians, a `virtual war': it was largely unreal to the citizens of the Nato states, it was fought like a video game by pilots operating at 15,000 feet from their targets, the decision-making was influenced by the media coverage of the conflict, the war was `virtual' in a legal sense (because no formal declaration of war was ever made), and the Nato coalition was only a `virtual' alliance (because fierce disagreements were at work behind its facade of unanimity).
Ignatieff is a thoughtful writer, and much of what he says when he develops this argument is finely put. But most thoughtful readers will begin to suspect, well before the end of this book, that the pattern-making and phrase-making have started to run away with the argument. `In virtual war, the media creates the illusion that what we are seeing is true. In reality, nothing is what it seems. Atrocities are not necessarily atrocities. Victories are not necessarily victories. Virtual war is won by being spun.' And so on, and so on.
Some of the elements of this alleged `virtuality' have been around for a long time. That alliances bring together states with very different policy preferences is hardly a novel discovery; media reports have misrepresented war in all sorts of ways for centuries; and the influence of mass media on the conduct of warfare has been noticeable for at least 100 years. That states sometimes go to war disregarding objections by other countries' international lawyers is not exactly new either.
The only thing that was really novel about Nato's Kosovo operation was the idea of conducting a war entirely from the air, without losing a single pilot. And the obvious reason for this innovation was not that (as Ignatieff sometimes seems to suggest) technology had turned war into something incredibly easy; rather, it was that the political leaders of the West had become so afraid of incurring casualties that a traditional ground-level campaign now seemed an extraordinarily difficult task.
And yet, having said all that, it is only fair to point out that this is a much better book than anything in the post-Baudrillard tradition; indeed, it is one of the best works published so far on the Kosovo conflict of 1999. For the bulk of the book consists not of Ignatieff's elaboration of his questionable big idea, but rather of a sequence of long articles - good, old-fashioned on-the-spot commentary and reportage - first published in the New Yorker, plus a sparkling debate with Robert Skidelsky (won, in my opinion, hands down by Ignatieff) in the pages of Prospect magazine. This is, in other words, a `virtual' book: the big idea has (fortunately) been tacked on to a compilation of other, more interesting, materials.
However, a few caveats are still needed. While Ignatieff is good on the politics and diplomacy, and genuinely eloquent on the moral implications of the conflict, he is sometimes shaky on background detail. The Vance-Owen peace-plan for Bosnia was not `scuppered' by the Americans in February 1993: it was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs in May. The Kosovar politician Adem Demaci was not imprisoned for `a decade': it was 27 years and seven months.
And Ignatieff's portrayal of the Belgrade intellectual Aleksa Djilas as some sort of lonely dissident shows just how out of touch Ignatieff is with the Serbian media, in which Djilas appears regularly as a voice of mainstream Serb nationalism, and where he has recently taken to defending Milosevic against the Serbian opposition.
But then, perhaps it is only fitting that a virtual book about the politics of a `virtual war' should contain its very own virtual dissident.
This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph (London), 20 February 2000