Declarations of War: The Real, Unreal, and Hyperreal

How do we know when something is real? The first, most direct way is to experience it with our senses. For concrete things, that does neatly.

But what about less concrete things, or even concrete things beyond our personal ken? How do we know that they are real? If we do not or cannot experience them, how do we know they are real? Our knowledge of these things comes from indirect means: someone usually tells us (even if that someone is a presenter on the evening news, or the seemingly omnipresent Mike Rowe on Discovery Channel.)

Clearly, this poses several problems, epistemological as well as practical. For one thing, it places a premium on things we actually experience. Our limited (and for some of us, we might need to add qualifiers such as ‘exceedingly’ before that last word) experience, made up perhaps of only the humdrum, the provincial, pedestrian and the banal, defines the universe of things that we regard as ‘real’. That this ‘first hand’ knowledge can therefore be simultaneously too narrow, too shallow and represent the totality of our catholic worldview can be debilitating. Just because we haven’t seen it, don’t mean it don’t exist. If we hew too closely to this line, we may find that the shopping mall and fast food outlets will soon define the boundaries of the real for most of the West.

Beyond this frightening prospect, being told what is real is also fraught with problems. Chief amongst them is that fact that it provides too much power to those who do the telling. Some of those doing the telling will, of course, be blindered only slightly less than those being told. Other tellers, though, may choose to manipulate what they say, in order to pass on the ‘unreal’ as the real.

Some may do so to spare the people from the agony of the real. Recall the words of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor,

That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.

The reality (that Jesus was real and had returned to the world of man) was simply too much for the ordinary Christian to bear. Those in power have a duty to protect the rest of us from reality.

Other tellers, though, may not have our best interests at heart. Rather, they may choose to alter what they deem to be real in order to protect themselves from harm. What Orwell’s Big Brother told the people defined what was real—absolutely; there could be no alternative, not even at another time. Indeed, Winston is part of what used to be called “reality control”—later redefined as Doublethink. The Party knew the power of such control:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

They knew it, and they relied on it, and then ruthlessly enforced it, so that they could stay firmly on top.

If they are not any kinder, The Grand Inquisitor’s lies are more straight-forward than those of Big Brother. Orwell’s ideas of control resonate with the ideas of Wittgenstein’s 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.

The real is what is said to be real. The internal ‘reality’ of something is irrelevant.

Now, Dear Reader, I know what you are thinking: what on earth does this have to do with the usual King’s of War subject matter? Well, allow me to explain, by way of rephrasing the opening question of this already too long post (too long at least in accordance with the Rules of KOW).

How do we know when war is real?

Direct experience of war is nowadays—mercifully—not something to which many of us, especially in the West, have been exposed. Those who have such experiences know what war is, by dint of the sounds, smells, and feelings of combat, of waiting for combat, of losing comrades, of killing people, of being injured. For those who have been there, the warning provided by McGregor is not required: “war is very real and never should be envied.”

For the rest of us, we rely on being told what wars are real. The French told us recently that their war in Mali was real. Came right out and announced it—no ambiguity whatsoever. Served it up straight, without dissembling euphemisms. Theirs were not soldiers “conducting operations” or “engaged in activities”. They were fighting a war. Pointe finale. Tout fini.

That may be so, but clearly not everyone in Mali agreed. For some die-hard fanatics, the most real contest happening at the time was occurring on a very different champ de bataille. Against Nigeria. In the African Cup of Nations.

If Paris’s war represents the Real, then Pyongyang’s illustrates the unreal (not to mention the bizarre). Presumably for the purposes of convincing someone (although it is not clear exactly whom, given the ‘limited’ access to You Tube any North Korean might have) that North Korea has the ability to wage ‘real war’ on the United States, Kim-Jung Un released a representation of New York in flames, all to the tune of ‘We Are The World’ (Karaoke style, naturally).

Hamfisted as it might have been, the Hermit Kingdom’s attempt to portray a real war is a nod, not to Wittgenstein, but Baudrillard. Here we have not a lie, but a simulation: the ‘footage’ of a New York suffering from North Korean military prowess was pirated from a video game. As the French philosopher once said,

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in keeping with some secret addendum to the Founding Charter of the Axis of Evil, Iran recently released its own simulation–Of their home-grown F313 stealth fighter flying past a cloud-enshrouded mountain, which taken from the gallery of a stock photo website.

It would be tempting at this point to blame Photoshop for all our woes. Who can properly discern the difference between what is real and what is faked in an age of virtual reality? (Visit any bar or club this weekend and try it for yourself).

The truth is, the past is replete with its own forgeries. The Second World War, for example, began on 31 August 1939 with a ruse: the German false flag raid on a radio tower at Gleiswitz, Poland. After a period of some ‘real’ fighting, an eight month ‘Phoney War’ set in, marked by an ‘absence’ of combat operations. Or at least that is how it felt to those not affected by the fighting that was going on: the Danes, Finns, and the Norwegians would protest that, for them, this period was altogether real. The same applies to the sailors and merchant seamen who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Fast forward twenty-five years to another example of a phoney war, used this time to provide justification for engaging in real war. In the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, an American ship supposedly came under fire from Communist forces, providing President Johnson with the fig leaf he needed to ramp up U.S. warfighting efforts in Vietnam. It was later revealed that this was not quite the truth. According to a U.S. government report: “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.” Nothing, portrayed as something, paved the way for something else.

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. But once our grip on reality begins to loosen, we find it difficult to tighten it again. Like a pilot in a flat spin, we cannot trust our senses to tell us what is real. We rely on the “more dependable” artificial horizon to guide us. And so, after too much spin, we are left with no internal compass any longer. Wars are declared, or denied, by those in charge, leaving the rest of us, like Winston in 1984, to try and remember what is real. Which combatants are real? Which are not and can be both vilified and tortured? Civil wars exist only in Iraq if ‘experts’ in Washington think tanks declare that they do, despite casualty figures and images on the nightly news.

Rest easy, simple citizen, someone will tell you when to be concerned.  Some inquisitor somewhere has your best interests at heart.



Sometimes, though, it appears as if maybe even those in charge are confused. How else can we interpret the fact that the outgoing US Secretary of Defense, in one of his (he wishes!) final acts at the Pentagon, has created a medal (the Distinguished Warfare Medal) to honour those who control the drones, weapons which are, at once, unreal (they are rather sci-fi when you consider them) and real (they rain down very real death on their victims).  The order of precedence of this new medal reflects this strange ambiguity: the new medal will take precedence over the Bronze Star (with Valor) device, given to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.  Unreal indeed.



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