Of wars, their hyped virtual reality and pocket wars

The hyped technology has led us into a frenzied time where we either switch between TV channels or move our fingers on our smartphone screen for the next reel or newsfeed. Stuck within the labyrinth of visual images we are yet to find a new strategy to recover the lost humanity.

Rajeev Kumaramkandath Dec 18, 2023
Gaza bombing

Recently when the cricket World Cup was going on a dilemma suddenly struck at least some of the Indian middle-class families. As they returned home in the evenings and switched their TV sets on, they were left with the choice of watching either the World Cup match of the day or the tormenting visuals from Gaza, aired by Al Jazeera and BBC elaborately, and by our national and regional channels occasionally.

However, for our mass conscience, trapped within a maze of visual pleasures, this choice was more regularized than an awful one. Several million across the world switched almost mindlessly between the visuals of Virat Kohli hitting a maximum and that of a severely injured child being rushed into a hospital or a mother screaming and looking for her baby under the rubble after an airstrike. By the third decade of the 21st century, the colossal destruction and loss of lives are just another set of visual images for the majority of us. But, where is war happening?

A hyperreal site

Another spectacle telecasted on TV and/or social media platforms, these horrors are no longer understood through real experiences or conscience-breaking narratives; but rather as newsfeeds the visual texts of which still fail to match the bionic horrors incessantly telecasted on OTT platforms, episode after episode. 

Just after the first Gulf War between the US and Iraq in the early 1990s, the French sociologist Baudrillard wrote an article titled ‘The Gulf War didn't take place’. Rather, it was an atrocity that was masked and re-presented as war. During the Gulf War, as he observed, the excessive airpower used by the US was met with almost zero resistance. The level at which the attack was unleashed by the US and the scale of its defense by Iraq was never even a close match. This also meant that there was no direct military engagement between the two forces. On the first such occasion when war was telecast live, people across the world watched missiles traveling almost uninterruptedly to their targets in Iraq. Several of those missiles fell on civilian areas including hospitals that were already flooded with people. 

The hostility and uncertainty involved in a large combat were completely absent in the Gulf War. What was termed a war was not a war. Its one-sidedness was never questioned by anyone, despite the human casualties running into several thousands of helpless civilians including women and children. Not only was war not happening but it also became a public spectacle that the world watched on their TV screens. Just as the helpless victims many among the audience also felt helpless and then, they learned to change their channels.

From wars to ‘no wars’

The 1990s Gulf War was a brief prelude to what was forthcoming. It brought new forms of emotional responses from global humanity. Not only was the world turned into a large gallery consisting of the jeering audience but it also normalized the old binaries of oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim. Wars were replaced by no wars. The no wars didn’t, however, mean “no war”, as the UN and its official agencies narrated about it. On the opposite, it is a new form of war where one side has to bear the whole brunt; with only the offensive being active. It is a simulation of war, a hyperreal phenomenon, but not actually a war. It didn’t matter much if the defense was almost fully absent.

The no wars or the hyperreal wars have definite sites. The Global South is its preferred location, the Ukraine instance proves that the Global North is also not outside of its threats. With the first Gulf War episode the tensions and fears of destruction at a humungous scale and the walloping loss of human lives were replaced by new political narratives that made even the visuals of human catastrophes less impactful. In the new discourse, set in by the emerging corporate media and the aligned neoliberal politics, the old fears were alleviated through new discourses of market and democracy.

This was also accompanied by the end of Cold War fears about the end of humanity caused by a full-scale nuclear war. The no wars or the hyperreal wars were justified and projected as essential precedents to ensure global justice and democracy. These two were conveniently used to hegemonise the emerging language of global markets. The new hyperreal wars had to be unleashed upon states and nations that opposed or remained exceptional to this new global discourse.

Hyperreal wars 

In the age of smartphones, the hyperreal wars have become pocket wars. We are either driven by highly opinionated ego battles or remain detached and unemotional. Palestine is a living example of the ongoing one-sided atrocities. As Qatar talks reached an impasse and as Israel returned to its bombing spree the no-war site became active again after a brief interval. Reports from inside Gaza give added pictures of its people battling against hunger, dehydration and epidemics. 

Nevertheless, in the outside world, the sufferings of Gaza are still a hyperreal site that is overtly filled with information not only of Israel's offense but also the 'preparations' of Hamas and the speculations about a 'full scale' war. The overwhelming focus on the 'threats' faced by Israel is a news event that floods not only the Western media but our national television channels, social media, and newsfeed handles as well. The newsfeeds that enthusiastically report about the conjectures, anxieties and challenges of the Israeli government rather than the actual course of events has successfully complicated the neat boundary between the perpetrator and victim, despite the massive casualties in Gaza.

The hyped technology has led us into a frenzied time where we either switch between TV channels or move our fingers on our smartphone screen for the next reel or newsfeed. Stuck within the labyrinth of visual images we are yet to find a new strategy to recover the lost humanity. The one-sided offensives no longer need political narratives to support them. The infinite virtual handles are already doing that job.

(The author teaches sociology at CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. Views are personal. He can be contacted at rkkandath@gmail.com)

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