In the times we live in, the spectacle matters more than the actual war.
What really happened on February 26, 2019 in Balakot? Contesting claims, widespread disinformation and media saturation seem to have clouded our judgement.
The military theorist Clausewitz might call this the “fog of war” – a decrease in situational awareness, a sense of confusion and a loss of perspective, while engaged in combat environments. The fact the military operations were accompanied by information operations on both sides meant that the fog spread out from the confines of the localised area of conflict and into global mediascapes. In addition to payloads, press releases and prime ministerial preaching, tweet storms, whatsapp videos and wild speculation were part and parcel of the information environment.
This is not new. During the Gulf War in 1991, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard managed to stir up quite a controversy when he published a series of three essays titled The Gulf War did not take place that coincided with Operations Desert Shield/Storm. Baudrillard was not questioning the efficacy of the coalition strategy, as much as he was peddling his post-modern theoretical tools and tricks of hyperreality and the simulacrum. Cynical as it was to doubt body counts and Scud missile interceptions by the Patriot missile systems, Baudrillard’s contention was that even if the facts and figures were to find their way to the light of day, they would mean nothing. The dense digital narrative that had mediated the war had rendered the spectacle more real than the event. At one point, the referent itself, and the actual, had become unmoored from any signification, leaving behind a simulacrum. The war was thus delivered live via TV, and in a hyperreal soup, we bought into the narrative, without ever knowing the actual events.
Nearly 20 years on, we have our next set of iterations. New situation, new technologies, old tricks. In the current hyperreality, our political establishment wants us to believe that body counts do not matter, that downed fighter planes do not count and that payloads make no difference. Just buy the narrative.
Cultural theorists are poor cousins to strategists, but where they ought to agree is in calling a spade a spade. You may call it a perception battle, a struggle for narrative dominance, or psy-ops. Or maybe recognise a stink as a stink.
An uneasy consensus has emerged among the strategic community that regardless of concrete evidence of the efficacy of the Indian action, a new normal has been established that demonstrates that India will retaliate to sub-conventional provocations by Pakistan. This conventional wiggle room under the nuclear threshold is thus sufficient to re-establish a degree of deterrence. This builds on the tacit awareness that India’s strategic restraint post the 26/11 attacks necessitated that the next terrorist attack be met with an overt response. Hence the so-called September 2016 surgical strikes, and now the 2019 events at Balakot. The use of airpower has also raised the stakes and broken a self-imposed restriction on ingress into Pakistani airspace. This indicates a progressively more assertive response that raises the costs for the adversary. In this particular round, both leaders were able to come out looking relatively respectable to their domestic audiences, and took the face-saving routes towards de-escalation. Or so the argument goes.
The fact is that the new normal looks a lot like the old one. The two states lack the inspired leadership to resolve political differences. The leaders are too busy pulling the levers of statecraft with domestic consolidation in mind. Practical diplomacy, done with a low-profile and with long term stability in mind is nowhere to be seen. If these initiatives are quietly happening somewhere, the loud posturing and chest thumping of our political elites will narrow the spectrum of options available. Military modernisations on both sides are patchy at best. The value of life in both states has plummeted so low as a result of nationalist zeal, that the body count of Pulwama is forgotten as quickly as the death toll in the Peshawar school massacre.
The apt metaphor of the strategic dance between states here is less about calculations and course corrections as it is about ham-fisted deceptions and public distractions. The two states and the relationship muddle onwards in circles, occasionally a toe is stepped on, sometimes a shin is kicked. But that’s the way the dance continues.
In many ways postmodern media theory is an elegant explanation for the current information environment. Closer to the elections or into a second term we might see some obscure video leaked and presented as “evidence” in order to stoke this debate once more. In the near future we might know more about what happened to a Pakistani F-16 and pilot. Perhaps this event will be discussed as a case to disprove the pattern in a democracy, that a leader who goes to war in their first term of office increases their chance of re-election. A movie might be made. A slogan might be coined. The actual event seems almost inconsequential.
Hyperreality is of course a dangerous idea because it unsettles fixed truth, blurs the line between fact and fiction, and considers multiple sometimes contradictory perspectives.
In the new normal, we must buy into the narrative not the specific facts!