Virtuous War

James Der Derian
New York, September 26th 2009, 16:00 - 16:30

Watch Video - Download Torrent

Technology in the service of virtue has given rise to a global form of virtual violence, virtuous war. In virtuous war, made-for-TV wars and Hollywood war movies blur, military war games and computer video games blend, mock disasters and real accidents collide, producing on screen a new configuration of virtual power, the military-industrial-media-entertainment network.
In spite and perhaps because of efforts to spread a democratic peace through globalization and humanitarian intervention, war has ascended from the virtual to the virtuous. At one time, the two words ―and the two worlds they represent―were barely distinguishable. Both originated in the medieval notion of a power inherent in the super-natural, of a divine being endowed with natural virtue. And both carried a moral weight, from the Greek and Roman sense of virtue, of properties and qualities of right conduct. But their meanings diverged in modern usage, with “virtual” taking a morally neutral, more technical tone, while “virtuous” lost its sense of exerting influence by means of inherent qualities. Now they seem ready to be rejoined by current efforts to effect ethical change through technological and martial means.
The United States, as unilateral deus ex machina of global politics, is leading the way in this virtual revolution. Its diplomatic and military policies are increasingly based on technological and representational forms of discipline, deterrence, and compulsion. At the heart of virtuous war is the technical capability and ethical imperative to threaten and, if necessary, actualize violence from a distance with minimal casualties. Using networked information and virtual technologies to bring “there” here in near-real time and with near-verisimilitude, virtuous war exercises a comparative as well as strategic advantage for the digitally advanced.
On the surface, virtuous war cleans up the political discourse as well as the battlefield. Fought in the same manner as they are represented, by real-time surveillance and TV live-feeds, virtuous wars promote a vision of bloodless, humanitarian, hygienic wars. Unlike other forms of warfare, virtuous war has an unsurpassed power to commute death, to keep it out of sight, out of mind. Herein lies its most morally dubious danger. In simulated preparations and virtual executions of war, there is a high risk that one learns how to kill but not to take responsibility for it. One experiences “death” but not the tragic consequences of it. In virtuous war we now face not just the confusion but the pixilation of war and game on the same screen.
Designed by the Pentagon, auditioned in the Balkans, and dress-rehearsed in Afghanistan, virtuous war took center stage in the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq. Drawing on doctrines of just war when possible and holy war when necessary, virtuous war plays on its ambiguous status as a felicitous oxymoron. After 11 September, as the United States chose coercion over diplomacy in its foreign policy, and extolled a rhetoric of total victory over absolute evil, virtuous war became the ultimate means by which the United States sought to re-secure its borders and to re-assert its global suzerainty.