- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

By James Der Derian
Westview, $26, 249 pages, illus.

This book is a mess.
"Virtuous War" starts off with a bad idea, proceeds to a pair of disasters, then gets worse. As for the fundamental reason for its failure — for now let's just say, it's a poor workman who blames his lousy tools.
The bad idea is to call modern high-tech war "virtuous." James Der Derian begins with a pair of frontispiece quotes, one from Ike's overworked admonition about the dangers of the "military-industrial complex," the other a sneer at virtue from Nietzsche. Next he invokes the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of virtual, "possessed of certain qualities," but in the case of computers, "not physically existing as such."
Virtual reality we're all familiar with. But the jump from "virtual" to "virtuous," although perhaps linguistically plausible, fails as a matter of common usage. A war might be virtuous in the sense of being just, but virtues inhere in people, not technologies. Indeed, the author questions the virtue of virtuous, i.e., precision-targeted digitized war, as removing us from the consequences of our deeds. Perhaps he prefers the old-fashioned alternatives of city burning and hand-to-hand combat.
Probably not. After establishing his utterly non-resonant theme, Mr. Der Derian talks about how he can't quite come to terms with his family's experience of war, mentioning en passant his own luck at evading the Vietnam draft. Within a couple pages, the disaster alarms start going off. This book won't be about virtuous war or the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex. It will be about James Der Derian, road-tripping through 21st-century warfare and recording his personal impressions.
Then he moves on to his second mistake. Chapter One deals with his experiences watching an Army exercise at Fort Irwin, Calif. The chapter, a combination of personal narrative, acronym slinging, and attempts to be cute, sets off yet another set of alarms — he's faking it. Mr. Der Derian holds impressive academic credentials, including a Rhodes Scholarship, teaching at several universities, and current residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. And yes, he says that it was never his intention to produce a conventional study. But he never quite masters, or even connects with, the world he's chosen to map.
And so it goes. He insists that his goal is to "intrigue" rather than "instruct" the reader, and from time to time he comes close. Each chapter contains its nuggets of information and perception. But the overall effect is miasma, occasionally jarred by some bad pun or gratuitous sneer. The writer also — where were the editors? — interrupts the flow several times to provide verbatim transcripts of interviews with various figures. (And by the by, regarding the confluence of war and computer games — the Army finds most commercial games too violent for training use.)
Then we come to Chapter 9, "Toward a Virtual Theory of War and Peace," and the reason for the mess becomes clear. It's lousy tools. Mr. Der Derian is much under the influence of the postmodernists — Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio. After discoursing on his heroes and postmodernism in general, he admits that "I did not 'find' a virtual theory at the end of my road trip. It simultaneously took form and informed me … There is never a last stop in a virtual journey …"
Yes, there is. It comes when you finally lose patience with an author who's so busy playing postmodern word games and going with that insufferably dreary flow that he betrays his subject, in both its moral seriousness and military complexity, and at precisely the wrong moment in intellectual history.
No one has ever adequately defined postmodernism, perhaps because the postmodernists prefer it that way. But it's starting to become clear that postmodernism has little to do with the 21st century. Postmodernism is — was — a late-20th century form of decadent, metastatic modernism (Nietzsche on-line), in which intellectual opposition to the world became a higher reality and analysis taken to preposterous extremes became an art form. And, of course, since reality and meaning are determined by perception and self-referent analysis … Tell it to the Marines.
Can postmodernism provide a means of grappling with 21st-century war? Mr. Der Derian finds it a useful alternative to so-called "realist" theories, and he may have a point. For me (yes, I'm being self-referent) the exercise ended in late 1990 and early 1991, when Mr. Baudrillard went about proclaiming that all right-thinking persons had the duty to deny the reality of the imminent Persian Gulf War, since it would be a "hyper-real" event that no one could verify. If Mr. Der Derian wishes to hang with and write for this crowd, fine. But he should not expect to be taken seriously outside it.
This is not to say that the issues he raises concerning 21st-century conflict are either unreal or unimportant. But it is to say that he needs a new — and more virtuous — tool box. As for postmodernism, well, that was then. This is post-then.

Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at Discovery Institute in Seattle.

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