Briefing Paper Series

Bernt Pölling-Vocke (

Master of International Relations

Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand

Postmodernism and the war in Iraq


“This aggression has violated every aspect of international law, all conventions of human rights. No UN charter could be used to defend this violent intervention. Leaders of global capital suppressed all accepted norms in this action.” (Vickramabahu Karunarathne)

“In Iraq, the world is witnessing something dramatic and something important. We are seeing the universal desire in men and women to live in freedom. As Americans this should not surprise us…From Kabul to Baghdad, American forces and our fine allies have conducted some of the most successful military campaigns in history.” (George Bush)

The main purpose of a postmodernist description and explanation of the latest war in Iraq is to put forward counter-descriptions and –explanations for the events leading up to and resulting from the war, including the limited time-span of the openly declared war between March and May 2003. Those counter-descriptions should not be viewed as any more accurate than the orthodox descriptions and explanations, as any such conclusions only work within set parameters. A change of parameters results in a change of the “truth”, which in itself does not exist outside a specific context at a specific time. Varying truths are constantly made and remade and claimed to serve reason as an end in itself, which is nothing but a fallacy.

  Postmodernism is a very critical position in regard to the war in Iraq, at least as it has been told. Of course, it has been told by many for the ears of more. Often, “many” have varying intentions. Whereas the non-US-world has been largely critical of the continuously heavily discussed and disputed war (albeit for numerous reasons based on endless assumptions, e.g. “Liberal Democratic messianism … neo-barbarism … "science and reason" based on aggression” Karunarathne), the US public has been relatively supportive. Recently, a slight change has occurred, as unfolding events have brought the front closer to home and put increased pressure on the White House and its often-vacating Commander in Chief. In all cases, whether the strong political and public opposition in Germany or France, or the relatively supportive stance of the US public, the power-knowledge nexus is responsible for the reasoned position, postmodernists would argue.

  Reason stems from knowledge, and whereas most US citizens “knew” that Saddam Hussein was actively developing weapons of mass destruction, co-operating with Al Quaeda and thus more or less threatening the United States directly, Germans and French “knew” that probably none of the above was true. Vickramabahu Karunarathne “knew” that it was about oil and the replacement of communal cultures by unchecked individualism under the reign of free markets and thus the creation of helpless consumers guided by nothing but self-interest, therefore the loss of all spiritual and cultural grounding. In neither case the knowledge was pure, and if un-pure knowledge is the starting-point of en-masse reasoning under the guidelines of the modernist project, reasoning has to fail, whatever the reasoned results. The analysis of this process is referred to as genealogy.

Genealogy focuses on the processes by which origins are constructed. Considering this, the analysis of the shifting justifications for the ongoing war in Iraq could be an interesting field of study, as the US administration, perceived as criminal from the view of many global citizens, has domestically “gotten by” while shifting the war’s purpose from Iraq’s disarmament to the spread of democracy and the honour of those already fallen. As public support of US citizens was and is necessary throughout the ongoing war in the aftermath of 9/11 and “Operation Enduring Freedom” (Afghanistan and the Philippines), the power-knowledge nexus serves as an explanation for the missing public outcry in the US. People do not know what they do not know, but this holds as much truth for the ever-since sceptical German or the increasingly impatient American. Of course, many or most US politicians were a victim of the same nexus, even though postmodernists would probably be careful with easily deconstructable terms such as “victim”.

Whereas the dominating, orthodox analytical languages of the modernist project analyze the war in Iraq in neo-realistic terms, postmodernism would refer to double readings in order to make visible assumptions underlying such interpretations. Double readings are also useful in the analysis of the post-war-war (May 2003 onwards) and illustrate that the “reality” is not as it is perceived by the consumption of western, mainstream media. Or any media, for that matter. Or even on-the-ground “reality”, as such a directly perceived “reality” connects with the individual’s construction of the world. Postmodernists would concentrate on interpreting the interpretations of current affairs in Iraq, as, depending on the interpreter, interpretations differ and an analysis of the historical, cultural and linguistic practices leading to the construction of subjects and objects involved are far more fruitful in the postmodern attempt to bring to the light counter-hegemonic histories of world affairs.

In conclusion, postmodernism is more about portraying a wide array of descriptions and explanations of the war in Iraq than about favouring one as the “truth”. The textual interplay behind power politics is of major importance, with the world understood as a text. Common explanations such as “It is about the oil” or “It is about democracy and freedom” thus originate within certain parameters and share an outward appearance of reasoning under such circumstances, but different parameters result in different results, all apparently based upon reason. For postmodernists, there is no “true” and “pure” description and explanation of the war in Iraq. Instead, there are many.