Highway 80
Pleasure Dome: New Toronto Works
Curated by Iris Fraser-Gudrunas & Nahed Mansour
Toronto, Canada
October 18, 2014
Review: 'Speaking Across Histories' by Ellyn Walker, Magenta Magazine

Highway 80 examines how landscapes silently bear witness to atrocity and how technology mediates historical and ongoing narratives and lived experience. Highway 80 refers to a six-lane highway in Kuwait that runs from Kuwait City to the border town of Safwan in Iraq. This highway was the site of the infamous 'Highway of Death' in which American and Canadian aircraft and ground forces attacked the retreating Iraqi army near the end of the Persian Gulf War on February 25-27th 1991, resulting in 1500 destroyed vehicles and hundreds of Iraqi's killed or captured. This assault was seen by many as a war crime and a breech of the Geneva Convention on attacking retreating armies. The resultant fear of a PR backlash led to the consequent ending of hostilities. Up till that point the Gulf War narrative had been largely mediated by western media outlets, which reported directly from official military reports that as Baudrillard noted “made it impossible to distinguish between the experience of what truly happened in the conflict, and its stylized, selective misrepresentation through ‘simulacra’"[1].

In his essay The Gulf War did not Take Place, Jean Baudrillard argued that the Gulf War was not in fact a war but an atrocity masqueraded as a war. [2] Due to the overwhelming power of the Coalitions airpower, little direct engagement with Iraqi forces actually happened with majority of Coalition causalities occurring from friendly fire and accidents, while the significantly disproportionate amount of Iraqi deaths where largely underreported in the media. While the Gulf War was the first live 24-hour televised war with unprecedented footage of missiles dropping in real-time being relayed to television screens across the world, the supposed breadth and speed of access to images did not translate into in-depth or critical reportage. The U.S.'s policy towards media freedom was more restrictive than in the Vietnam War with the Pentagon document Annex Foxtrot limiting press information to official military briefings and limited access by selected journalists to interview troops who were pre-approved. The policy was meant to avoid a fomenting of opposition domestically and to present the narrative of the Gulf War as a moral and balanced war of liberation as opposed to a disproportionate massacre to secure access to oil stocks. Even with the obvious atrocity that occurred at the 'Highway of Death' western media outlets downplayed Iraqi casualties and reiterated the army’s position that it was an armed retreat despite numerous evidence to the contrary.

In Highway 80, the text from an interview by Nora Boustany with Khaldoun, an Iraqi Republican Guard soldier is presented in subtitles, providing a recounting of the events of the 'Highway of Death' from perspective of the retreating Iraqi army. This text is set against a cold night landscape of a google earth screen capture traveling along the path of the highway. This image is one of a flattened and mostly featureless landscape constructed of satellite imagery unable to be supplemented with Google Streetview by virtue of ongoing hostilities. The audio track that accompanies the visuals is the white noise from a cockpit camera of an A-10 jet during the Highway 80 hostilities. The overwhelming subjectivity of Khaldoun and his experience of trauma is set against a dominant constructed narrative which despite its access to unprecedented ways of seeing shows little of the truth.

Footnotes

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995; William Merrin, Baudrillard and the media.

[2] William Merrin, "Uncritical criticism? Norris, Baudrillard and the Gulf War." Economy and Society, Volume 23, Issue 4, 1994, pp. 433–458, at p. 447