Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism

by Umberto Eco and Alastair McEwen

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780156034210
  • ISBN-10: 0156034212
  • Pages: 384
  • Publication Date: 09/22/2008
  • Carton Quantity: 24

About the book

The time: 2000 to 2005, the years of neoconservatism, terrorism, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the ascension of Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this series of provocative, passionate, and witty essays, Umberto Eco examines a wide range of phenomena, from Harry Potter, the Tower of Babel, talk shows, and the Enlightenment to The Da Vinci Code/ What led us, he asks, into this age of hot wars and media populism, and how was it sold to us as progress?

In Turning Back the Clock, the bestselling author and respected scholar turns his famous intellect toward events both local and global to look at where our troubled world is headed.

About the author
Umberto Eco

UMBERTO ECO (1932–2016) was the author of numerous essay collections and seven novels, including The Name of the Rose,The Prague Cemetery, and Inventing the Enemy. He received Italy's highest literary award, the Premio Strega, was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government, and was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Some Reflections on War and Peace 


In the early sixties I contributed to the establishment of the Italian Committee for Atomic Disarmament and took part in several peace marches. I declare myself to be a pacifist by vocation and am to this day. Nonetheless, here I must say bad things not only about war but also about peace. So I ask the reader to bear with me.


           I have written a series of articles on war, starting with the Gulf War, and now I realize that each article modified my ideas on the concept of war. As if the concept of war, which has remained more or less the same (aside from the weapons used) from the days of Ancient Greece till yesterday, needed to be rethought at least three times over the last ten years.1



From Paleowar to Cold War


In the course of the centuries, what was the purpose of that form of warfare we shall call paleowar? We made war in order to vanquish our adversaries and thus profit from their defeat; we tried to achieve our ends by taking the enemy by surprise; we did everything possible to ensure that our adversaries did not achieve their ends; we accepted a certain price in human lives in order to inflict upon the enemy a greater loss of life. For these purposes it was necessary to marshal all the forces at our disposal. The game was played out between two contenders. The neutrality of others, the fact that they suffered no harm from the conflict and if anything profited from it, was a necessary condition for the belligerents’ freedom of action. Oh yes, I was forgetting; there was a further condition: knowing who and where the enemy was. For this reason, usually, the clash was a frontal one and involved two or more recognizable territories.


           In our times, the notion of “world war,” a conflict that could involve even societies with no recorded history, such as Polynesian tribes, has eliminated the difference between belligerents and neutral parties. Whoever the contenders may be, atomic energy ensures that war is harmful for the entire planet.


           The consequence is the transition from paleowar to neowar via the cold war. The cold war established what we might call belligerent peace or peaceful belligerence, a balance of terror that guaranteed a remarkable stability at the center and permitted, or made indispensable, forms of paleowar on the periphery (Vietnam, the Middle East, African states, and so on). At bottom, the cold war guaranteed peace for the First and Second Worlds at the price of seasonal or endemic wars in the Third World. 



Neowar in the Gulf


The collapse of the Soviet empire marked the end of the conditions of the cold war but left us faced with the problem of incessant warfare in the Third World. With the invasion of Kuwait, people realized that it was going to be necessary to go back to a kind of traditional warfare (if you recall, reference was made to the origins of the Second World War: if Hitler had been stopped as soon as he invaded Poland, and so on . . .), but it immediately became evident that war was no longer between two sides. The scandal of the American journalists in Baghdad in those days was equal to the (far greater) scandal of the millions and millions of pro-Iraqi Muslims living in the countries of the anti-Iraqi alliance.


           In wars of the past potential enemies were interned (or massacred), and compatriots who from enemy territory spoke in favor of the enemy’s cause were hanged at the end of the war. You might remember John Amery, who attacked his country on Fascist radio and was hanged by the English. Ezra Pound, thanks to his renown and the support of intellectuals of many countries, was saved, but at the cost of a full-blown mental illness.


           What are the characteristics of neowar?


           The identity of the enemy is uncertain. Were all Iraqis the enemy? All Serbs? Who had to be destroyed?


           The war has no front. Neowar cannot have a front because of the very nature of multinational capitalism. It is no accident that Iraq was armed by Western industry, and likewise no accident that Western industry armed the Taliban ten years later. This falls within the logic of mature capitalism, which eludes the control of individual states. And here it is worth mentioning an apparently minor but significant detail: at a certain point it was thought that Western aircraft had destroyed a cache of Saddam’s tanks or aircraft, only to find out later that they were decoys produced and legally sold to Saddam by an Italian factory.


           Paleowars worked to the advantage of the armaments industries of each of the belligerents, but neowar works to the advantage of multinationals whose interests lie on both sides of the barricades (if real barricades still exist). But there is more. While paleowar enriched arms dealers, and such gains compensated for the temporary cessation of certain other forms of trade, neowar not only enriches the arms dealers but also creates a worldwide crisis in air transport, entertainment and tourism, the media (which lose commercial advertising revenue), and in general the entire industry of the superfluous—the backbone of the system—from the building sector to the car industry. Neowar brings some economic powers into competition with others, and the logic of their conflict outweighs that of the national powers.


           I noted in those days that neowar would typically be short, because prolonging it would benefit no one in the long run.


           But if individual states must submit to the industrial logic of the multinationals, they also must submit to the needs of the information industry. In the Gulf War we saw, for the first time in history, the Western media voicing the reservations and the protests not only of the representatives of Western pacifism, the pope first and foremost, but also of the ambassadors and journalists of those Arab countries that supported Saddam.


           Information services continually permitted the adversary to speak (whereas the aim of all wartime politics is to block enemy propaganda) and demoralized the citizens of the combatant countries with regard to their own government (whereas Clausewitz pointed out that a condition for victory is the moral cohesion of a country).


           Every war of the past was based on the principle that the citizenry, holding it to be just, were anxious to destroy the enemy. But now the media were not only causing the citizens’ faith to waver, they also impressed on them the death of their enemies—no longer a vague, distant event but an unbearable visual record. The Gulf War was the first one in which the belligerents sympathized with their enemies.


           In the days of Vietnam, some sympathy was evident, even though it took the form of discussion, held on highly specific, often marginal occasions by groups of American radicals. But we didn’t see the ambassadors of Ho Chi Minh or General Giap speechifying




"A collection of charming, bite-size missives . . . Turning Back the Clock is among the season’s sprightlier works of nonfiction."—The New York Observer




"One of the most influential thinkers of our time."--Los Angeles Times


"Eco combines scholarship with a love of paradox and a quirky, sometimes outrageous, sense of humor."--The Atlantic Monthly