The Meaning of Shock and Awe

A mixture of aesthetic admiration for the bombing and bafflement at the meaning of the Iraq war was common even then and remains so today. Indifference to the mass suffering and deaths inflicted on Iraqis by the unprovoked American attack of March 2003 has been an unaltered fact of American public discussion in the past decade.
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The column printed below was sent on March 17, 2003 to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times and rejected by both. It anticipates the spectacular coverage of the first days of the Iraq war by the mainstream media, and summarizes the philosophy that shaped the strategy journalists were preparing to watch unfold. A mixture of aesthetic admiration for the bombing -- which the Times reporter John Burns would look back on fondly as "the air show" -- and bafflement at the meaning of the war was common even then and remains so today. This column suggested that the purpose of the coming war was to be sought in its exhibition of overwhelming force, and not in any publicly declared moral intention or military necessity. Indifference to the mass suffering and the thousands of deaths inflicted on Iraqis by the unprovoked American attack of March 2003 has been an unaltered fact of American public discussion in the decade since the start of the war. DB

Now that the Azores conference is over and war with Iraq seems imminent, it may be time to recall some quiet but significant hints dropped by General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in a session with reporters two weeks ago. General Myers hardly mentioned a single detail of the 48-hour bombardment that will open the war. But it was already known that 3,000 precision bombs and missiles are to be launched, and General Myers chose his moment, on March 4, to add that the coming war would be "much, much, much different" from the Gulf War. The pounding of Shock and Awe, a precision hit every minute, would produce "a shock on the system," a shock so great that "the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end was inevitable." When language turns as blank and euphemistic as this, it becomes a civic duty to decode it.

The phrase "Shock and Awe" derives from the nineteenth-century German military theorist Clausewitz. It was brought to the United States by Dr. Harlan Ullman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a man of deep influence in the Bush administration, whose acumen as a strategic thinker has been lauded by Colin Powell. The doctrine of "rapid dominance" expounded by Dr. Ullman is the key to the strategy that General Myers and others now find themselves preparing to execute.

Extreme clarity marks the doctrines and maxims of Dr. Ullman. For him, a major precedent to guide American military policy in the twenty-first century, and a clue to the effect on enemy morale intended by Shock and Awe, was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese were shocked into immediate surrender. The greatness of such an overwhelming attack, according to Ullman, lies in its capacity to inflict on the enemy an instant paralysis of the will to fight. It assures that an entire people will be "intimidated, made to feel so impotent, so helpless, that they have no choice but to do what we want them to do." It might be objected that this amounts to an endorsement of the use of weapons of mass terror, since concussive paralysis and the injury of non-combatants are among the intended effects of such an attack. The implicit answer offered by Ullman and his admirers is that the end justifies the means, and in a case involving the United States, the end is always benign.

"Super tools and weapons -- information age equivalents of the atomic bomb -- have to be invented," Dr. Ullman wrote in an opinion piece for the Economic Times. "As the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally convinced the Japanese Emperor and High Command that even suicidal resistance was futile, these tools must be directed towards a similar outcome" against the smaller and less threatening countries that now stand in the way of American power. But terrorism has many hiding places in a city. In order to eradicate it, you must destroy every common resource for survival. "You have this simultaneous effect," says Ullman, "rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes."

In the first Gulf War, 10 percent of the weapons were precision guided. In this war, 80 percent will be precision guided. The Air Force has stockpiled 6,000 guidance kits in the Persian Gulf to convert ordinary bombs into satellite-guided bombs, a weapon that did not exist in the first war. So, "you're sitting in Baghdad" Ullman told the CBS News reporter David Martin, in anticipation of the first missiles that are to be launched, "and all of a sudden you're the general and 30 of your division headquarters have been wiped out. You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power, water. In 2,3,4,5 days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."

To what condition do we intend to reduce Baghdad? Here Ullman gives substance to the obscure intimations of General Myers. In addition to destroying military targets, the strategy calls for treating an entire city the size of Los Angeles as an ocean in which the army swims. When you want the army to surrender fast, you drain the water; and Ullman has surveyed the range of newly available methods with clinical calm. Our ability "to turn the lights on and off of an adversary as we choose, will so overload the perception, knowledge, and understanding of that adversary that there will be no choice except to cease and desist or risk complete and total destruction." No wonder General Myers warned Americans to get used to the idea that civilians will die.

This war has been conceived, among other things, as a demonstration. It is important not only for what it does to Iraq but for what it shows the United States can do to any nation that defies our will. Afterward, the dominant emotion toward the United States in the rest of the world is likely to be fear. This is an effect that the war on Iraq certainly intends; but once the result is achieved, it will be hard to remember without regret a time when many people elsewhere felt affection and admiration more than fear of the United States. General Myers was understandably anxious to protect Americans from a shock to our own system: "I would just be very, very careful about how you do your business."

Be very careful. That seems the true meaning of the remarks by Tony Blair and George W. Bush as they said farewell to peace from the Azores. Given a calculated lead-time, the American and British press pools were being put on notice; for in the days to come, leaders and commanders will do and citizens will watch, and we had better get used to our condition. The reporters of the two democracies have thus been asked, with suitable moderation and delicacy, to convey the new state of things to the spectators of Shock and Awe.

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