‘Shock and Awe’—the phrase is back
in the headlines. As we have watched the bombs bursting onto Libya
over the past two days, we cannot help but recall the ‘Shock and
Awe’ bombing of Iraq eight years ago this week. The phrase that
defined that assault was launched into popular usage in January
2003 with the pre-invasion tremors from America. Now, eight years
later, the media is divided over whether we are witnessing another
blast of ‘shock and awe’. Having lost much of its original
meaning, the phrase has taken on two identities. When used by
political-military pundits, it euphemistically suggests a quick
and clean campaign to eliminate evil forces. When used by the
general public, it has settled into a synonym for ‘wow’.
In their prologue to the 1996 report Shock and Awe: Achieving
Rapid Dominance, Harlan Ullman and James Wade spoke of ‘a time
when uncertainty about the future is perhaps one of the few
givens’. Their solution? Control that future. America’s world
supremacy in military power, coupled with its expanding technology
industry, presented ‘an unusual opportunity’ to seize the power
that had ‘tantalized and confounded’ war strategists throughout
history: ‘destroying the adversary's will to resist before,
during, and after battle’.
As we now watch the global contest of wills playing out in the
Middle East, it becomes painfully obvious that dominance, the end
goal of ‘shock and awe’, will never be quick and clean. While the
American stated objective of displacing Saddam Hussein was indeed
met, eight years of angry and bloody chaos have darkened Iraq to
an extent unforeseen in the sterile analyses of Ullman and Wade.
And while the Americans cling to the strategic position they
captured in Baghdad, the entire region has grown impassioned with
The doctrine of shock and awe, openly cheered by those who imposed
it on Iraq in 2003, sought ‘to render the adversary impotent’.
Conventional military spending—the soldiers and weaponry required
to overpower—was acknowledged to be expensive. The use of Rapid
Dominance was seen as more efficient. It was packaged as a means
of saving both lives and dollars. The frontline of well-armed
infantries could be mitigated by a frontline of ‘operational
environment control’—by shock and awe.
Smug with a sense of superiority, the designers of the
self-designated ‘revolutionary’ approach to warfare bluntly
declared their aim and how they meant to achieve it:
‘”Dominance" means the ability to affect and dominate an
adversary's will both physically and psychologically. Physical
dominance includes the ability to destroy, disarm, disrupt,
neutralize, and to render impotent. Psychological dominance means
the ability to destroy, defeat, and neuter the will of an
adversary to resist; or convince the adversary to accept our terms
and aims short of using force. The target is the adversary's will,
perception, and understanding. The principal mechanism for
achieving this dominance is through imposing sufficient conditions
of "Shock and Awe" on the adversary to convince or compel it to
accept our strategic aims and military objectives. Clearly,
deception, confusion, misinformation, and disinformation, perhaps
in massive amounts, must be employed.’
And so began a campaign of intimidation. On 17 March 2003
President George W. Bush's televised address to the nation warned
the people of the world:
‘All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end.
Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their
refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a
time of our choosing.
For their own safety, all foreign nationals, including journalists
and inspectors, should leave Iraq immediately.
Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast,
and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military
campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule
your country and not against you.
As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food
and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror
and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and
In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your
neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of
dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.
The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near’.
His clichéd words were echoed in some 40 million leaflets
dispersed upon the Iraqi people warning them that to resist his
will would be futile. It would be deadly. The bombs soon made this
point clear. And another 40 million leaflets drove home the
American intention to overcome the Iraqi people’s right, even
their desire, to protest the aggression.
In December 2010, after so many thousands of deaths in Iraq that
they blur into a tragedy we can barely stomach to look upon,
nearly eight years after his so-called revolutionary shock and awe
techniques were put into practice, Harlan Ullman defended the
theory. The Iraqi people had been shocked, he said, but had not
been sufficiently awed. While the invading forces had demonstrated
their ability to ‘impose overwhelming fear, terror, vulnerability,
and the inevitability of destruction,’ Ullman conceded that
‘To our detriment, a grave and potentially fatal weakness in U.S.
strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq and before that in Vietnam was
little or no cultural understanding, a flaw the U.S. military has
been urgently trying to rectify since the Iraqi insurgency began
in earnest in late 2003’.
He thus concluded that there surely was ‘good reason to give shock
and awe another chance’.
The campaign of shock and awe used by the American-led forces in
Iraq bears eerie similarities to that used repeatedly for decades
by the Western Israeli Alliance against the Palestinian and
Lebanese peoples. These campaigns have resulted in similar
failures. But is has not been due merely to a lack of ‘cultural
understanding’. It has been due to discounting a principle that
transcends the various borders of the Arab world. That fundamental
principle, demonstrated with resistance, is simply a dignity that
cannot be subdued.