Shock and awe

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

"Shock and awe" is the term the Bush administration uses for its massive hi-tech air strikes on the Iraqis. As a military strategy, it is discussed at length in a 1996 book published by the Command and Control Research Program (CCRP) within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense of the United States.[1] Titled Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, the book describes shock and awe as a strategy "aimed at influencing the will, perception, and understanding of an adversary rather than simply destroying military capability."[2] In this respect, shock and awe bears a striking similarity to terrorism as propaganda, in which psychological rather than material dominance is viewed as a primary war objective. (The terrorist attacks of September 11 also induced "shock and awe" in the U.S. population.)

The authors of Shock and Awe point to several examples in which this strategy has been successful in the past, including:

  • The dropping of atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: "The intent here is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives even with relatively few numbers or systems. The employment of this capability against society and its values, called 'counter-value' in the nuclear deterrent jargon, is massively destructive strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist and, ideally or theoretically, would instantly or quickly incapacitate that will over the space of a few hours or days."
  • The Nazi blitzkrieg strategy of World War II: "In real Blitzkreig [sic], Shock and Awe were not achieved through the massive application of firepower across a broad front nor through the delivery of massive levels of force. Instead, the intent was to apply precise, surgical amounts of tightly focused force to achieve maximum leverage but with total economies of scale. ... The lesson for future adversaries about the Blitzkreig example and the United States is that they will face in us an opponent able to employ technically superior forces with brilliance, speed, and vast leverage in achieving Shock and Awe through the precise application of force."

In a 1998 book review, U.S. Major Mark J. Conversino wrote that the "evidence used to support the concept of shock and awe is uneven. The authors make a strong case for Germany's blitzkrieg campaigns as an example of shock and awe, but sadly, the book's editors are obviously unfamiliar with that Wehrmacht strategy, consistently spelling the German word as 'blitzkreig.' ... In an incomprehensible leap of logic, the Nazi Holocaust is classified a "state policy of Shock and Awe.'"

In January 2003, as the Bush administration moved toward war with Iraq, Shock and Awe author Harlan K. Ullman again invoked the example of Hiroshima as he explained the concept to CBS News. "You have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes," he said. "You're sitting in Baghdad 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."[3]

Upon the onset of actual war, however, military and media pundits have depicted "shock and awe" in sanitary terms, claiming that the high accuracy of laser-guided "smart bombs" makes it possible to decapitate the Iraqi command and control structure while leaving the country's infrastructure intact and limiting civilian casualties. Similar claims were made during the first war in the Persian Gulf and were later found to be exaggerated. Like other examples of doublespeak, the concept of "shock and awe" enables its users to symbolically reconcile two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, its theorists use the term to plan massive uses of deadly force. On the other hand, its focus on the psychological effects of that force makes it possible to use the term while distancing audiences from direct contemplation of the human suffering which that force entails.

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