In wartime 'shock and awe' leaves little doubtBy TOM DRURY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003
One of the prevailing strategies of U.S. warfare, it seems, is to hit opposing forces so hard and fast at the onset that those not killed soon give up in blind confusion.
There's a name for this: "shock and awe." It's a theory that draws on military events ranging from the Gulf War in 1991 to the Roman legions of Caesar's time.
To the layman it sounds like wishful thinking -- what war strategist would not want such an outcome? -- but there's more to it than that.
Whether the taking of Iraq would work this way no one knows. But CBS and Newsweek have reported that Pentagon officials are using the term for a plan to bombard Iraq with 3,000 missiles and bombs in the first two days of a war.
Asked about "a battle plan called shock and awe" that would make it unsafe to be anywhere in Baghdad, Ari Fleischer, while not saying there was one, told reporters on Feb. 19 that it would be unfair to conclude that the Pentagon would not protect innocent lives.
Harlan Ullman devised the theory of shock and awe. He completed 150 combat missions and patrols in Vietnam, commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and taught at the National War College, where one of his students was Colin Powell. He now writes a column for the Washington Times and serves as senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ullman spoke with the St. Petersburg Times over the phone last week. This is how shock and awe came about. In the late 80s, Ullman said, he and a colleague became concerned that American defense techniques were "too Clausewitzian" -- overly reliant on attrition engagements, the slow destruction of enemy forces.
They put together a group -- 10 in all, mostly senior military guys -- interested in picking up the tempo of warfare with a strategy "that could win very quickly, win very cheaply, and just overwhelm the other side."
Taking the writings of the 5th century B.C. philosopher-warrior Sun Tzu as their starting point, the group came up with a theory that Ullman and James Wade laid out in a 1996 book called Shock & Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance.
What's striking about the strategy is its emphasis on breaking the minds of the enemy. It seeks not to simply defeat other forces but to paralyze their will, deprive them of their senses, and in general freak them out with the hopelessness of their situation. And do all of this very quickly.
As Ullman said last week, tailoring his simile for the local readership, "Awe would be like the St. Petersburg High football team playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
The writers gave nine examples from history and it is probably these examples that have made shock and awe the polarizing concept that it is. ("The post-post-Cold War's Dr. Strangelove" is what a Web site affiliated with the Nation Institute calls Ullman.)
Take example No. 5, in which Sun Tzu's military skills were supposedly tested by a king who challenged him to turn a group of royal concubines into a fighting unit. When the concubines laughed at Sun Tzu, goes the story, he had two of them beheaded, after which, sure enough, the remaining concubines fell into line.
Or example No. 2, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which shock and awe are achieved "through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large."
Not all of the examples are so shocking or awesome -- No. 9 is "the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," with their saying, "Never send a man where you can send a bullet" -- and Ullman and Wade acknowledge that the more extreme examples might not fly with American norms.
"The best example and the one that got us into the most trouble was Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Ullman said. Despite suffering enormous casualties in the late stages of the war, "the Japanese were still going to fight to the last person. We dropped two nuclear weapons. The Japanese quit. Shock and awe."
It's Ullman's use of the Hiroshima example that antiwar writers have seized on to warn that military action in Iraq would be indiscriminate and deadly to the 5-million residents of Baghdad. And polls show that this is a widespread concern, with U.S. support for military action falling 20 points, to 46 percent, if large numbers of Iraqis were to die.
Ullman predicts a carefully targeted campaign and says the Pentagon is aware that its massive technological advantage can be a two-edged sword. E-bombs, for example, are an experimental weapon said to have the capability of fusing electrical circuits. But use them to turn the lights out in Baghdad and you'd be "turning that society into a real mess, and the question is, Do you really want to do that?"
Those in the antiwar movement might be surprised to hear the author of Shock and Awe expressing concern for the continued supply of electricity in Baghdad. And here's something else that would surprise them. Having fought wars, studied them and written about them, he's not convinced that this one, at this time, makes sense.
He sees no convincing proof of meaningful al-Qaida links, worries about the way the push for war has isolated the United States (see Ullman's essay, above), and said he would bet a dollar, though not two, that Saddam Hussein has got rid of most of his weapons of mass destruction.
"It would not be a surprise," he said. "It'd be a supreme irony, but it wouldn't be a surprise."
Iraq came to be important, he said, because of "motivating factors that are absolutely profound" -- both in President Bush, whose resolution on the issue shows little sign of wavering, and among members of his administration who believe that Iraq can not only be rid of Saddam Hussein but transformed into an anchor of democracy in the Arab world.
"My own sense is that Bush is a guy who had three epiphanies in his life," Ullman said. "His decision to give up drink, his decision to embrace God, and Sept. 11."
What the latter told the president, Ullman said, is that attacks would come again, and that he as president was responsible for the country's security, "and he was going to damn well do something, and for whatever reason Saddam Hussein and Iraq fell into his gun sights."
Ullman said he has not talked to the Pentagon about shock and awe nor does he know to what extent its war planners have adopted his theory.
"They've certainly picked up the phrases and I think they've looked at some of the concepts," he said.
"There's no reason today you cannot fight in essence immaculate wars like Afghanistan. But you have to realize that things can go wrong and they can go wrong badly. When we get dragged in we've got to win, and if Saddam decides he's going to sacrifice his civilians, you know, there's no turning back."
Tom Drury is Perspective editor of the Times.
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