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With Shock and Awe U.S. Hopes for the Best, Plans for the Worst - 2003-03-24


After taking the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, U.S. infantry units rolled north toward Baghdad. Meanwhile, precision guided cruise missiles continue to hit selected targets in Baghdad and the U.S. military continues its psychological warfare – dropping leaflets on Iraqi troops and broadcasting radio messages in Arabic urging Iraqi soldiers to lay down their arms and giving them instructions on how to surrender to U.S. and British forces. Operation Iraqi Freedom is now in day five and the so-called “Shock and Awe” campaign is well underway.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld promised to unleash the most awesome display of military power in history against the Iraqi regime in the United States’ effort to unseat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his ruling Ba’ath Party.

The so-called shock and awe or rapid dominance technique of using overwhelming force in a compressed time frame and at targeted areas is designed to make surrender very attractive to the enemy. While the name may be new, Lieutenant Colonel Piers Wood, a retired U.S. Army officer and Vietnam veteran who is director of military insight at Globalsecurity.org, says the concept is not.

“The reason that it has become so popular of late is that a book was written in 1996, which predicted victories on the cheap because of new technologies which would permit us to psychologically shock, confuse, misinform an enemy because of our greater reach electronically,” he said. “Now shock and awe is a new term coined by these guys in 1996, but what they’re talking about is old stuff that dates back to Alexander the Great. Armies have always wanted to terrify their enemy and cause them to flee before there was any contact. It just goes without saying.”

In their book Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, Harlan Ullman and James Wade write of the need to strike the enemy with “sufficiently intimidating and compelling factors to force or otherwise convince an adversary to accept our will.”

“Now what Ullman and Wade have proposed is simply to supplement the traditional shock and awe with the use of darkness, great surprise, and to do a number of nasty things with great rapidity, so as to create confusion in the mind of enemy,” Lieutenant Colonel Wood said. “And then to supplement that with the psychological terror of isolation because you cut down his communications. When you then back that up with a demonstrated capability to kill him and those around him, you would hope to be able to terrify your enemy, break his formations and achieve a victory on the cheap with minimal casualties on your own side.”

While the Pentagon and the White House seem confident that a quick victory is likely, in recent days the Bush Administration has begun to warn that the battle to oust Saddam Hussein may not be as easy as initially thought.

Even Harlan Ullman, the principal author of the book Shock and Awe, says Operation Iraqi Freedom could turn into a longer war.

“We hope that we are going to win very quickly, very decisively, and with minimum casualties and minimum damage,” he said. “However, you never know. If Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and uses them, if the Iraqi army resists, if the Iraqi public resists, if there’s a siege in Baghdad, this could turn into a lengthy, bloody campaign. As both the British Minister of Defense and our Secretary of Defense have said, this could be a long, difficult campaign and we’re not going to assume anything. And I think that’s the only way to look at it. But on the other hand, while one plans for the worst, one hopes for the best.”

While estimates vary, the American media are reporting the Pentagon plans to pummel Iraq with as many as 3,000 cruise missiles in the first 48-hours of shock and awe. Many of these missiles would rain down on Baghdad, where one-fifth of Iraqis live. Critics of the U.S. led war say that Baghdad could become the 21st century’s equivalent of some of the cities bombed to bits in the Second World War like Guernica, Dresden, or Hiroshima.

These targets had no particular strategic importance. The aim was to devastate the population and break the spirit of resistance. Opponents of the U.S. led war say the Pentagon may be doing the same with its campaign against Baghdad.

However, Mr. Ullman says shock and awe will not wreak the kind of destruction seen in the Second World War. In fact, he says the whole point of this strategy is to avoid such devastation.

“Nobody is suggesting that we are going to do the damage that was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “This is not World War II with bombings of Dresden and London and everything that you see in pictures and the movies. This is far more selective. It’s very, very intense. But if it gets to a stage where that amount of destruction takes place, then the strategy will have failed.”

Shock and awe bypasses the need for the U.S. military to fight their way on the ground through the depths of the Iraqi army. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer who now writes on military affairs, says shock and awe lets the U.S. military go after the guilty while sparing the innocent.

“ And what’s positive about it, not only for war making effectiveness but for humanity as well, is increasingly we have the ability to reach over the intervening masses of conscript soldiers who don’t want to fight, who don’t want to be there,” he said.

“We have the ability to reach past the innocent civilians. We have the ability to reach deep and strike for the first time in history against the truly guilty, against the truly bloodstained men, against the decision makers, the regime leaders, the dictators, the tyrants, who are responsible. And if you can do that, then you will not only win your war, but you deter other would-be or future tyrants, dictators, and executioners,” Lt. Col Peters said.

Whether shock and awe will work as well as expected remains to be seen. Lt. Col. Wood with Globalsecurity.org says a similar strategy was used by NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999 and failed because the air campaign went on for 76 days, too long a time. That’s not to say U.S. forces shouldn’t try again, he says.

“Shock and awe is something that has to be followed up,” he said. “You have to follow up with a demonstrable capability of inflicting death and destruction. And you can only do that in this situation with major heavy armored forces. If the rapid dominance doesn’t occur, then we’re in for a long, drawn out, house to house, urban fight in Baghdad.”

Beyond shock and awe, says Mr. Ullman, is rebuilding post-war Iraq.

“The key things are first that post-war Iraq is properly settled. And I think Americanizing Iraq, if that were the case, would be a disaster,” he said. “So what we need to do is to make sure that the peace is a just and lasting one. And also we have to then address the fundamental problems of extremism in the region that run from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to problems in Pakistan with radicalization and the like. And unless we do that, I’m afraid that we have only addressed the symptoms and not the causes and that Iraq will not be a sufficiently enough of a victory in the long-term to overcome these other causes of extremism.”

Mr. Ullman says shock and awe and its use of targeted, finely orchestrated attacks on specific military targets is the way to take out the enemy leadership, which can lead to an early, relatively bloodless victory. He says we’ll know soon enough whether this will happen with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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