Awe Shocks

A couple of weeks ago, the lovely "Shock and Awe" theory was floated as the basis on which the war with Iraq might be conducted, should that long-advertised war finally take place. It was just one of many trial balloons loosed to the winds over the last few months. One imagines some Assistant Secretary for Trial Balloons and Leaks, hard at work, muttering to himself: "Okay, this week we try out the used circular saw-blade launcher and the mortgage bomb. Next week, the two thousand pound liquid banana-peel and roofing nail ‘device.’" He chuckles at the thought of all those hostiles losing their footing and falling over, only to be impaled on the roofing nails.

If these items "fly" with the general public, they are cleared, one supposes, for eventual deployment. If a handful of pointy-headed types complain, the hype vanishes, perhaps to reappear in a second trial, or to intimidate the enemy of the week. In just this fashion, they – whoever they are – ran Shock and Awe up the flagpole a while back. In the last few days Shock and Awe, together again, have made another showing.

It was bad enough the first time.


While Shock and Awe were off stage, minimal digging around on the web unearthed the original 1996 memo that brought the dynamic duo to life: (50 some pages not counting appendices). Gomer Pyle and Sgt. Carter might not wade through it, but there it sits in all its glory. CCRP stands for the Command and Control Research Program, whose members report to the Assistant Secretary of Defense. The National Defense University seems involved, somehow.

Seven authors take credit for Shock and Awe, of whom the most famous, and most quoted, is Professor Harlan K. Ullman – a Dr. Strangelove for the New Millennium.


The memo is written in Pentagonese Light, a dialect descended from Old Cold War Speak. In this new form of expression, the writers affect a breezy, trendy presentation, but the old tendencies toward specialized jargon and weighty acronyms still thrive. Even so, the message, such as it is, does come across.

The memo calls to mind one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales – the one about the fishwife who caught a magic fish, which could apparently grant a long list of wishes without running out of resources. So first she wanted a better house. Then she wanted a mansion. Then she wanted to be Duchess, Queen, Pope…. All these wishes were granted. When she asked to be God, instantly she was back in her old hovel.

US foreign policy has gotten onto the same path and the magic fish is nowhere to be seen.


The Prologue to the 1996 report laments that defense spending might be going into decline. There is a need therefore to be very, very clever and take advantage of "the uniquely American ability to integrate… strategy, technology, and innovation" into a strategy of Rapid Dominance, in case some enemy should suddenly and arbitrarily appear. In the Introduction, we find out what Rapid Dominance means. Aside from being "all-encompassing": "It will require the means to anticipate and to counter all opposing moves. It will involve the capability to deny an opponent things of critical value, and to convey the unmistakable message that unconditional compliance is the only available recourse."

Shock and Awe are central to these happy goals, and if done properly, would amount to "the non-nuclear equivalent of the impact that the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese."

Chapter One allows that the US is presently utterly dominant globally. Nevertheless, there is a need to watch for possible "evil-doers" on the horizon. Should any appear, their country must be completely "shut down." There is nothing new here.

Chapter Two explains things a bit more. Shock and Awe, bless their hearts, require "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…" (my italics) For the hundredth or so time, I note that US military strategy has targeted the entire enemy society since about 1862, and earlier than that in Indian wars.

The writers now show how Shock and Awe goes beyond the heroic traditions of Total War into something new, technologically, but completely the same, morally. Bows are made in the direction of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and, inevitably, Sherman.

Yes, of course: Sherman said, "War is Hell." How this demonstrates Sherman’s wisdom or anything else remains an open question.

Sherman is just about all the moral cover these fellows need or want.

Chapter Three catalogues and evaluates recent US interventions and teases out apparent lessons. There is muted praise for our sometime friend Saddam Hussein’s ruthless rocket attacks on Tehran, undertaken back when he was still salonfähig, attacks approvingly said to have "amounted to a reign of terror."

To work, Rapid Dominance/Shock and Awe must be, well, "rapid," "brilliant," rich with knowledge, and in control of the environment. Destruction of enemy communications will combine with US disinformation to sow confusion and awe. Further, "assimilation of intelligence – strategically, culturally, and operationally – is a central thrust…."

"Culturally": This seems like a tall order for a military machine based in a country whose citizens are not noted for learning foreign languages or giving a damn about cultures, including their own, but perhaps we can just buy collaborators who already know English. Maybe this is why we simply must have immigrants from every part of the globe.

The writers wonder whether sentimentalists may object to an all-encompassing attack on the enemy’s entire society and say that it lacks "proportionality." This may be a vague allusion to Just War Theory or common decency. They needn’t worry so much. The silent majority of Americans hardly ever notice these things.

In Chapter Four everything fan-worthy does in fact hit the fan. The discussion shifts to recommendations of systems and technologies to achieve the aforementioned goals. The writers call for "complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment" – "rapidity" – "brilliance of execution" – (and) "control of the environment."

Amazing. They want "complete knowledge of self" and they want to achieve this using Americans. All of American literature cries out against the possibility.

It turns out they just want to know how many dry-cell batteries we have, and things like that.

As for Total Knowledge of the Adversary (the capitals are implicit), they mention dear old DARPA and Battlefield Awareness and Data Dissemination, or BADD.

Specifically: "Collecting sufficient and timely environmental information is crucial to Rapid Dominance. Logistics, demographics, and infrastructure are broad areas of collection along with geography, road/sail/ship lanes, utility sites and corridors, manufacturing, government sites, military and paramilitary facilities, population demographics, economic and financial pressure points (such as oil wells or gold mines), and major dams and bridges."

The social and natural sciences march together in lockstep! It is all very inspiring. And note that they don’t actually say that all these things are targets. They don’t need to.

Satellites, sensors, off-the-shelf software, new, rapidly adaptable systems involving other systems can and will be combined so that the US government will: a) know everything about everything everywhere in the world; b) dominate everything everywhere in the world; c) if necessary, target everything everywhere in the world and blow it up.

Sure is comforting, isn’t it?

It’s not as bad as it sounds, I’m sure. Besides, the "awe" felt by those duly "shocked" will lead to Unconditional Surrender in short order, thereby shortening the war and "saving lives." Anyway, you have to expect some "collateral damage." I heard it on TV; it must be true.

Well, we do expect it, but that only begins the discussion.


Whether or not the proposed war actually goes forward, and whether or not we actually see a trial run of the newest-ever Total War doctrine, the interesting thing will be whether or not a coalition of the unwilling arises. By that I do not mean the usually mooted "rogue states," but reasonably civilized, industrialized, and (God save the mark) "democratic" states, who may just tire, one day, of worrying about whether some screws are loose in and around Washington, DC.

If this happens, expect to see more anti-European diatribes from the usual Neo-Conservative sources, and expect to see the high-toned balance-of-power theorists change their tune about coalitions that oppose a rising hegemon. It will turn out that such coalitions are just plain wrong, when they oppose an English-speaking hegemon – but more on that another time.

Anyway, there can’t be any threaded, spiral, metallic fastening devices, or screws, loose in Washington; the rightful owners of all knowledge would know if any were loose, and would have them picked up, ergo they wouldn’t be loose. QED.