Will ‘Shock and Awe’ Be Sufficient?

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc .org.

“Analysts write about war as if it’s a ballet,” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said after Operation Desert Storm, “like it’s choreographed ahead of time, and when the orchestra strikes up and starts playing, everyone goes out there and plays a set piece.”

“It is choreographed,” he continued, but “what happens is, the orchestra starts playing and some son of a bitch climbs out of the orchestra pit with a bayonet and starts chasing you around the stage. And the choreography goes right out the window.”

Senior leaders of the U.S. military believe they have planned for the unexpected problems they’re certain to face. “What you do is you go down through all the worst-case scenarios,” Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters March 4. “We worry about many, many worst-case scenarios.”


A week earlier, Myers told the Economic Club of New York that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has worked with the uniformed leadership to compile a list of “what can go wrong.” It is now “quite a long list,” Myers said.

Yet as the eleventh hour approaches, Myers seems torn.

His military conservatism and the inherent duty of professional soldiers lead him, like Schwarzkopf, to consider the worst case, to expect that man with a bayonet. But an equally strong impulse urges Myers to believe in the beautiful choreography made possible by American military and technological supremacy.

Let’s call that beautiful choreography Plan A. What happens if the war gods turn against us? That, we’ll call Plan B.

And, though senior leaders have not ignored Plan B, they have lost their hearts to Plan A.

Myers may warn about all the things that could go wrong, but the chairman -- like others in the Defense Department’s inner circle these days -- has become captivated by the latest packaging of an ancient concept known as “shock and awe.” He embodies a fundamental tension between hope and memory: between hope of a postindustrial form of combat in which one side wins without carnage, and memory of war’s almost-unbroken record of destruction.

“Shock and awe” is the latest Pentagon buzzword for an American blitz against Iraq that, if war comes, will seek to defeat Saddam Hussein with “effects” rather than the physical destruction of enemy troops or their resources.

“What you would like,” Myers says, is to ". . . have it be a short conflict. The best way to do that is to have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end is inevitable.” Rumsfeld echoed that idea last week, saying the goal “is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there is an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight.”

The choreography of Plan A takes advantage of what the military calls “preparation of the battlefield.” Twelve years of isolation and sanctions have severely weakened the Iraqi armed forces. U.S. patrolling of the no-fly zones has yielded a wealth of new intelligence and targeting information. Allied bombing in retaliation for Iraqi violations of the no-fly rules has inflicted heavy damage on Iraqi air defenses and communications. Just since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, the United States and its allies have flown more than 50,000 sorties over Iraq’s airspace, half the number flown during Desert Storm itself.

Hussein’s conscripts have been further battered psychologically by tens of millions of leaflets and American broadcasts describing the hopelessness of their situation and offering safety if they do not fight.

At the same time, the U.S. military has made enormous technological advances since 1991. Satellite-guided bombs now allow precision attacks day and night in all weather. Unmanned drones such as Predator and Global Hawk provide persistent surveillance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Military computer systems and networks have become so advanced (Desert Storm was practically fought in the paper age) that tons of information can be aggregated and processed as never before. And military communications are immeasurably improved.

When war comes, military sources say, the overture will be some 3,000 precision-guided weapons: cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and the newer satellite-guided weapons. All fired in the first 48 hours, they will target communications, early warning and air defenses, command facilities and “regime” targets such as palaces, security forces and the secret police.

There have been reports that computer networks will be attacked and exotic directed-energy weapons such as high-powered microwaves could be employed. Electrical power will be disrupted. U.S. and coalition ground forces and special operations will come at the Iraqi capital from north, south and west.

This three-dimensional shock-and-awe attack, it is hoped, will stun the Iraqi system and plunge it into such disarray that mutinies, coups or civil unrest will break out, isolating Hussein from his forces.

“I think it’s way too early to tell whether there’s going to be a fight for Baghdad or not,” Myers said, alluding to this hope that Iraqis -- with defeat at hand -- will clean their own stable.

Thus Plan A could obviate the need for urban warfare and sharply reduce the troubling problem of casualties and collateral damage. “If the regime cedes the rest of the country, then many people’s view [is] it’s no longer a regime,” according to Myers. “There are lots of scenarios, but if the leadership is isolated and not effective in governing the country, that would be victory ... “

Even Myers, infatuated as he is with shock and awe, believes there are limits to what it can accomplish. It may persuade troops and officers in Iraq’s regular army units to lay down their arms. It may isolate the ruler from his subjects in most of the country. Even so, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman concedes, American forces would “still have to deal with” Hussein himself, the 120,000 troops in his Republican Guard, the security apparatus and the inner circle of the Baath Party.

Many in the professional military cringe at the medieval term “siege,” but if American forces end up poised outside Baghdad, with shock and awe not quite shocking or awing enough to defeat the regime, they might still have to take a city of nearly 5 million.

Enter Plan B.

“We can’t forget that war is inherently violent, that people are going to die,” Myers says. “As hard as we try, as hard as we try to limit civilian casualties and so-called collateral damage ... it will occur.”

“We need to condition people that war is war,” Myers concluded. “I think from Desert Storm and the Kosovo air campaigns people get the idea that this could be antiseptic.”

Well, it is proponents of Plan A who have been seduced by the notion of antiseptic war, not the American public -- and certainly not those who oppose immediate war with Iraq. Most who oppose unilateral and preemptive American military action don’t underestimate the carnage. If anything, they overestimate it.

But there is a larger problem for those who share the dream of shock and awe as a 21st century substitute for old-fashioned killing. Ironically, it was Myers himself who made the case against the need for an immediate invasion of Iraq.

Myers said “the ultimate objective is not Saddam Hussein,” but rather to “ensure that Iraq does not have chemical or biological weapons or their delivery means.” Once Hussein is “isolated and not effective in governing the country,” Myers said, regime change could be pursued at no “particular pace.” In other words, there would be no need to rush.

Yet isolating Hussein and eliminating his ability to pursue weapons of mass destruction -- by drawing the noose of weapons inspections and international pressure ever more tightly around him -- is precisely what those who oppose war now are proposing.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it seems, has inadvertently made the case for increased international pressure, backed by the threat of military force, as an effective alternative to a premature and all-but-unilateral use of force.

That would be Plan C.