Shock and Awe – In War and Politics


The term “Shock and Awe” was a consciously and specifically developed military strategy by the USA for use in war situation and intended using massive power and force in such rapid succession as to overwhelm the enemy. The attack was visualized to be so sudden and blinding as to confuse and stun the enemy into absolute shock. Harlan K Ullman and James P Wade, the main authors of this strategy, defined it as seeking to put the enemy is such “shock and awe” as to freeze its thought and action process and paralyze its will, perception and understanding to fight back. This was to be done in a blitzkrieg that not only gives the enemy no chance and time to respond, but even stuns its will to respond and carry on. According to them, the strategy was based on four premises – (1) Near total knowledge and understanding of self, adversary, and environment; (2) Rapidity and timeliness in application; (3) Operational brilliance in execution; and (4) Near total control and signature management of the entire operational environment.

Ullman and Wade also stated that, “Shock and Awe must cause…. the threat and fear of action that may shut down all or part of the adversary’s society or render his ability to fight useless, short of complete physical destruction.”  Accordingly, the strategy would seek to disrupt “means of communication, transportation, food production, water supply and other aspects of infrastructure”. In fact, the strategy could be compared to have an effect as was achieved by the dropping of the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The “shock and awe” was originally conceived and developed in 1996, in keeping with increasing integration of the information technology into war planning and execution and also the general physical reduction in the military’s size on ground. Once developed, it was first employed by the USA in its invasion of Iraq in March 2003. A month earlier, in February, talking to a periodical Long Island Newsday, Harlan K. Ullman stated, “What we want to do is to create in the minds of the Iraqi leadership and their soldiers, this Shock and Awe, so they are intimidated, made to feel so impotent, so helpless, that they have no choice but to do what we want them to do, so the smartest thing (for the Iraqis) would be to say, ‘This is hopeless. We quit’. ”

In Iraq, however, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Iraq’s resistance held on for about three weeks before falling. In the aggressor’s typical arrogance, this was certainly not what the USA had expected, hoped or planned for. And so, failing in the very high expectations that the USA government, military and the public had nursed of it, the strategy dropped out of favour and also in public opinion just as sharply as it had risen. “Shock and Awe”, as war strategy, was given up.

But the term “shock and awe” had by then caught commercial attention. And in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the term came to be widely used in advertisements, particularly in computerised war games. In fact, Sony Corporation too is believed to have immediately used the term in a video game title, although it later withdrew it as “an exercise of regrettable bad judgement”. However, the corporate world and media has continued to employ the “shock and awe” strategy in different spheres, most notably in free-market economic theory and practice.

Canadian writer, film-maker and activist Naomi Klein came up with a new name for the strategy in her book – The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, published in 2007. In it, she explained that it was the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the free-market media guru, who quickly theorised that massive disasters could serve to soften people up for his radical free-market crusade. His line of advice to politicians was simple and straight – push through all the painful policies immediately and at once after a crisis, before people regain their footing. “He called this method ‘economic shock treatment’. I call it ‘the shock doctrine!’ ….. This is the secret history of the free market. It wasn’t born in freedom and democracy; it was born in shock”, Klein wrote.

She stated that “Some of the most infamous human rights violations of the past thirty-five years, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market reforms.”

Explaining the psychology behind the strategy, Klein surmised that in the aftermath of a collective trauma, a war, a coup, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack we are in such a state of shock that “like the prisoner in the interrogation chamber, we become childlike and inclined to follow unquestioningly leaders who claim to protect us.” She underlined that this definite strategy of shocking people into obedience, called “mind control” or “brainwashing” at the time, was not merely limited to economic and free-market intrusions nor targeted at individual people but entire societies. Moreover, the Shock Doctrine was further developed and used into not just waiting for a crisis to happen but in the absence of any, actually manufacturing a crisis and immediately following that up with imposition of radical economic solution as shock therapy.

Naomi Klein’s analysis helps us understand better the Shock Doctrine’s application into diverse other fields – most notably, in politics and running of governments. This is exactly what we have most immediately been seeing and going through in India over the last decade and across both scenarios – allowing an existing crisis to establish, magnify and multiply (as in the Corona epidemic) or even creating a crisis if there isn’t any (as in Notebandi or Denotification). In fact, the coming together of both scenarios multiplied manifold the application, spread and impact of the “shock and awe” through control of the narrative and further creation of the desired narrative – through media control and manipulation. Today, even if this is only on hindsight, just try and recollect all major social, economic and political milestones over the last decade, and the employment and imposition of “shock and awe” or the “shock doctrine” becomes glaringly obvious.

Promises, claims, accusations, lies – all these and more came, one after another in a fusillade. And before the public could bat an eyelid or the Opposition parties take barely a step towards responding to one accusation or exposing the lie of one claim, came a new promise, claim or accusation from the Government. This, day after day, week after week. The scenario was that the Government was setting the agenda, and all that the Opposition could barely do was as if grope in the dark, trying to catch up and respond. Amidst all this “shock and awe”, the Government quickly, generating further confusion and fear, took a stranglehold over institutions, selling off valuable public assets and making drastic policy and programmes changes, that otherwise couldn’t have gone through without demanding a close scrutiny.

The requirements for “shock and awe” that Harlan K Ullman and James P Wade had outlined, were apparent here as well –  particularly, “Rapidity in application” and “Near total control and signature management of the entire operational environment.”

And all this perfectly matched the Naomi Klein script and also Thomas Friedman’s famous phrase – not nation building, but “nation creating” – in our case, the “new” India.

Biju Negi, Hind Swaraj Manch

A Rejoinder to Biju Negi’s Article “Shock and Awe in War and Politics”

by Dr Harlan Ullman

Biju Negi’s column, “Shock and Awe in War and Politics,” might have been more powerful if the author had concentrated more on the underpinnings of the doctrine. The foundations, when I created shock and awe along with a number of former very senior admirals and generals and Pentagon officials, were taken from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz.

Sun Tzu argued the best strategy was to win by not fighting. The second best was to attack the enemy’s strategy. Clausewitz characterized war as a conflict of wills and an “extension of policy by other means.”

Thus, shock and awe were oriented “to affecting, influencing and ultimately controlling the will and perception of the intended adversary.” By creating a sense of hopelessness, the aim was to win without or with minimum use of force. In other words, this was the antithesis to General Colin Powell’s initial concept of “overwhelming force” to that of “decisive force.” Neither Desert Storm in 1991 nor Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 were examples of shock and awe—rather overwhelming force.

Shock and awe was composed of five elements: Controlling the physical and electromagnetic spectra so the enemy would be rendered helpless and hopeless. To achieve that, near total knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the enemy were vital, not merely orders of battle and weapons capability but cultural and societal strengths and weaknesses. Military forces must be trained to attain brilliance in operations, not merely proficiency. And rapidity was essential to respond instantly to changing battlefield and strategic conditions.

Shock was indeed that : Causing an enemy psychological and physical paralysis or impotence. Awe was imposing shock over an extended period. And to repeat, the strategic center of gravity was the will and perception of the enemy. Should an enemy choose to attack, that would be so disrupted and completely defeated that the only choice was surrender or annihilation.

Sadly, and despite his participation in the group, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could not engage his operational commander in Iraqi Freedom, Army General Tommy Franks, to understand shock and awe. Franks saw it only as a slogan. When the operation started, the half page photo of a bomb exploding over Baghdad on London’s Daily Telegraph front page carried the headline “Baghdad Blitz.”

Shock and awe then sunk without trace.

I have argued that in addition to state and non-state actors, Massive Attacks of Disruption and Destruction (MADD)–whether of man or nature–must be critically addressed as overriding threats. Ideally both MADD and traditional threats can be covered by the same strategy and strategic aims using the four components of shock and awe. The aims are to disrupt and prevent damage and then to limit and contain it.

These apply both to potential aggression by China and others and to the war in Ukraine as well as to the environmental disasters threatening the planet from pandemics to climate change to physical catastrophes in the form of earthquakes, massive fires, floods and drought.

Whether governments realize this and react will prove to be critical in how national and global security are protected.

Dr Harlan Ullman
Chairman, The Killowen Group
Principal Author of Shock and Awe
Senior Advisor, The Atlantic Council
UPI’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Latest Book: The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large
Twitter: @harlankullman

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