Meet Mr. "Shock and Awe."

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April 1 2003 6:39 PM

Meet Mr. "Shock and Awe"

Harlan Ullman says they're doing it wrong.

It's a pretty heady experience for a Washington policy entrepreneur to see his pet reform translated into government action. But what do you do if your bold new paradigm flunks the field test? Simple: You say the idiots in the field didn't do it right. Quite often, that happens to be true. Government being a collaborative enterprise, the integrity of one person's vision is bound to get compromised somewhere down the line. Even if it isn't true, "It wasn't a fair test of my ideas" remains the prudent thing to say.

It would be premature to say that the Pentagon's Rapid Dominance strategy—popularly known as "Shock and Awe"—has failed in Iraq. The administration is quite right to point out that the war has barely started, and in many respects it has gone well. Obviously, though, the early reviews on "Shock and Awe" from U.S. ground troops, whose opinions on these matters are the most valuable, have been negative. "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against," said Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the Army's senior ground commander in Iraq, in the March 28 Washington Post. The Pentagon's response was not encouraging: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took the occasion to name Gen. Tommy Franks as the author of the battle plan. That contradicts the testimony of an anonymous "senior war planner" quoted in a Seymour Hersh report in the April 7 New Yorker. According to this person, Rumsfeld vetoed proposed battle plans at least six times, demanding that the size of the ground force be smaller. (For an evaluation by Slate's Fred Kaplan of how "Shock and Awe" has worked so far, click here.)

Now Harlan Ullman, aka "Mr. Shock and Awe," is distancing himself from the battle plan as well. Ullman, a senior associate at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the principal author of Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance. Published in 1996, Ullman's book laid out a new approach to warfare tailored to that era's shrinking military budgets. Instead of overwhelming the enemy with troop strength—as called for in the Gulf War doctrine formulated by Colin Powell, whom Ullman taught at the National War College—Ullman proposed that the United States destroy enemy morale with a concentrated series of strikes at many different kinds of targets. Disoriented by the resulting havoc, the enemy would quickly be "shocked" and "awed" into surrender, and casualties would be kept to a minimum.

That certainly sounds like what Rumsfeld, Franks, and Co. are attempting. But in an op-ed in the April 1 Baltimore Sun headlined, " 'Shock and Awe' Lite," Ullman observes, "Shock and awe were promised, but the effects have not yet taken hold."

Ullman remains very much a part of the military establishment—he counts Rumsfeld and Powell among his friends—and is not, he says, out to second-guess the Pentagon. For that reason, he soft-pedals anything that might be construed as criticism. Still, he wants the world to know that what has unfolded in Iraq during the past two weeks does not conform (and, he adds, may not intend to conform) to his own theory. In a conversation with Chatterbox, Ullman suggested that Gulf War II differs from his own notion of Shock 'n' Awe mainly by being less shocking and less awesome. So far, he says, the Iraq war has mostly consisted of "strategic bombing around Baghdad" supplemented by "a rapid assault from the south." A true Shock 'n' Awe strategy would have many more components. In the present war, these would include, ideally, on Day 1:

  • Taking out at least half the Republican Guard;
  • Taking out the Baathist Party headquarters and the Baathist Party members;
  • Sending in a 5,000-man special forces unit "on steroids" to "wreak havoc";
  • Taking out police forces.

In addition, an ideal Ullman Shock 'n' Awe campaign would quickly seize the electronic spectrum. Computers would be inoperable. Video of a Saddam impersonator saying, "I quit" would be beamed onto Iraqi TV sets. (How about that guy from Hot Shots?)

The four foundations of Shock 'n' Awe are, Ullman says,

  • Total knowledge. Before an Ullmanite Iraqi invasion took place, we would know considerably more about what's going on inside Iraq than we appear to now.
  • Brilliance in execution. The ground campaign has been brilliantly executed, Ullman says, "but the targeting I think was wrong."
  • Rapidity. "The ability to administer shock and awe was not rapid enough." Again, Ullman excepts the quick ground advance to the outskirts of Baghdad.
  • Controlling the environment. That's where control of the electronic spectrum, computers, what's on television, etc., comes in.

Chatterbox asked Ullman whether the effectiveness of Shock 'n' Awe was undermined by the Pentagon's use of the term before the war even begun. Was it self-defeating to say, in effect, "Hey, Iraq, get ready to be shocked and awed"? "It didn't help," Ullman said. Indeed, he says, the phrase was intended to remain en famille. "We wanted this thing only in the Pentagon to spark a debate." Ullman is particularly troubled that many people find the phrase "Shock and Awe" to express barbarism and cruelty, when in fact the strategy is meant, in part, to save lives and prevent injuries by shortening the duration of a war.

Are Ullman's criticisms legitimate, or is he merely protecting his theory from a potentially devastating real-world test? We can't know. Certainly, there can't be anyone in the Pentagon who disagrees that achieving all these goals would be very helpful to the war effort. But even Ullman says he doesn't know whether they are achievable under the present circumstances. And it's anybody's guess as to whether they'd be sufficient.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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