Ten years ago this month, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom against Saddam Hussein. The real reason for this invasion was President George W. Bush’s freedom agenda with its aim of changing the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East by imposing democracy on Iraq. The stated casus belli was Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction that, as Bush and his National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned, could lead to a “mushroom shaped cloud” exploding over our heads. But, the WMD cupboard was bare. Saddam fell and was later executed because of his fear of revealing the truth.
In the run-up to the war, the U.S. commander, Army General Tommy Franks, promised a campaign of “shock and awe” readily seconded by the U.S. Air Force. Overwhelming, precise firepower would destroy the Iraqi Army and end Saddam’s regime. As the assault began, the British Daily Telegraph featured on half of its front page, a photo of a bomb exploding in Baghdad. The headline above it read “Baghdad Blitz.” With the reference to Nazi bombings of London during World War II, “shock and awe” disappeared without trace.
In the process, shock and awe, entirely misunderstood by the Pentagon and public, was repudiated. Franks’ version was recreating Desert Storm of the 1991 Gulf War but on steroids. His sound bite and the original concept of shock and awe were as different as lead is to gold.
Shock and awe were based on convincing or coercing an adversary to do what we wanted or to stop undertaking actions that harmed us. The objective was to affect, influence and control the will and perception of an adversary, not merely defeat the enemy in battle. Nine distinct levels of shock and awe were posited from powerful positive incentives or the equivalent of winning the lottery to altering behavior of suicidal societies.
This ninth category used the atom bombings of Japan in 1945 as the primary example for altering suicidal behavior. Unfortunately, many read this wrongly as advocating the use of nuclear weapons which was never meant rather than changing suicidal behavior—with direct application today. By the summer of 1945, Japan was surrounded, blockaded and most Japanese were starving. Firebomb raids incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Japan was defeated. But it would not surrender.
Japanese loyalty to the Emperor God was suicidal. Countless numbers of Japanese soldiers died in Banzai attacks, as Kamikaze pilots or, along with civilians, by their own hand to avoid surrender. After the first bomb eviscerated Hiroshima, the War cabinet voted to continue fighting. After Nagasaki was eviscerated, the vote was deadlocked and broken only by Emperor Hirohito’s intervention to end the war.
Why did Japan surrender? The Japanese could endure thousands of B-29 raids destroying their cities and killing their people at the same time most were starving. However, no Japanese could comprehend how one bomb could destroy one city. In simplest of psychological terms, they were “shocked and awed” into surrender.
Today, in a different context, the West faces religious and ideological fanaticism that is suicidal in nature as September 11th and hundreds of car and other bombings testify. Conventional wisdom argues, wrongly in our view, that suicidal behavior cannot neither be deterred nor prevented. So far, the strategy has been to kill or capture this enemy, not to change its behavior. That strategy alone cannot work.
Focus must be placed on delegitimatizing and defaming these fanatics to destroy any and all credibility. Second, the grounds for deprivation and helplessness that too often force volunteers to join these ranks because no better options exist must be reduced. Regarding the first, U.S. politics excel at demonization. Secretary of State John Kerry with a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts earned in Vietnam could be “swift-boated.” Former Senator Chuck Hagel, also a decorated veteran of that war, was demeaned in his confirmation hearings.
What aren’t these same skills used to attack these religious extremists? Sadly, the U.S. has not developed a message to win this battle of competing ideologies or to neutralize the fanaticism that is central to these terror organizations. Creating a compelling campaign of public diplomacy and strategic communications and using it to discredit and destroy this message of terror are crucial first steps.
Reducing deprivation is even harder especially in an era of budget austerity. However, if extremist ideologies are to be defeated, an equivalent of shock and awe that overnight transformed one society from suicidal intent to abject surrender is vital. Using our intellects, surely such an aim can be achieved.