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The Limits of Shock and Awe

by Michael Bellesisles on Nov 10, 2003

Michael Bellesisles

The United States began its war against Iraq with a campaign of "shock and awe." An overwhelming demonstration of American airpower was designed to persuade the Iraqis to throw down their arms and surrender even while rising in revolt against Saddam Hussein. Sadly, that expectation has been thwarted, as the war drags on and Americans and Iraqis continue to die.

The term "shock and awe" is in keeping with a long-standing Anglo-American faith in technological quick fixes. Military techno-hype has frequently fed expectations of a "clean" victory. But we have found that the latest technology does not always shorten wars.

As early as 1609, John Smith, a leader of colonial Virginia, told his troops that if they just discharged their muskets, "the very smoake will bee sufficient to affright them." Unfortunately, Smith was wrong. Virginia's Indians developed tactics to circumvent the colonists' technological advantages. Smith returned to England, proclaiming his mission accomplished; but the Virginia Indian wars lasted for decades.

In the American Revolution, Britain's Captain Patrick Ferguson believed his ingenious breech-loading rifle would guarantee victory. His confidence cost Ferguson his life in the South Carolina forests at King's Mountain, where American "peasants" carrying old-fashioned weapons wiped out his forces.

Modern weaponry is far more destructive and would seem able to convince any opponent to avoid fighting. The American Richard Gatling employed such reasoning in the nineteenth century, predicting that his rapid-fire gun would put an end to war, as no one could advance in the face of such overwhelming firepower. But Gatling, like many later innovators, underestimated the willingness of people to give their lives in even the most bloody conflicts. The Gatling gun and its successors did not prove decisive in any war, though they increased casualty rates on all sides.

Sophisticated weapons such as machine guns and even tanks remain within human reach, and thus subject to low-tech destruction. Aircraft, it is often held, changed everything, placing an attack above any but equally high-tech defenses. The originator of the policy of "shock and awe" was not a Pentagon employee but Giulio Douchet, an Italian advocate of air power in the 1930s. Sounding like a contemporary defense analyst, Douchet predicted that within two days of an air attack against urban centers, a "panic-stricken people" would flee the cities "to escape this terror from the air."

Any society would experience "a complete breakdown," as civilians, seeking to end their "horror and suffering," would "rise up and demand an end to the war." Douchet recommended pre-emptive strikes such as the United States launched against Iraq. But repeatedly civilians have proved Douchet wrong.

"Shock and awe" was tested during World War II. In 1942, Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris told Winston Churchill that his massive bombing campaign would "knock Germany out of the war within a matter of months." Yet, despite the horrendous firestorms created in Dresden, Lubeck and Hamburg by British and American bombers, airpower did not defeat Germany; massive ground forces did. Teams of experts from the United States and Britain who investigated the effectiveness of allied bombing discovered German military production had not been decisively hindered, nor had bombing destroyed German morale. American and British faith in superior technology had been misplaced.

Twenty years later, in 1965, one member of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, George Ball, warned President Lyndon Johnson that airpower alone could not defeat the North Vietnamese. U.S. air strikes, which showed little regard for civilians, destroyed every significant structure in North Vietnam. Yet the Vietnamese communists persisted in their low-tech war — "grabbing the Americans by their belts," as they called it — and fighting face to face.

These lessons of the limitations of "techno-war" were forgotten, as the ghost of Giulio Douchet hovered over the Bush administration's planning for the campaign of shock and awe. It seems that the president does not read either newspapers or history.

None of this is to say that the Bush administration was irrational to expect that the Iraqi people would recognize American technological superiority. It is to suggest rather that history indicates that warfare cannot be reduced to a precise calculus in which advanced weaponry brings predictable results.

American airpower did enormous damage to the Iraqi military, destroyed numerous key government structures and killed hundreds of civilians. In the process, the United States alienated millions of people around the world, including, it seems, a great many Iraqis.

War is a blunt instrument that produces no "clean" victories. Ultimately, troops must leave their armored vehicles and establish order on the streets; they must confront the people previously targeted from afar. The consequence is often a low-tech struggle in which superior technology may only get in the way.


Michael Bellesiles is the author of several books, including "Revolutionary Outlaws" and "Arming America," and is a writer for the History News Service.