Like most of you, I first heard the phrase “shock and awe” in the waning days before coalition combat troops (United States, 300,000; United Kingdom, 45,000; United Arab Emirates, 4,000; Australia, 2,000 and Netherlands, 300) began their push towards Baghdad. With additional support and non-combat troops (Spain, 900; South Korea, 500; Poland, 200; Bulgaria, 150, Albania, 70 and Denmark, 70) the coalition attacks began right on schedule but without help from 14 countries who supplied troops to the first Gulf War. No matter, we were told our shock and awe bombing raids would crumble the Iraqi regime from the inside out in “weeks, not months.” Thank you for the pep talk, Dick Cheney.
That time line may still be met, but already the American public’s fascination with the war is waning. While support for the Bush administration remains high, some high-ranking military men are not impressed. Their grumblings are summarily dismissed by the administration. And as one journalist quickly found out, stating the obvious is no way to win friends in the White House.
Peter Arnett was fired last week by NBC and National Geographic for speaking his mind on Iraqi television. Arnett quickly apologized to the American people for his “misjudgment” in granting the interview. However, the controversial Pulitzer Prize winner did an about-face the very next day when hired by a paper critical of the war, London’s Daily Mirror. “I am in shock and awe at being fired,” he said, claiming his report was true that the war was not going according to plan and that civilian deaths in Baghdad were aiding anti-war protesters back in the states.
Shock and awe is now part of our vernacular—just tune into Fox News where the play-by-play war announcers regularly use the phrase while rooting for the home team. When Arnett won his Pulitzer during the Vietnam war, that era’s term was the less-subtle “bomb them back to the stone age.” Arnett surely met John Paul Vann in Vietnam. The U.S. Army lieutenant colonel was a lonely voice in 1964 when he began speaking against the U.S. policy of massive bombings, saying we were losing the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. His protestations were dismissed by an administration out of touch with the military and infatuated by spectacle, just like this one. Today, our weapons are more precise, and we portray that as an example of our humanity. But just like the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, it appears the coalition believes it must destroy Baghdad in order to save it. John Paul Vann’s message of nearly 40 years ago, especially as it relates to states surrounding Iraq, is lost.
It turns out that shock and awe is not a new phrase, either. During the summer of 2002, the U.S. conducted a $250 million dollar war game called Millennium Challenge—us against Iraq. A wily, retired, decorated U.S Marine, Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, played the role of Saddam. Against the shock and awe war game strategy, Van Riper delivered the first blow, resorted to guerilla tactics, and found ways to circumvent the technological and military advantages of our side. Iraq won.