Looking Back On Shock And Awe
I was barely online at that time, and I'm not about to quote from my private emails. However, in May 2003, I did write up a weird little aesthetic analysis that I think
(Before you click through--if you click through--I would like to be considered for the prize in the category "Not So Bad, Considering The Disciplinary Tools Available." Thank you.)
Why “Shock and Awe” Won’t Work The Way Military Strategists Hope
As many commentators have noticed, the military strategy of “Shock and Awe” is in many respects similar to the philosophical model of the Sublime. Both presume that the experience of overwhelming power will be sudden and terrifying, and that the end result will be some improved system. In the philosophical model, the result of the Sublime is an appreciation of God’s power or the moral imperative to act rightly with a rational understanding of universal principles. In the military model, the result of “Shock and Awe” is an American-imposed treaty or government. Both also emphasize the absolute powerlessness of the subject, arguing that this powerlessness in the face of power is the psychological instrumental by which the new system can overturn the old.
Oddly enough, both the “Shock and Awe” model of regime change and the Sublime model of overwhelming experience participate in the language of aesthetics. At a very basic level, both “Shock and Awe” and the Sublime are attempts to systematize a form of communication that would be perfect, total, and effective. Although later philosophers have tended to relegate the Sublime to the backwaters of aesthetic theory, deriding it as a model of experience predicated on a thinly-disguised transcendence, the current military model of “Shock and Awe” relies on precisely those elements of the Sublime that have been overlooked by philosophical skeptics. And perhaps only the history of aesthetics can illuminate the flaws in the American military strategy.
The treatise that explains “Shock and Awe,” like the treatises explaining the Sublime, presume that the object of their study is a total system that deploys forms to force change. Rather than opposing the prior “decisive force” strategy that has guided American military campaigns since Vietnam, the “Shock and Awe” strategy subsumes the “decisive force” strategy as a factor in its more comprehensive system guiding the exercise of power. The brute operational force to overwhelm the opponent’s army remains important to the paper’s authors, but they would like to extend this potential for dominance into other realms of warfare: they “envisage Rapid Dominance as the possible military expression, vanguard, and extension of this potential for revolutionary change” (Prologue). The treatise on “Rapid Dominance” falls into the generic category of a system, enveloping and totalizing previous investigations into strategic dominance in order to make new and more absolute applications of their lessons.
Because the treatise is organized as a master-system, absorbing all previous treatises on warfare, it is able to identify “intimidating and compelling factors” on a variety of experiential levels. They advocate the control of state information-systems and the control of individual perceptions; they advocate the domination of the war’s battlefield by the tactical deployment of overwhelming force and the domination of the war’s narrative by unstoppable speed. As Burke and Kant translate into a broad spectrum of media-stimuli the possible formal causes of the Sublime effect, so do the authors of “Rapid Dominance” survey the different techniques of proving military control of a battlefield environment. By addressing all of the factors that defeat, compel, or intimate an enemy, this treatise advocates a kind of strategy that itself would deploy systemic force.
The “Shock and Awe” technique of establishing “rapid dominance” is a strategy that seeks to control not only the material conditions of the enemy (military capacity, infrastructure) but also more importantly the psychology of the enemy. In a table in the Introduction, the purpose of the use of force in the “Shock and Awe” strategy is defined as being to “control the adversary's will, perceptions, and understanding and literally make an adversary impotent to act or react.” Without closer perusal of the paper, it would seem difficult to understand how force as conventionally understood could control the adversary’s understanding. However, the use of force is more generally defined for Ullman and his co-authors, as having “a broader spectrum of leverage points” than mere battlefield strength (Chapter Two, para 9). They aim rather at creating the kind of show of force that would, like the Sublime, induce
that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force” (Burke 101).
In the strategy of “Shock and Awe,” the irresistible force perceived by the enemy’s minds is the American military. By controlling the enemy’s environment and by shocking the enemy with “some degree of horror,” the strategists hope to rely on the enemy’s minds to create the power by which the system is changed.
Indeed, an even more important tool for this strategy is the control of information available to the enemy. If the enemy is convinced that the American military has “irresistible force,” the military doesn’t need to make nearly as many real shows of forces to prove the point. As part of a coordinated deployment of “Rapid Dominance,” manipulating information is “more than denial or deception [;] it is control in the fullest sense of the word” (Chapter Two, para 44). The authors of the paper isolate some examples of the kind of control of information that the military should seek.
One way to confound the enemy is to exaggerate the size of the American forces. They refer to how the Haitian natives misled a visiting French military contingent into thinking their army many times as large as it actually was by parading a single unit many times in front of a single viewpoint. This repetition created the impression of a vast military force and consequently dissuaded the French from opposing Haitian independence with military intervention (Chapter Two, para 28). The Haitian military carefully manipulated how the French would interpret the spectacle; the Haitians created a qualitatively different representation by repeating a single unit many times, “impress[ing] the imagination with an idea of their progress beyond their actual limits” (Burke 116), and suggesting a force of sufficient vastness to change the French opinion.
Another example they give for how the control of representations can create “Shock and Awe” is derived from an anecdote about Sun Tzu. In order to win a bet with the Emperor to transform the royal concubines into a drill team, Sun Tzu decapitated two concubines in the order of rank until the others were demoralized enough to obey. While admitting that the brutality of this tactic may fall outside the culturally accepted parameters of U.S. military strategy, Ullman and his co-authors argue that decisive action against selected symbolic or otherwise exemplary targets may more effectively persuade an enemy population to submit than would a full-scale war (Chapter Two, para 21-23). For this tactic to work, one must assume that the enemy population or military will identify or have already identified in some fashion with the attacked targets. The targets must have symbolic meaning in themselves, in that they are culturally or politically important within the current system, or the enemy individuals must be able to sympathize with them, imagine themselves dying in such a fashion, as in the popular Christian saying “there but for the grace of God go I”—except that in the “Shock and Awe” strategy, the grace of God has been replaced by the selective targeting of the American military. This tactic relies quite explicitly on the power of imagination to induce sympathetic fear.
By a rapid and confusing spectacle of absolute force, the American military will convince the enemy that resistance is futile, and moreover, that resistance is unimaginable. The enemy—-in all of its individual human components—-becomes “paralyzed” and “impotent” in the face of the American military’s exercise of domination. The enemy’s normal patterns are demolished, as the American military demonstrates its “(near) total control and signature management of the entire operational environment” (Prologue para 6). The individual humans who make up the enemy will then become convinced that their previous regime has come to an end. The main tool used to achieve this goal is massively induced shock, a condition of psychological trauma involving confusion, horror, suspension, and impotence. The desired effect is epistemological upset: all of the enemy’s previous systems will be enveloped in a new totalized confusion directed by the American military.
“Rapid Dominance” is therefore a strategy of imposing a new system on the enemy: through the obscuring fog of war, the adversary’s minds will only perceive American power. The new system of American dominance will induce, through the shock of epistemological upset, a state of “awe.” Not only will the enemy be confused and impotent, in a state of “shock,” the enemy will also be so afraid of American force that they will almost reverence it as a higher power. Previous military strategies sought to win wars; this one aims at political victories by military means. As the authors state,
“we seek to determine whether and how Shock and Awe can become sufficiently intimidating and compelling factors to force or otherwise convince an adversary to accept our will in the Clausewitzian sense, such that the strategic aims and military objectives of the campaign will achieve a political end” (Chapter Two, para 3).
At the most basic level, the strategy of “shock and awe” is a highly refined—-and violent—-technique of persuasion. The “political end” of this operation is to convince the mass of these individuals to resign themselves to, accept, or even identify with the next new system imposed by the American “will.”
In eighteenth-century terms, the American military is hoping to put each enemy soldier—and civilian—on one of Wordsworth’s mountains, and the American military is hoping that its message will be felt by these isolated individuals as a
roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable, roaring with one voice
Heard over earth and sea, and in that hour,
For so it seems, felt by the starry heavens (The Prelude 14.59-63).
The “shock and awe” military strategy is designed to invade the individual sensorium and to replace the individual perception of what eighteenth-century philosophers would call “the system of Nature” with a strategic political system. But even independent of the very real ethical concerns, there are a number of logistical problems with this model of coercive communication: even Wordsworth has to come off the mountain. The eighteenth-century philosophical roots of this twenty-first-century military strategy can help to clarify some of its failings.
Even if the strategy succeeds in stunning the enemy into torpor, the effect of “shock and awe” runs into problems in the long-term. Unless the enemy individuals can be persuaded to identify with the power that has overwhelmed them, the message of that “roar” will be forgotten, diluted, or overwritten. Eighteenth-century philosophers argued that the message of the sublime experience could not be forgotten because it was good, true, and either natural or divine in origin. The writers of “Rapid Dominance” have made it clear that theirs is a strategy devoid of specific content, which, they presume, will be provided by the policy-makers and the directors of the American “will.” The psychology-based strategy of “shock and awe” promises first to dominate the enemy and then to convert it. Unless the shocking experience on the mountain provides some message that can be identified as good and true, its rhetorical power will wane over time. Unless the new American system can be perceived as moral and right, it will be rejected when the army goes home. In a military application of sublime communication, the message is necessarily inflected with artifice, political strategy, and national partisanship.
The military strategy of taking out state media networks presumes that these are the only circuits of communication, that the American message can dominate all sensory inlets, and that each individual will be isolated within the imposed rhetorical environment. The sensory experience of real human beings is not limited to the state media apparatuses. Real humans see their neighbors or webpages, smell food or blood, hear songs or rumors. An ideological invasion can try but will probably fail to control the meaning of all of these sensations.
The targeted symbols or emblems strategically destroyed by the invading army will not be the only symbols or emblems in circulation. While killing the person right next to an individual will certainly create a powerful message, and while decapitating a regime will certainly eliminate an important symbol of state, it is difficult to predict what symbols will move the “enemy” to action. Unless all preexisting symbols are destroyed or discredited, the new system proposed by the invading army will have to compete for sympathy and faith.
Any lines of communication poorly understood by the American strategists can interrupt their message. In the aftermath of “shock and awe,” local, alternative, or underground communication networks can disrupt the communicative power of the overwhelming new system. Collective identities—and particularly those which can present a moral claim—can gain tremendous default power in the confusion. Group identities, poorly understood both by American culture and by the eighteenth-century theories from which it is largely derived, can reassert themselves between the new American system and the “shocked and awed” individual.
The civilians and soldiers who make up “the enemy” are not isolated individuals on mountains. The “shock and “awe” model, like the model of the sublime, is predicated on a communication between an invading force and individual minds considered in isolation. The writers of “Rapid Dominance” predict, probably not inaccurately, that the experience of lethal power will disrupt collective identities and group loyalties. But how long will that one-way communication be able to last? How total a domination over the meaning of events can a military power hope to maintain? A show of overwhelming force can play in almost all theaters, but it is virtually impossible that it can have a total and lasting monopoly on imaginations, individual and collective. An invading force, no matter how sophisticated its manipulation of media, will likely have a difficult time sustaining itself as an absolute substitute for the Nature of eighteenth-century philosophy.
(Primary Source: Shockandawe.com. Accessed April 27, 2003.)