Throughout February 2022, the defense industry promised Russia would kick off its conquest of Ukraine with a “shock and awe” attack.
“Shock and awe” was the term the Pentagon planners coined to describe the first 24 to 48 hours of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The tactic intends to create psychological terror and feelings of overwhelm among both the civilian population and enemy forces. The power goes out. Radio and television stations disappear. Cell phone networks and landline phones don’t work. Water systems fail. Then the explosions. Bombs going off seemingly at random, in all directions. There is nowhere to run, no place to hide.
Shock and awe is a form of psychological warfare intended to achieve swift victory through rapid-onset helplessness. Civilians and armed forces of the invaded state reduced to quivering clumps of humanity while the invading force moves in swiftly, securing strategic assets imposing minimal damage to the nation’s critical infrastructure and causing minimal loss of life for the invading forces. This approach is meant to allow rapid rehabilitation of the conquered nation with the invaders seen as liberators, not conquistadors.
To recap, the goals of shock awe are:
Destruction of command and control.
Rapid seizure of strategic assets.
Minimal loss of friendly life.
Perception as liberators among conquered populace.
US military planners took away two lessons from America’s shock-and-awe entrance into Iraq:
It worked spectacularly.
All the world’s militaries would copy the tactic.
Both conclusions were wrong.
Shock and awe worked in the sense that the US imposed psychological terror on Iraq, rapidly seized strategic assets, minimized loss of US life, and earned immediate perception as liberators among large portions (but not all) of the Iraqi people. In other words, the tactic was successful.
The tactic was highly successful in the winning hearts and minds in the United States, thanks to a sophisticated psyop campaign conducted with the help of state-run media. (But that lasted only until the 2004 election kicked off.)
While the shock-and-awe tactic worked in the early days of the Iraq war, history shows the US strategy failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, assuming the strategy was to democratize the Middle East. Nonetheless, American military planners—aka, the neo-cons—continue to clap themselves on the back for the brilliance of their entrance into Iraq 20 years ago. They believe Russia and China learned the lesson well and would repeat the American tactic if ever those countries decided to invade a neighbor.
Russia is proving America’s experts wrong again.
Russia Did Not Copy Shock and Awe
To this day, our military experts insist Russia tried to execute in Urkaine a copy of the US entry into Iraq. That’s why every expert on every news program talks about Russia’s failure to achieve “air superiority.”
Russia didn’t even try. If anything, Russia’s initial air attacks seemed to be a diversionary tactic to make Western military advisors believe the Russians were imitating Americans.
As a reminder, the air campaign in Iraq last five weeks before ground troops moved in. From National Interest:
The five-to-six-week air war, designed to clear the way for what ultimately became a 100-hour ground invasion, began with cruise missiles and Air Force and Army helicopters launching a high-risk mission behind enemy lines to knock out Iraqi early warning radar sites.
From the same article, written for the 25th anniversary of Desert Storm, we also learn that US military believe our entrance into Iraq is forever the way wars will be fought.
When veterans, historians and analysts commemorated the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War in the early 90s, many were likely to regard the military effort as a substantial turning point in the trajectory or evolution of modern warfare.
“We saw the first glimpses in Desert Storm of what would become the transformation of air power,” he said.
This is just one example demonstrating how our military experts believe their Iraq strategy set a new standard that every nation must follow.
But, what if Russia (and China) didn’t get the message?
The Longer View of History
But both Russia and China have always taken a longer view. They look for long-term results, not immediate gratification.
We can suspend our pro-American bias if we want to, just for a moment. When we do this, we
If you’re Vladimir Putin, who came to power on January 1, 2000, you watched that spectacular US entrance into Iraq with fascination, as we all did. You saw how the carefully timed covert attacks on Iraqi communications and utilities—both civilian and military—combined with an enveloping propaganda campaign within and outside Iraq gave the impression of an antiseptic conquest. No doubt, Putin was as impressed by the Iraqis holding up their purple fingers just a year later, having voted in a free and fair election to choose their new government.
But Putin and Xi also saw how America’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan ended. The rise of ISIS. The civil war in Syria. The collapse of Iraq as significant player in the Middle East. The humiliating defeat of the US in Afghanistan.
Perhaps Putin concluded, “the old ways are better.”
American generals—uniformed and arm chair alike—assume every great power shares America’s goals in war:
Minimum loss of own-country lives.
Minimal loss of critical civilian infrastructure.
Being greeted as liberators by the invaded populace.
On that last point, have you noticed how many foreign policy “experts” say Putin expected Russian troops to be greeted as liberators by the Ukrainians? I heard it four times on Friday alone.
And despots might value such things if those tactics contributed to their long range goals, aka “strategy.” But the American examples in Iraq and Afghanistan prove the opposite. Instead of establishing Western-style, functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US invasions left those countries far worse off than we found them. When we invaded Afghanistan, the people were familiar with the Taliban’s cruelty and had learned to live with it. By suspending such tyranny for a generation while imposing purely Western decadence on the Afghan culture, we condemned a generation and a half to living through their worst horrors unprepared. Even after America’s ignoble abandonment, the US State Department continued to encourage Afghans to fly their gay-pride flags and cross-dress, making them easy targets for Taliban torturers.
Putin and Xi saw this all unfold over the course of 20 years—a generation.
Russia’s Military Is Top-Down
Unlike the US which maintains a large corps of career non-commissioned officers who are highly trained and authorized to make independent decisions in pursuit of the command intent, Russia has only an officer corps and conscripts. There is no middle management in the Russian army. Its troops are literally cannon-fodder.
If an enemy sniper kills the Company Commander of a US Army unit, another takes his place. Even a Marine Lance Corporal is capable of leading the men left to his charge and, often, to great success.
Russia, on the other hand, simply sends boys to die.
This is important to understand when you hear retired American generals and Harvard military experts talking about the devastating effect of 14,000 Russians killed in action. If the US lost 14,000 troops out of an invading force of 150,000, it would collapse because of the hollowing-out effect. Its indispensable middle management layer would be gone, detaching the command structure from the units under its control.
But such is not the case with the Russian army which is far more tolerant of own-army casualties. Russian conscripts’ parents don’t vote. Western regard for human life would lead to widespread anti-war fervor if we lost a tenth of the force in one month. Americans would shut down the US capital and major cities in such a situation.
Russia is different. Its “old ways” allow for massive losses. See Napoleon’s invasion and World War II for examples.
But also look at the US approach to World War II.
The Last Time the US Won
America’s last victory in a war of peers was World War II. And one battle stands out as the turning point of that war: D-Day.
If you know anything about D-Day, you know this: it was not an antiseptic Shock and Awe event. It was a battle of attrition. In fact, the entire Allied strategy in World War II bore little resemblance to the Shock and Awe approach hatched with the invasion of Iraq. In both the Pacific and Europe, the Allies slugged it out with the Axis from town-to-town, village-to-village, island-to-island. The US strategy was to methodically take every square inch of occupied territory, beginning at the peripheries, until Germany and Japan were isolated and detached. (Patton was the lone US general who wanted to bypass irrelevant territory, to bullrush Berlin, and “personally shoot that paper-hanging sonofabitch in the ass.”)
On D-Day, the Allies willingly sent tens of thousands of troops to their deaths on the beaches of Normandy. The Allies also leveled the city of Dresden—without regard for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace. Likewise, US island-hopping strategy in the Pacific was driven largely by a hubristic battle between Chester Nimitz and Douglas MacArthur for bragging rights over most square-miles conquered.