Remember “Shock and Awe”?


The phrase became common parlance during the Second Gulf War, when, along with “Mission Accomplished,” it became one of the two phrases associated with George W. Bush and the Gulf War. But he didn’t coin the phrase. In 1996, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade Jr. published Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies), in which they describe a post–Cold War military strategy that “draws on the strategic uses of force as envisaged by Sun Tzu and [Carl von] Clausewitz to overpower or affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary for strategic aims and military objectives” (92). They note that Clausewitz characterized war as including “substantial elements of ‘fog, friction, and fear’” (19), and for them, manipulating and enhancing the fog, friction, and fear that are natural concomitants of war becomes the strategy: “Our focus is on the Clausewitzian principle of affecting the adversary’s will to resist as the first order of business, quickly if not nearly instantaneously” (8).

To achieve rapid dominance, aka “shock and awe,” Ullman and Wade suggest that military strategists plan actions characterized by:

  • Complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment;
  • Rapidity;
  • Brilliance of execution; and
  • Control of the environment. (67; elaboration on these bullet points 67–87)

I’m not the first to notice that Donald Trump postures more aggressively against domestic than international enemies.  More than any other stereotype, the schoolyard bully seems a natural fit with his personality. It makes sense, then, that launching a shock and awe campaign against the hated liberals for the first week of his presidency would appeal to Donald deeply.

And how is he doing? Judging from Facebook and Twitter, pretty well.

Complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment? I would never give him credit for self-knowledge, but he and his minions have a pretty good handle on the things that we snowflakes care about, and he is systematically and symbolically hammering at all of them. Defund every organization that furthers the arts and humanities. Threaten to send federal troops into Chicago. Continue alienation of Mexico about the wall. Create policies that de facto discriminate against Muslims. Muzzle government agencies from communicating about science and facts. Perhaps most appallingly, flip-flop again on torture, saying “Torture works.” This on top of Republican president standbys such as reinstating the global abortion gag rule and rattling his saber at Planned Parenthood.

Rapidity? Check. While he was too bored to attend briefings and and went to shore up the crumbling edges of his fragile ego with adoring crowds at his “thank you” rallies, some folks were actually doing the work to enable him to hit us hard in the gut every day of the first week of his presidency.

Brilliance of execution? Maybe. Certainly organized and deriving from competent strategic thought.

Control of the environment? He has an eager army of Republican legislators without consciences who are happy to use the fact of a Republican in the White House to further their own ends. He has legions of happy followers who live in echo chambers devoted to his voice and ideas. The first are happy to repeat and the second to believe the new “alternative facts.” The only thing standing between him and complete control of the environment is us and the journalists.

I’m a professor of English Renaissance literature, and one of the things that comes up often in the works I teach is the distinction between a king and a tyrant. From Xenophon to John Milton, the tyrant is a ruler who wars against his [sic] own subjects. So if we have a new president who wants to spend the first week of his term waging psychological warfare against his political opponents to demoralize us through fog, friction, and fear . . . well, mission accomplished, as they say. But it tells us who we are dealing with: a tyrant, not a king.

And centuries of political theory make it clear: to a tyrant, you don’t owe deference. To a tyrant, there is no need to “respect the office.” It is just to obstruct the will of a tyrant: citizens marching on the Mall in Washington four times a year, journalists speaking the truth in print, politicians and vocal citizens blocking his policies and nominations, and everyone’s acts of civil disobedience both quiet and loud.



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