After Shock & Awe

moving beyond & thinking back on “shock and awe.”

…You’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. — Barack Obama, First McCain-Obama Presidential Debate, October 2008

Mark Landler of the New York Times, one talking head in Frontline’s marvelous “instant history” documentary, Inside the Meltdown, describes Hank Paulson and Ben Bernacke’s decision — after much avoidance — to go to Congress for direct capital injections from the federal government to the private banking system as “almost the economic equivalent of ‘shock and awe.'”

It’s an intriguing comparison, one that commentators such as Ariana Huffington pointed out at the time.

It makes me wonder two things:

First, during parts of the “Dubya” years, “shock and awe” seemed so powerful as a technique. It inspired fear and loathing (and analysis) on the left such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Aside from “shock and awe”‘s obvious problems (small things such as killing a lot of people and causing plenty more to suffer), what seems more striking now is what a failure “shock and awe” seems to have been, both in its military and financial versions. What initially appeared as such agile legerdemain — the spectacle by which neoconservatism (in the political realm) and neoliberalism (in the economic sphere) was able to dominate, steal, overwhelm, and even win — now seems like such a desperate ploy: the anxious posturing of a vulnerable bully; the last sucker punch from a heavyweight going down for the count.

Second, and more intriguingly, now that its moment is perhaps passing, might begin to think about the broader metaphor of “shock and awe” during the first decade of the twenty-first century? Does it, will it, serve as a useful tool for understanding a wider swathe of cultural production in the face of shifting technological and social foundations? Now that we are moving from the hatchet blow method of power (shock and awe them and bop them — or ourselves — over the head) to the Obama administration’s surgical scalpel, can we ask: what was “shock and awe” all about in a deeper sense?

Was it a kind of collective spell out of which the U.S. and the world is beginning to snap? And snap to what: attention or pieces?

5 thoughts on “After Shock & Awe

  1. Answer: Shock and Awe (let’s capitalize it for fun) is merely a second-rate metaphor conjured by an inept administration to describe the one thing they thought they did well: war. They phrase will never again be used without a snicker in U.S. political life. Future historians will use the phrase to describe the shockingly bad things the administration did. Awe will be used in a negative sense to convey the sense of dismay thinking people have felt about Bush 43’s poor policies.

    Exhibit A: The budget. Leaving the war off the books for future generations to pick up. Talk about snapping to attention. Seeing our true deficit this week was just appalling.

    Exhibit B: Deregulation.

    Exhibit C: Diplomacy.

    …I’ll stop now. – TL

  2. Hi Tim –

    Thunderclaps of anger! I agree with everything you say, though I do recall how, er, shocked and awed Americans felt during the midst of the Bush admin’s poor policies, the way the press was silenced, the way even the angriest response seemed to get the opposition nowhere except into a fenced-in “free speech” zone. What’s so weird now that the economy has melted down and the Bushies are gone is how far away it all seems. History’s gears shifting so suddenly!

    By thinking about the metaphor across different activities — war, economics, Katrina recovery — I’m not trying to suggest that shock and awe (I mean Shock and Awe) was a good policy, but rather I’m wondering why such a patently bad policy sort of worked for the Bush administration for awhile.

    What I’m trying to get at (in an insufficient way here) are the cultural dimensions of a “second-rate” political policy. Where did the phrase “Shock and Awe” come from? What was the larger cultural setting in which that phrase resonated even though it was such a burlesque — and a destructive burlesque at that? And now, what is the shifting cultural terrain in which we snicker, wince, even grieve, at the phrase and its larger political catastrophes?

    PS Liked your Oscars/FDR post on US Intellectual History blog. Need to read it more closely — just skimmed it quickly. More soon

  3. To begin, I think the phrase came into use during Gulf War I. Yes? But it did gain a lot of currency after 9/11. With that, I think we gave the administration too much benefit-of-the-doubt for about 2 years after 9/11. It began to crumble with the invasion of Iraq. I do think the phrase, S&A (snicker!—for another reason), will forever be associated with Bush and with over-reaching.

    Sorry if my comment above contained too many angry reverberations. As I said, that deficit realization from this week hit me hard—although I sort of knew it was out there. Until this week, however, it was ~just~ out there. – TL

  4. Your anger is totally reasonable, I think.

    You also inspired me to do a bit more investigating.

    Here is the 1996 document from which the phrase seems to have originally been conceived. It was published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (do you wish you worked there?):

    What strikes me most about the document is that it has a strong undertone of anxiety. The U.S. emerges from the Cold War as the preeminent superpower, but there is a crisis brewing as to what this means for the country:

    “While everyone recognizes that the Cold War has ended, no one has yet been able to describe or predict what this means for more precisely defining the nature of our future security needs.”

    “Faced with American military superiority in ships, tanks, aircraft, weapons and, most importantly, in competent fighting personnel, potential adversaries may try to change the terms of future conflict and make as irrelevant as possible these U. S. advantages.”

    “it is relatively clear that current U.S. military capability will shrink.”

    All this military bureaucracy anxiety gets linked, weirdly but appropriately, to underlying economic, technological issues and even to something intellectual and cultural historians might be curious about: the “American personality.”

    “The American commercial-industrial base is undergoing profound change propelled largely by the entrepreneurial nature of the free enterprise system and the American personality.”

    The authors saw Shock and Awe as an attempt to set up shop on the “information superhighway” (remember that) so that the military could tap into what they saw as crucial aspects of 1990s American life.

    “On the so-called information highway, performance is increas-
    ing dramatically and quickly while price, cost, and the time to
    bring to market new generation technology are diminishing.
    These positive trends are not matched yet in the defense-indus-
    trial base. One consequence of this broad commercial transfor-
    mation is that any future set of defense choices may be
    inexorably linked to and dependent on this profound, ongoing
    change in the commercial sector and in learning to harness pri-
    vate sector advances in technology-related products. It must
    also be understood that only America among all states and
    nations has the vastness and breadth of resources and commer-
    cial capability to undertake the full exploitation of this revolu-
    tionary potential.”

    Hello China!

    But more crucially, the authors here imagined that they could create a “revolutionary” (their word) new approach to overwhelming enemy forces through what they called “Rapid Dominance.”

    “We envisage Rapid Dominance as the possible military expression, vanguard, and extension of this potential for revolutionary change.”

    I love that they are so keen on being “revolutionary.” Is the National Defense University the last stop for revolutionaries of the vanguard? After all, so many of those neo-cons were former Trotskyists.

    Anyways, my larger observation here is that, ultimately, Rapid Dominance and Shock and Awe were grounded in *CULTURAL* assumptions: that through massive displays and spectacles of military power, the US could debilitate the “will” of the enemy…that the spectacle would simply overwhelm opposition.

    And the authors saw right away that these cultural implications had political dimensions:

    “what are the political implications of Rapid Domi-
    nance in both broad and specific applications and could
    this lead to a form of political deterrence to underwrite
    future U. S. policy? Would this political deterrence prove
    acceptable to allies and to our own public?”

    Hmm, I’m sure some Cultural Studies folks are are investigating these links between military doctrine, economic shifts, political situations, an intellectual/cultural assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, values. There’s much to mull over and try to interpret.

    One final thought.

    The “Shock and Awe” doctrine reminds me of all sorts of cultural ideas around 9/11 and in the last 20 years, in particular ones related to the mediascapes we now traverse.

    Most of all it resembles a strategy of marketing in which companies publicize their goods (a new movie, a new product, etc.) in every nook and cranny of public space and the public airwaves. From bathroom urinals to Superbowl commercials.

    Second, the “Shock and Awe” approach reminds me of former New York Times editor Howell Raines’s idea of “flooding the zone” with massive journalistic coverage of particular events. Same concept of overwhelming force in a weird way.

    And the whole spectacle of media coverage now if you watch like five minutes of CNN: the technical whistles and bells, the 10 million talking heads sitting 3 rows deep at the tables on the set, etc. Whose getting shocked and awed here? Enemies or we ourselves?

    Much more to hone in on here with more precision (precision strikes? — ugh, I’m in a punning mood).

  5. Michael: I’m glad I checked back here. Wow. I’ll mull over your extended comment and see if anything new strikes me. …Good research! – TL

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