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Shock and Awe

This looks set to be the Second Gulf War’s signature phrase, much as “mother of all ...” was of the first. It’s all over the press reportage of the conflict, it being the Pentagon’s term for the process of instilling fear and doubt in the minds of Iraqis.

The phrase first appeared publicly in the book of the same title by Harlan Ullman and James Wade in 1996, which came out of a report by the Rapid Dominance Study Group, an informal association of mainly ex-military men. The concept they put forward was, as Harlan Ullman explains it, one that involved “inflicting minimum casualties and doing minimum damage using minimum force”. Shock and Awe is not about destruction but about power. By demonstrating such might that an opponent is stunned into surrender, and by concentrating on matters that reduced the ability to resist, it combines military force with psychological warfare. Their book argued that “The ability to shock and awe rests ultimately in the ability to frighten, scare, intimidate and disarm”.

Mr Ullman is reported as saying that the way the Pentagon has used it “has not been helpful” because it has put too much emphasis on a Doomsday approach, though this could itself, of course, be just another application of Shock and Awe.

It is all part of the administration’s basic approach toward foreign policy, which is best described by the phrase used for its war plan — “shock and awe.” The notion is that the United States needs to intimidate countries with its power and assertiveness, always threatening, always denouncing, never showing weakness.

Newsweek, Mar. 2003

Washington’s assessment that a “shock and awe” bombing campaign would crumble the Iraqi regime’s morale, or even kill its leaders in the first round, has not so far proved correct.

Toronto Star, Mar. 2003

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Apr. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-sho1.htm
Last modified: 5 April 2003.