Another Misused Phrase

Readers of this blog, both of you, know how I feel about the misuse of the phrases witch hunt and lynch mob, and more generally about all the variations of the word lynch. I’d like to discuss another phrase without the same level of history but with vital importance to understanding the self-serving faux-martyrdom of those in our society who are actually the most powerful ad privileged. It’s used in this NY Times piece on Mueller’s investigative tactics:

Paul J. Manafort was in bed early one morning in July when federal agents bearing a search warrant picked the lock on his front door and raided his Virginia home. They took binders stuffed with documents and copied his computer files, looking for evidence that Mr. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, set up secret offshore bank accounts. They even photographed the expensive suits in his closet.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.

The moves against Mr. Manafort are just a glimpse of the aggressive tactics used by Mr. Mueller …. Dispensing with the plodding pace typical of many white-collar investigations, Mr. Mueller’s team has used what some describe as shock-and-awe tactics to intimidate witnesses and potential targets of the inquiry.

In case you missed it, the crucial bit is that last sentence where “some” are describing as “shock and awe” the use of no-knock search warrants and and the photographing of indicators of wealth that are meant to be displayed publicly, but might have been purchased with illegally obtained funds.

In case you missed it, “Shock and Awe” is a nickname coined within the US National Defense University for a doctrine/strategy developed there. Shock and Awe’s more formal name is Rapid Dominance, and in content is simply an update of the fission-bombing of Nagasaki & Hiroshima,  the Blitzkrieg, certain Roman strategies, and even Sun Tzu’s suggested strategy of sudden and highly selective decapitation – literal decapitation in this case.

RD/S&A is updated to use airborne military units with anti-radar stealth capacities*1 but also includes the use of snipers and other ground troops capable of making surprising, precision strikes that have either a spectacular destructive effect or the capacity to single out persons in command for killing while those following orders are helpless to prevent the attack and, afterwards, are left without leadership to coordinate a response.

Primary goals of Shock and Awe include inflicting death and destroying the useful possessions available to an enemy, but of course those goals are part of almost any war plan. Distinguishing RD/S&A is the coordinated use of tactics that create spectacle from destruction while disproportionately killing persons occupying the very top of the command chain in order to prevent the enemy from injuring or killing the attacking army.

In practical terms, RD/S&A is remembered for the terrible explosions in Iraq in 2003 that were recorded by US and other news networks and broadcast as war porn. The US government, including its military, would like you to remember that these murders disproportionately targeted those in positions of power, the leaders of Iraq and its military who, presumably, must bear most of the guilt for the country’s crimes.

Political and military leaders don’t want you to remember that none of the leaders were guilty of rebuilding WMD supplies because the country had not actually rebuilt any such supplies*2. Far worse from their perspective is remembering why these persons are disproportionately killed: as the US has emphasized technological superiority among its military forces, it can afford fewer copies of each weapon. The US would have happily killed every single Iraqi wearing a uniform and been completely sanguine about killing at least as many civilians. We simply didn’t have enough high-tech bullets. Since we have fewer weapons than we did during WW2, but they are capable of more easily bypassing defenses and of striking with greater precision, killing commanders gives greater net effect per weapon.

No, we didn’t target specific leaders because of their increased culpability, particularly since they hadn’t been culpable of anything remarkable since the last war where we punished them for the invasion of Kuwait by killing tens of thousands. We targeted specific leaders because defense contractors make more money off high-margin aircraft, missiles and electronics than they do off mega-mass producing low-margin gun tubes and shells, and given the US government is interested in giving as much profit as possible to GD, GE, Boeing and other major defense contractors, the maximum number of targets at which the military could aim simultaneously was lessened.

That’s it. We killed the people we killed because of our military’s structure, and our military’s structure is how it is because the people who profit from our military make more money from killing a few generals than one hundred thousand enlisted fighters.

So Shock and Awe is an offensive strategy. It should disgust any human who values the lives of others. It speaks horribly of those who advocate it and those who order its implementation. But in addition to all this, it does have a psychological intent: the strategy is designed in order to inflict disruption on the ability to give orders (through disrupting command structures, yes, but also communication structures), but it is also intended to cause such fear in those who receive orders that they may prefer the risks of inaction in the face of a direct order to the risks of taking sufficiently effective actions that the Shocking enemy take note. It is intended to induce paralysis among defenders so that they give up rather than fight to injure or kill the initiators of violence.

Knowing all this, it’s offensive in the extreme that one would compare flame and blood and death to having one’s tuxedo photographed, and it’s inaccurate in the extreme to compare the situation of someone confronted with life-or-death decisions that must be made without counsel and within hours (or sometimes minutes) to that of someone with millions of dollars, many weeks, forewarning of impending indictment, and a constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel.

But this is, after all, a metaphor. If we set aside how horrible it is in its self-centered deployment by the privileged (who face hours in a room they’d rather not visit explaining things under oath rather than certain, dramatic death displayed on televisions the world over where their families may just be subjected to video of the explosion that threw pieces of their bodies in different directions as an example pour encourager les autres), what does this metaphor communicate about the intentions of the privileged? It indicates a desire to injure or kill (presumably metaphorically, perhaps the injury would be to reputation) the prosecutors and especially their boss, Mueller. These are individuals who are publicly lamenting that they are too scared to fire back.

As much as I believe we should stop the tendency to use the phrase shock and awe in metaphorical contexts which will inevitably minimize the actual horror and evil of the strategy that bears that name, in this one case I’m not that sad it was used. Because now we know that the privileged actually aim their guns at the justice system, and mourn when their ability to harm justice is limited. Now we know – if we didn’t before – that when the privilege face a V2 rocket that is equally harmful to the multitude and the mighty, they feel as if they are singled out. They experience such protection from the normal dangers of our police state that being subject to the same danger as ordinary people – a prosecutor that wants jail time for crimes committed –  they feel as if the entire justice system has been crafted in such a way that it must only and always target them.

We must resist the misuse of shock and awe, but I’m perfectly happy if the selfish malice of the privileged comes to be understood all the better for its use in yesterday’s NY Times.

Addendum: This doesn’t fit the tone of the argument I wanted to make, but separately I wanted to copy something I found very funny from the NYTimes piece. After going on about how “aggressive” it was to issue subpoenas for testimony rather than simply ask people pretty-please to drop by the office and give information without being under oath (ask the Central Park 5 if they would have preferred to have several weeks’ notice before being asked questions in the presence of their lawyers and with those lawyers’ active advocacy on their behalves), the article adds this:

“They seem to be pursuing this more aggressively, taking a much harder line, than you’d expect to see in a typical white-collar case,” said Jimmy Gurulé, a Notre Dame law professor and former federal prosecutor. “This is more consistent with how you’d go after an organized crime syndicate.”

Why, yes. Yes it might be one legitimate way of going after organized crime. And yet, prosecutors are using these tactics against people who merely met with each other, discussed taking illegal actions, and then operated together to take those actions for mutual benefit. My goodness! What a shocker!


*1: both in terms of flight capabilities for vehicles like helicopters which evade radar through terrain-hugging flight profiles as well as what we think of more frequently in terms of anti-radar stealth, airframes that absorb radar-useful EM frequencies so as to avoid providing a reflection that can be used to identify and track an aircraft

*2: Or even “capacities”/”capabilities” meaning facilities that haven’t created any WMDs but could, if they wanted, create poisonous chemicals through putting the appropriate feed stocks through common industrial chemical reactions. Yes, Iraq had basic equipment necessary to produce chemical weapons given the appropriate chemical feedstocks, but any nation with a single university that has a decently funded chemistry department has that basic equipment. The specific allegations against Iraq – allegations that were completely, totally false – were that Iraq had put such commonplace equipment into trucks so that they might create “mobile labs” that could be shuffled around the country to prevent inspectors from determining whether basic, legitimate equipment was being used for nefarious purposes. The implication was that they only reason to hide chemical facilities from chemical weapons inspectors was a desire to manufacture chemical weapons in secret. While that sort-of-follows, since there were no mobile labs and was no effort to hide chemical weapons manufacturing from UN inspectors, it’s completely irrelevant to the situation on the ground in Iraq in the early 2000s.


  1. cartomancer says

    One of my favourite uses of the phrase comes from a documentary by the TV historian Michael Wood, in his series following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. The series was made soon after the second Iraq War had begun, and Wood’s team faced numerous difficulties filming in the regions of northern Iraq that Alexander had passed through 2300 years earlier. He made it quite clear that warfare at the behest of bloodthirsty foreign powers was no newcomer to the region. The Fertile Crescent had been here many times before.

    When he came to what is believed to be the site of the 331BC Battle of Gaugamela, Wood told the story of Alexander’s preparations for battle. The Greek historian Plutarch recorded that Alexander prayed to the heralds of Mars – Phobos and Deimos – for their aid in the coming battle. Traditionally we tend to translate these words as “Fear and Terror” or “Panic and Disarray”, representing as they do the confusion, disruption and fright that attend on all-out war. Needless to say Wood decided to render them as “Shock and Awe”.

  2. Siobhan says

    They experience such protection from the normal dangers of our police state that being subject to the same danger as ordinary people – a prosecutor that wants jail time for crimes committed – they feel as if the entire justice system has been crafted in such a way that it must only and always target them.

    I feel like these words need to be cast in gold.

  3. says

    I see no difference in “shock and awe” and Al Qaeda or ISIS randomly dragging people into to street for mass public execution. It’s all about quelling the thought of resistance, never mind what form. Ethically, it’s terrorism worse than a blitzkreig.

    Talk about inflated language. If Manafort were really facing “shock and awe”, the law encroachment…I mean enforcement would have gotten a “no knock” warrant at 3AM, and entered with guns blazing as they have done with asset forfeiture laws, often killing homeowners as they do. I doubt there were any guns drawn when they entered Manafort’s residence, never mind any shots fired.

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