The Long View 2003-03-23: Psychology Today

The Highway of Death, Iraq 1991

The Highway of Death, Iraq 1991

This little bit on the psychological aspects of warfare is still pertinent twelve years later. One might think that the vast disparity in arms between the United States and everyone else would mean we are unstoppable. This is true, if someone is so foolish as to meet us on our own terms. If you want to see what that looks like, see Desert Storm. Pretty much everybody learned their lesson after the first Iraq War. No one can win a traditional war with the United States at this point.

However, there are many ways to wage war. Most of those ways strike Europeans and their descendants around the world as unsporting. This does not mean ineffective. Psychological warfare is what keeps ISIS going, because they are definitely not military masterminds, in the total war or decisive war mindset of the West. What they are good at is media campaigns, propaganda, and preferentially killing people who can't fight back.

This kind of thing can be defeated using Western-style war, if you are willing to embrace the Imperial mindset. Hell, you might even be able to do it cheap. But it won't be anything like a fair fight that we would feel good about.

Psychology Today
General Tommy Franks, at his press conference in Qatar last week, promised a war "unlike any in history." Another military spokesman described the strategy as "effect-based." The idea is to focus on your objectives, not on the efficiency of your own operation. Suppose you need to cut off power to a certain facility. You might blow up every generating station and powerline in the area. With Effects-Based Strategy, you would do better to determine which particular powerline was critical and attack just that. Best of all would be to find an insider who would throw the "Off" switch for you.
Certainly the war has been full of surprises so far, but one can hardly call this strategy new. This is the doctrine of Sun Tzu's Art of War (also called The Art of Strategy). The acme of success, according to that book, is to win a victory without ever fighting a battle. The essence of this approach is psychological. The enemy commanders must be continually confused about your intentions, position, and capabilities. The enemy leadership must be pushed to capitulation through fear of annihilation and drawn to negotiation by the hope of salvaging something from the conflict. These ideas were obviously very much on the minds of the planners of the Coalition's "Shock and Awe" campaign, which is intended to convince the middle layers of the Iraqi leadership of the hopelessness of their situation, but to do so without heavy casualties, or even infrastructure damage.
A reporter at one of Secretary Rumsfeld's press conferences last week asked why this strategic bombing should cause a collapse of the political will any more reliably than did the campaigns against Germany and Japan in World War II. The Secretary pointed out the real differences between the two situations. The bombing campaigns during World War II were directed against the "national morale" of the enemy. This was a diffuse target, quite unlike the unoffending civilians the strategy killed; the air raids actually served to strengthen morale. Shock and Awe, in contrast, is directed with great precision against the government and the military command. By cutting off one part of the hierarchy from another, it encourages the leaders of the fragments to look to their own survival, rather than that of the regime.
I am sorry, but the reporter's question was acute. Ideologically inspired dictators have great strength to endure the sufferings of their people. If they are not actually killed (and it may yet turn out that Saddam Hussein was killed or incapacitated on the first night), their very isolation will harden their resolve. As for the commanders, we should beware of making the mistake that we made with David Koresh. The enemy leadership are not in it for the money. They are strengthened by their ideology. That is what ideologies are for.
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The objection to an essentially psychological strategy is the same as the objection to a strategy based on assassination. In a war of assassins, the US would have no special advantages. Similarly, the US is not much better positioned to fight a psychological war than are the Iraqis. Marketing is cheap, or at least cheaper than cruise missiles. As I am writing this, the Iraqis are showing off the dead bodies of Coalition servicemen, as well as living prisoners. They are also running successful guerrilla actions in cities that the Coalition has contained, but does not yet "control." These activities may have the effect of reinforcing support for the war, particularly in the US, but they have already created a legend on the Arab street that the Iraqis are giving as good as they get. This propaganda, combined with the huge, public opposition in the West to the war, will certainly give local Iraqi commanders pause about whether capitulation is the wiser course.
Sun Tzu's Asian Way of War is in fact too clever by half. (You might take a look at Victor Davis Hanson's The Western Way of War for a systematic account of the alternative.) It has been said (I wish I could find the article) that Sun wrote his book because large, conventional campaigns on the Asian mainland are difficult for Asians, too. The Era of Contending States, when Sun wrote, was a time of mass warfare and huge casualties. The leaders of the time groped for a way to fight that did not involve so much destruction, rather as the West and the Communist Block did during the Cold War. For the Chinese, at least, the effort failed. Sun's strategy encourages leaders to seek to bring off brilliant coups, which will humiliate the enemy and bring him to the negotiating table. This approach tends to neglect the enemy's objective war-fighting capability. The Japanese tried Shock and Awe at Pearl Harbor. It didn't work
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This does not mean that I entertain doubts about the outcome of the war, or the capacity of the Coalition leadership. Inflexibility is not one of the leadership's failings. I certainly hope that the Baathist regime will suddenly implode, as Shock and Awe envisages. If not, the regime can be defeated in detail.
As for the stay-behind and guerrilla units, these things do not have a history of being all that effective. Stay-behind units are not a novelty, but they serve a purpose only as detached auxiliaries of a state and army-in-being. Ideologically driven regimes sometimes make preparations for an underground to carry on the fight, even after the regime has been destroyed. However, I am not aware that these efforts have ever come to much. The best example is probably the German Werwolf Movement. That failed both militarily and politically; certainly it had no influence on the succeeding Federal Republic.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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