Shock and Awe: The Anniversary of Washington’s Attack on Iraq

March 20th, 2020 - by Gar Smith / AlterNet & Maureen Dowd / The New York Times & David Cohen / SLATE

“Shock and Awe”: It Was Intended to Be Even Deadlier

Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal & EAW

If George W. Bush gets the war he wants, Baghdad could become the 21st century’s Guernica

(March 21, 2018) — In the days leading up to the 2003 US attack on Baghdad, I wrote an article that was syndicated by AlterNet. It was titled: “Shock and Awe: Guernica Revisited.”

I had come across a copy of a Pentagon planning document for the “Shock and Awe” strategy and was appalled by what the Pentagon was apparently planning to unleash on Iraq’s capital city.

My article exposed how the military planned to strike Baghdad with 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the first 48 hours of the “Shock and Awe” attack.

And I drew a comparison with an earlier air attack on a civilian target – the Basque town of Guernica brutally attack by fascist forces and German bombers during the Spanish Civil War.

Published days before the war began, the AlterNet expose appeared to have struck a chord.

Unknown to me at the time, it turned out that the United Nations had installed a copy of Picasso’s Guernica on permanent display at the UN building in New York. Because of its prominent placement, the famous painting of civilian suffering would have appeared in the background when Colin Powell showed up to announce Washington’s war plans.

I learned of the existence of the UN’s Guernica when I read in the New York Times that someone had mysteriously ordered that the mural be hidden beneath a blue cloth. The UN literally conspired in a cover-up and Powell showed up to speak before the blue cloth. 

And as bad as the attack on Baghdad was, it was supposed to be much worse. According to documents that I discovered and cited in the story, the original missile attack was supposed to have been 20 times more destructive and deadly. Someone apparently decided not to follow the complete “Shock and Awe” game-plan. I don’t have the evidence, but I like to think that the following article had something to do with the outcome.

Shock and Awe: Guernica Revisited

Gar Smith / AlterNet and The Edge

(January 26, 2003) — Forget Osama. Forget Saddam. The Pentagon’s newest target is the city of Baghdad.

US military strategists have announced a plan to pummel the Iraqi capital with as many as 800 cruise missiles in the space of two days. If George W. Bush gets the war he wants, Baghdad could become the 21st Century’s Guernica.

On April 26, 1937, 25 Nazi bombers dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries on the peaceful Basque village. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed and 1,500 people, a third of the population, were killed.
The Pentagon now predicts that its Baghdad blitzkrieg could approximate the devastation of a nuclear explosion. “The sheer size of this has never been . . . contemplated before,” one Pentagon strategist boasted to CBS News. “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad,” a city of 5 million people.

Since a single two-ton cruise missile can carry 1,000 pounds of high explosives. A two-day salvo of 800 cruise missiles would subject the population of Baghdad to a devastating new detonation every four minutes. And, there is little comfort in the statement that these missiles are “smart” weapons that strike their targets with pin-point accuracy for, as Captain Ryan Henry, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Strategic & International Studies observes: “Cruise missiles run normally 80% accuracy. Four our of five usually explode on target.”

In a bizarre combination of horror and admiration, the Pentagon has dubbed its cold-blooded attack plan “Shock and Awe.” Shock and Awe was the title of a 1996 strategy book published by the Pentagon’s national Defense University. It was Harlan Ullman, one of the authors of the report, who revealed the Pentagon’s plan for “Rapid Dominance” to CBS News correspondent David Martin.

S&A is not a new technique. It was employed extensively in Afghanistan, particularly during Operation Anaconda, which involved massive aerial bombing with thermobaric superbombs and conventional bombs weighing as much as 10,000 pounds.

When the UN-backed coalition (lead by the US and Britain) attacked Iraq in 1991, the first volley included the launching of 100 cruise missiles in the first 24 hours. As Christopher Hellman of the Washington-based, Center for Defense Information noted, most of these missiles fell “in and around Baghdad.” The new attack plan would be even more deadly.

Ullman told CBS News that the effect of the planned attack would be “rather like the nuclear weapons [sic] at Hiroshima.” According to Ullman, this airborne apocalypse would instantly vaporize “30 [Iraqi] division headquarters.” As a bonus, he added, “You also take the city down.”

Shocking and Awful

In the book that he co-authored with James P. Wade, Ullman noted with ghoulish appreciation, the effect that “total war” can have on the human psyche. “One recalls from old photographs and movie or television screens, the comatose and glazed expressions of survivors of the great bombardments of World War I and the attendant horrors and death of trench warfare. These images and expressions of shock transcend race, culture and history.”

Shock and Awe tactics are intended to become “sufficiently intimidating and compelling factors to force or otherwise convince an adversary to accept out will,” Ullman wrote. “Intimidation and compliance are the outputs we seek to obtain by the threat of use or by the actual application of our alternative force package.” The “alternative force package” is a Pandora’s box that also contains cluster bombs, chemical weapons and nuclear explosives.

Shock and Awe may include the use of new experimental “electromagnetic” weapons. In an article in the Economic Times, Ullman called for the use of “Super tools and weapons — information-age equivalents of the atomic bomb.” Ullman specifically advocated the use of electromagnetic blasts to destroy power and communications systems and permit the US invasion force to disrupt human neurological systems, thereby allowing US forces “to control the will and perception of adversaries . . . . It is about effecting behavior.”

The human impact of the Pentagon’s proposed “Hiroshima effect” was estimated in a confidential document prepared by the UN World Health Organization, which projected that “as many as 500,000 people could require treatment as a result of direct and indirect injuries.” Since half the population of Baghdad is under the age of 14, it would be fair to say that the US is prepared to murder and maim as many as a quarter million children. 

‘Total War’ Equals Total Immorality

Shock and awe were the very emotions that Americans experienced on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, like the 9/11 terrorists, Bush and Co. are planning a similar act of almost unparalleled ferocity – a devastating premeditated attack on a civilian urban population.

Bush seems determined to follow in the footsteps of Hulagu Khan and Tamerlane, the Mongol warlords who lay bloody waste to Baghdad in 1258 and 1401.

But destroying Baghdad will not uncover hidden chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (if, in fact, any exist). Destroying Baghdad will not capture, topple or kill Saddam Hussein. According to Ullman. The goal of the Shock and Awe attack is to destroy the Iraqi people “physically, emotionally and psychologically.”

Ironically, this was also the goal of the Nazi strategists who destroyed Guernica. The town had no strategic value as a military target, but – like Baghdad – it was a cultural and religious center. Guernica was devastated to terrorize the population and break the spirit of the Basque resistance.

Surely cruise missiles have been programmed to demolish the Baath Party Headquarters, presidential palaces and Republican Guard compounds. But have missiles also been preset to obliterate the al-Qadiriya Shrine, the Tomb of Imam al-A’dham and the Mosque of Sheik Abdul Qadir al-Ghailani?

We now know that there was no military need to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The detonations were intended to demonstrate to the world – and to the Soviet Union, especially – that the US had a functioning super-weapon. Having sole possession of “The Bomb” gave Washington the power to dominate post-war world politics.

Similarly, the destruction of Baghdad seems designed to underscore Bush’s belligerent warning to the rest of the world: “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”

Washington’s new National Security Strategy describes an America dominating the world militarily, politically and economically.

In a report published a month before the US presidential elections, the conservative Project for the New American Century insisted on instituting a “global US pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”

This ringing endorsement of hyper-imperialism was co-authored by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby and Jeb Bush – none of whom (except for Rumsfeld) ever volunteered for military service.

Crimes against Humanity

It is a violation of international law for any country to mount an attack on another country that has not attacked it first. It is a violation of international law to wage ware on civilians. Shock and Awe is, by admission, an illegal strategy that puts the US in violation of signed treaty obligations under the United Nations. An attack on Iraq with civilian deaths counted in the tens (and possibly) hundreds of thousands would constitute a “crime against humanity.”

Today, thousands of citizen volunteers from around the world are converging in Iraq to stand as nonviolent “human shields” in hopes of forestalling a US assault. The brave men and women in this international “Peace Army” include Muslims from South Africa, legislators from Italy, musicians from Germany and scholars from America. Volunteers have come from Britain, Turkey, Ireland, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Spain, and Denmark. Some have traveled from as far as New Zealand. Activist in Jordan expect to field a force of 100,000 human shields.

They include Muslims from South Africa, legislators from Italy, musicians from Germany and scholars from America. The American volunteers include anti-war activists, religious witnesses, retirees, US military veterans and members of families who lost loved ones in the September 11 attack.

The US groups that have sent human shields to Iraq include Conscience International, Voices in the Wilderness and Peaceful Tomorrow. The Washington Post explained that their goal is to “act as human shields, hunkering down in hospitals, water-treatment plants and other civilian installations to dissuade US commanders from targeting those facilities.”
Mr. Bush repeatedly complains that Saddam Hussein deserves to be removed from office because “he killed his own people.”

If Mr. Bush fails to promptly court martial the officials who came up with the Shock and Awe atrocity, he may soon find himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr. Hussein and facing history’s judgement as another ruthless leader who “killed his own people” in a mad bid for power.

Postscript: Shock and Awe Might Have Been Worse

On March 20, 2003, the Baltimore Sun revealed that: “The war was supposed to start with about 3,000 precision-guided weapons ripping through the night sky over Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.”

Ten days after the AlterNet article appeared, Pablo Picasso’s painting of Guernica, which stands on display in the lobby outside the United Nations General Assembly room, was inexplicably covered over with a blue cloth. This was the spot where US Defense Secretary Colin Powell delivered his February 5 announcement of Washington’s plan to attack Baghdad.

The article may have had another, more important, effect: to dial back the brutality of the Pentagon’s planned attack. Instead of the 800 Tomahawk missiles the NDU planned for the first two days of the assault, only 40 Tomahawks were actually fired from six US Navy ships positioned in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Powell Without Picasso

Maureen Dowd / The New York Times

(February 5, 2003) — When Colin Powell goes to the United Nations today to make his case for war with Saddam, the UN plans to throw a blue cover over Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece, ”Guernica.”

Too much of a mixed message, diplomats say. As final preparations for the secretary’s presentation were being made last night, a UN spokesman explained, ”Tomorrow it will be covered and we will put the Security Council flags in front of it.”

Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.

Reporters and cameras will stake out the secretary of state at the entrance of the UN Security Council, where the tapestry reproduction of ”Guernica,” contributed by Nelson Rockefeller, hangs.

The UN began covering the tapestry last week after getting nervous that Hans Blix’s head would end up on TV next to a screaming horse head.

 (Maybe the UN was inspired by John Ashcroft’s throwing a blue cover over the ”Spirit of Justice” statue last year, after her naked marble breast hovered over his head during a televised terrorism briefing.)

Nelson Rockefeller himself started the tradition of covering up art donated by Nelson Rockefeller when he sandblasted Diego Rivera’s mural in the RCA Building in 1933 because it included a portrait of Lenin. (Rivera later took his revenge, reproducing the mural for display in Mexico City, but adding to it a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr. drinking a martini with a group of ”painted ladies.”)

There has been too much sandblasting in Washington lately.

After leading the charge for months that there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chastised the media yesterday for expecting dramatic, explicit evidence from Mr. Powell. ”The fixation on a smoking gun is fascinating to me,” he said impatiently, adding: ”You all . . . have been watching ‘L.A. Law’ or something too much.”

Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times‘ editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.

The administration’s argument for war has shifted in a dizzying Cubist cascade over the last months. Last summer, Bush officials warned that Saddam was close to building nuclear bombs. Now, with intelligence on aluminum tubes, once deemed proof of an Iraqi nuclear program, in dispute, the administration’s emphasis has tacked back to germ and chemical weapons.

With no proof that Saddam has given weapons to terrorists, another once-crucial part of the case for going to war, Mr. Rumsfeld and others now frame their casus belli prospectively: that we must get rid of Saddam because he will soon become the gulf’s leading weapons supplier to terrorists.

Secretary Powell was huddling on the evidence in New York yesterday with the CIA director, George Tenet. Mr. Tenet was there to make sure nothing too sensitive was revealed at the UN, but mainly to lend credibility to Mr. Powell’s brief, since there have been many reports that the intelligence agency has been skeptical about some of the Pentagon and White House claims on Iraq. It was Mr. Tenet who warned Congress in a letter last fall that there was only one circumstance in which the US need worry about Iraq sharing weapons with terrorists: if Washington attacked Saddam.

When Mr. Bush wanted to sway opinion on Iraq before his State of the Union speech last week, he invited columnists to the White House. But he invited only conservative columnists, who went from gushing about the president to gushing more about the president.

The columnists did not use Mr. Bush’s name, writing about him as ”a senior administration official,” even though the White House had announced the meeting in advance.

They quoted ”the official” about the president’s determination on war. That’s just silly.

Calling in only like-minded journalists is like campaigning for a war only in the red states that Mr. Bush won in 2000, and not the blue states won by Al Gore.

When France and Germany acted skeptical, Mr. Rumsfeld simply booted them out of modern Europe, creating a pro-Bush red part of the European map (led by Poland, Italy and Britain) and the left-behind blue of ”old Europe.”

When the evidence is not black and white, the president must persuade everyone. There is no red and blue. There is just red, white and blue.

What’s So Controversial about Picasso’s Guernica?

David Cohen / SLATE

 (February 6, 2003) — Earlier this week, UN officials hung a blue curtain over a tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica at the entrance of the Security Council. The spot is where diplomats and others make statements to the press, and ostensibly officials thought it would be inappropriate for Colin Powell to speak about war in Iraq with the 20th century’s most iconic protest against the inhumanity of war as his backdrop. Why is Guernica such a powerfully controversial image after all these years, and how did it come to hang in tapestry form at the United Nations?

Guernica is a mural, 11 feet 6 inches high and 25 feet 8 inches wide, which commemorates the aerial bombardment—and obliteration—of the ancient Basque town of 5,000 inhabitants by German and Italian squadrons on April 26, 1937. It has justifiably been held to be one of the masterpieces of modern art.

A modern history painting, Guernica self-consciously draws on archetypal forms the artist was exploring at the time: bulls, horses, melancholy women—particularly Spanish themes that were nonetheless classical and universal. Picasso used a distinctive pictorial language to convey meaning in a broadly accessible way without compromising the hermetic originality of the artist’s style; the chopped-up, fragmentary treatment of form makes the image more startling and conveys violence.

Most notable, though, is the painting’s audaciously stark absence of color—Guernica is painted solely in black and white and gray tones. Black-and-white images carry symbolic as well as graphic punch, of course, and, to a contemporary audience used to black-and-white newspapers and film, the added connotation of objectivity.

Guernica is no stranger to political dispute. Picasso painted it for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair as the fulfillment of a commission that predated the bombing atrocity. After the World’s Fair, Guernica toured European capitals, a rallying-cry-in-paint to the anti-fascist cause.

In 1939, the mural and supporting studies arrived in New York for a fund-raising tour in aid of Spanish war relief. It left America for numerous exhibitions during the Cold War years (by which time Picasso had joined the French Communist Party) but during that time the Museum of Modern Art had become its semi-permanent home.

Meanwhile, the Franco regime, far from viewing the work as an embarrassment, was calling for its “return” to Spain—ignoring the fact that the painting had never actually resided there. In the first Spanish monograph on Picasso, published in Madrid in 1951, the author described Guernica as “the picture of all bombed cities”—a neat formulation that underscores the cost of universalism in art. Lack of specificity makes the image more potent and more tame.

While at MoMA, the mural became the focus of intense political activism. Commenting on the natural home for the painting, Picasso had said in 1956, “It will do the most good in America.” In 1967, however, 400 artists responding to the Vietnam War signed a petition urging Picasso to take it out of the country: “Please let the spirit of your painting be reasserted and its message once again felt, by withdrawing your painting from the United States for the duration of the war.”

The liberal art historian Meyer Schapiro viewed this as nonsensical political posturing. In a letter to the Art Workers Coalition in 1970 he asked if MoMA was making a protest against the crucifixion by hanging paintings of that subject, and by implication, wondered why Franco was so keen to have Guernica in the Prado, if hanging it implied criticism of all warfare.

Not long after, in 1974, Tony Shafrazi, a young Iranian artist (and later a trendy SoHo dealer) sprayed the words “Kill Lies All” onto the picture, as a protest against US action at My Lai. (The canvas was well-varnished so his paint cleaned off with ease.) A self-proclaimed Guerrilla Art Action Group came to the defense of Shafrazi, arguing that he was completing, not vandalizing, Picasso’s creation. Spain did eventually get Guernica in 1981 under the terms specified by Picasso of the country’s transition to democracy.

The tapestry version at the United Nations was a gift from the estate of Nelson D. Rockefeller in 1985. The tapestry version succumbs to the temptation of color—browns and taupe—considerably weakening its effect, as does the change in medium.

The continuing sensitivity to Guernica exemplified by the UN cover-up may remind us that modern art is poor in images glorifying just military action, though rich in images of the horrors and injustices of war. Further back in history, of course, there are numerous celebrations of the triumph of righteous might.

Unfortunately, some of the best depict the vanquishing of Saracens, which might not go down so well today. Long gone, however, are the days when statesmen actually commissioned public works of art, history painting, or monumental sculpture for purposes of propaganda, self-glorification, and political justification. Except, of course, in Baghdad, where innumerable portraits of Saddam Hussein and Bamiyan-sized replicas of his arms adorn the fateful streets.

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