Playing with Saddam's mind

An expert in psychological operations sees the U.S. engaged in an elaborate effort to collapse the will of the Iraqi regime. And the media are a tool.

Published March 22, 2003 1:26AM (EST)

It might be the most-hyped one-two punch in modern military history: shock and awe.

Leading up to the war with Iraq, the Pentagon made sure the world, and particularly Saddam Hussein, understood the United States military was prepared to unleash a ferocious air campaign that would not only break the dictator's back but, some war critics feared, leave Baghdad in ruins. The press leaks came complete with promises to drop 3,000 bombs in the Iraqi capital in the first hour of fire -- a barrage that would be unprecedented in military history. One anonymous military official even warned that when shock and awe was unleashed, there would not be a single safe place in all of Baghdad.

On Friday, the blitzkrieg was rolled out, and TV networks splashed their "Shock and Awe" on-screen graphics. While the devestation was widespread, and scores of buildings were ablaze throughout the capital, the attack did not level Baghdad as some feared, nor, according to reports, did it drop anywhere near 3,000 bombs in a single hour.

It was undeniably fierce, but far less fierce than advertised. Several reports Friday placed the figure at 1,500 bombs in the first day of the campaign.

Which raises the question: Was the hype actually part of an elaborate game of psychological warfare aimed at throwing Saddam's reign into turmoil by convincing his commanders to surrender, rather that face certain death?

The U.S. message has been simple: "Surrender, give up. You don't want to bring this upon yourselves. We have this awesome fire power you don't want us to unleash," says Ronald Bee, a senior analyst at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in San Diego. In an interview Friday, Bee, a veteran political military analyst who worked previously at the Pentagon, called the unique strategy "crafty" and noted the administration had deftly used the media to help it play mental war games.

The war was not unfolding like a lot of people expected, or how a lot of people were told it might. Have you been surprised the way things have gone?

Not really. Because in any war you have your theory and you have your practice.

What's been the practice here?

It's been to start with a target of opportunity, namely, leadership that may have included Saddam Hussein and his sons. Now, if they did actually get some leadership in that initial attack, what they're trying to do is convince those who remain, whether they be Republican Guard or those who still remain from Saddam's inner circle, that this is inevitable and you might as well give up now. And by doing so you don't have to use all the shock and awe, but you send them reminders in case you need to help them make up their mind and that's what we're seeing today.

That attack on the leadership on Wednesday -- that really was the shot heard around the world.

That's a good way of putting it.

It seemed to have an extraordinary effect for such a relatively small attack.

Well, if you're after Saddam Hussein and you may have taken out his leadership, including him, that would be proportionate to the noise you're hearing.

Do you think they could do a shock and awe that was still selective?

Yes, they can be selective in the bombing. Because how are you going to awe somebody if they're dead? Think about it. If you're dropping tons of bombs and killing everybody, who are you going to awe? You're only awing the people watching the TV.

Or your own military.

Exactly. So you have to shock those who are still living into surrender. And that's what they want to do; shock them into surrender and awe their pants off.

But they can shock and awe them without dropping 3,000 bombs an hour, right?

Yes, especially if it's getting reported that the big attack's coming. Or this is it. So everybody who's been told to stay in their house is going to stay in their house.

Does holding back on shock and awe have political ramifications? Meaning, would a ferocious bombing cause more damage than it's worth?

Maybe, think of it this way. If you're trying to convince not only your opponent but critics within your allied community that you have nothing else in mind except getting rid of a dictator, [you're not going to succeed by] dropping a bunch of carpet bombs and killing a bunch of civilians. Will those critics think this war's about getting rid of a dictator? No! So this also argues to the political motivations, that convincing not only our public, but also our allied public -- not to mention the public in Iraq -- that has to figure which side they want to come down on.

But one month ago it hurt the White House politically when war protesters were complaining about shock and awe?

Sure it did. Because they saw it as a mass, genocide bombing campaign that was going to kill every Iraqi in Baghdad.

And the White House did not, I assume for military strategic reasons, come out and try to shoot that idea down.

Right, they wanted the Iraqis to think that.

So even though it was hurting them politically they didn't want to come out and say, "Don't worry, it won't be that bad."

I agree with you. That's exactly what we've seen happen. Look -- bin Laden uses the press, why can't we?

Was the press used here?

I think so. But you could argue if you were on the ground in Baghdad next to a building that just blew up, it was pretty shocking and awe-inspiring to you. I think they say, "Boy, we may have gotten top leadership, we've knocked out communications. Let's give them a pause to think about this." And then to get them to think about it a little more we'll take out some more government buildings and tell people to stay in their homes, which is what [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld did. We're going to give them specific instructions about how they can surrender.

The fact that the U.S. can pretty much have its way has a lot to do with it? Meaning if they actually had to battle the other side, they wouldn't have the luxury of engaging in this kind of psychological warfare.

They don't have any airplanes in the air. They've had not just no-fly zones, but no-drive zones in the north and in the south for 12 years. And so you think that during that time we've just been sitting there? No we've been thinking about how to render their military inoperable so that if and when it came to a time like today, that we would be able to control the shots. I think the whole operation is gauged for having the regime collapse in on itself as soon as possible.

That was the military strategy from day one?

Yes. If you control the shots. One of the ways you can do that is by using not only shock and awe but also the press to advance that doctrine on your own behalf. And then you see in Rumsfeld's press conference he fed everybody the same stuff: "You have never seen what is going to happen to Baghdad if we have to do it." Everybody writes that up and puts in on the radio and sees it on CNN. And it goes around in e-mail. They have e-mail in Iraq, too. But the only ones who do are the ones in the leadership. It's crafty.

But we've seen the psychological approach before?

Yes, you may recall during the last Gulf War something got leaked to the press that there were far more troops on the ground than there actually were.

Republican Guards?

No, our troops, when we were building up. Because the U.S. was very worried Iraq would preemptively strike against us as we were deploying our forces. So they were very happy that the numbers that were reported were way beyond [the actual numbers]. I think we're seeing the same effect here. Why am I saying that? Because the idea ever since Bush's get-out-of-Dodge speech [to Saddam last Monday] was, Look, surrender, give up. You don't want to bring this upon yourselves. We're trying to get rid of leadership. We have this awesome firepower you don't want us to unleash. Here's another good reason to give up.

What other platforms does the military have to convince the other side to give up? Is it something as simple as a Rumsfeld press conference and the words he chooses there?

There are other factors that are very important. The first Gulf War we didn't have complete domination of the skies in the northern and southern fly zones. And I might add there have been activities going on in terms of bombing radar over the last several months that you haven't heard much about in the press. While they're doing that they've also got lots of people on the ground looking to prepare for this. And that's where the psychological preparation comes in. They start preparing for the leafletting campaign. I understand they can even call officer cellphones. This is something you can do if you've been spending the last 12 years watching them [in the no-fly zones], which U.S. and British forces have been doing. There's always been the eventuality that someday we'll have to take care of this.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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George W. Bush Iraq War