Under maritime stars and through sandy gales, from blue water seas to desert flats to rocky hills, American forces in the Gulf closed the first week of a war without end in sight. "We will stay on the path, mile by mile, all the way to Baghdad and all the way to victory," President George Bush told troops in Florida.
The opening assault on a command center in Baghdad was followed by cruise missile attacks down the Tigris River, thunderous pummels to Republican Guard strongholds, and to Saddam Hussein's gargantuan main palace.
As the Iraq minister of information tried to give a press conference beneath the opening hours of a "shock-and-awe" campaign, Iraqi TV plainly showed the room vibrating. These were no Hail Mary passes. Four-fifths of the ordinance that fell on Iraq in the first week of war was precision guided.
Also precision guided was the simultaneous insertion of troops across the country after the initial volley of airpower on March 19. At the same time the army's Third Infantry Division rolled across the desert from Kuwait on its way to Baghdad, special forces parachuted into the western desert and the northern mountains, British soldiers seized the strategic al-Faw peninsula, and together with U.S. Marines claimed the only deepwater port at Umm Qasr. Navy SEALS scaled offshore oilrigs in a successful operation to save the country's oil supply.
The opening week of war brought, one after another, "a day and a night of a thousand targets," in the words of one Scottish newspaper. It also brought home the sobering truth of American sacrifice. Bodies of eight fallen Americans arrived at Dover Air Force Base on March 25, with more on the way.
For the New York City fire chief who cried on Sept. 11, "I need an air force," the U.S. military was on the job to unravel the terror-sponsoring regime of Saddam Hussein. Aerial bombardments ran to over 1,000 a day. In Afghanistan they averaged 95. The pace was designed to overwhelm, crumbling Iraqi morale with a bewildering array of strength.
But the oft-repeated "shock and awe" actually refers to a strategy that goes beyond brute and colorful air domination. "[T]o achieve Shock and Awe," wrote the authors of a 1996 book of the same name, requires "compliance or capitulation through very selective, utterly brutal and ruthless, and rapid application of force to intimidate." The aim, according to authors David S. Alberts and a team of military strategists at the National Defense University, "is to convince the majority that resistance is futile by targeting and harming the few."
The strategy is successful if it leads to "rapid dominance," not only of enemy forces but of the keystones to society at large-communications and the economy, along with government at all levels. In Iraq, of course, all these were under control of Saddam Hussein.
Shock and awe gained currency after the first Gulf War, usually under other names, as military strategists debated whether air power-what the experts call stand-off power-could decisively defeat the enemy alone. The post-9/11 world, where 19 men could theoretically outstrike the world's best army, made clear to experts that the old Cold War doctrine of overwhelming force could not defeat enemies who leave no address.
The first week's progress, with astonishingly swift advances here and dug-in trench warfare there, corresponds to the new and more complex-but strategists hope, ultimately more nimble-philosophy of war. What looked to outsiders like U.S. forces bogging down along the Euphrates is actually a plan unfolding rather than bursting forth.
For the commanders of Operation Iraqi Freedom, moving large numbers of coalition forces simultaneously into Iraq, while combining air and land forces into agile and close-coordinating units, are the signs of a sea change in battlefield planning.
"If you want to pressure someone to the negotiating table, air power might be enough," strategist Robin Dorff told WORLD, "but to achieve this kind of political objective-regime change-you are going to have to occupy territory. At some point you are going to have to meet troops on the ground with troops on the ground."
Mr. Dorff, chairman of the department of national security and strategy at the Army War College, said the agility drilled into the troops and programmed into their weapons and other equipment means they aren't surprised by the first week's setbacks-encounters with irregular forces, bad weather, and the ever-present danger of chemical-weapons attacks.
"We rush to reach the great lessons learned, but it is too early to say what they will be," Mr. Dorff cautioned just as the 3rd Infantry Division moved to within 50 miles of Baghdad. The battle for the capital, where U.S. soldiers face thousands of Republican Guards and booby-trapped infrastructure, he said, would be decisive.
At the same time, troops on the week-long march to Baghdad and elsewhere had things to write home about:
Saddam Hussein's 51st Infantry Division, one of the best trained and equipped of Iraq's regular army forces, with 200 tanks, surrendered outside Basrah. British and U.S. troops moved in, securing oilfields outside the city as well as the transportation hub itself, where a waterway leads to the Persian Gulf.
U.S. special forces seized two key airports in Iraq's western desert, securing Israel from Scud missile launches and establishing a base for launching further attacks across Iraq's midsection.
Patriot missiles intercepted Iraqi missiles repeatedly over Kuwait.
Shiite opposition forces fought for the first time against Saddam Hussein's troops as coalition forces fought for control of Basrah, the second-largest city in Iraq. The uprising was an important sign that a shock-and-awe strategy was reaching the grassroots.
U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division may have discovered one, if not two, chemical weapons plants south of Baghdad. The 100-acre compound was camouflaged and protected by troops and an electric fence.
Charity on the part of U.S. soldiers is legendary, and the president promised Iraqis would "witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military." Photographers in the first week captured the troops giving water to thirsting Iraqi soldiers and carting hungry Iraqi children. But the battle plan itself also had the marks of its compassionate conservative commander in chief. Opening salvos involving hundreds of Tomahawk missiles took out military targets in Baghdad while leaving on the lights of the city. Iraqi soldiers everywhere could take advantage of extensive propaganda from the United States showing them how to surrender without a fight. Thousands did.
Besides 500 journalists traveling with the troops to record their behavior on the battlefield, the military embedded humanitarian workers from the State Department into the command structure in Kuwait. To speed the flow of aid, the United States secured contracts during the war's first week for dredging the waterway at Umm Qasr and the removal of landmines along delivery routes.
Charity, experts say, is part of the strategy. "What kind of world do you want on the other side of this conflict?" asks Dan Henk, who teaches leadership and ethics at the U.S. Air War College. "Some actions that make sense for purely military reasons right now may undermine the more important long-term objective of a stable, peaceful, and pro-U.S. region in the years after the conflict. It's not a bad thing to balance our humanitarian with our military goals."
Good deeds cannot change the fact that war is grim and deadly. U.S. and British casualties stood nearly even at the end of war week one (20 Brits, 24 Americans). Seven U.S. soldiers remained prisoners of war. Threats of chemical attack and terrorism remained high.
Israelis, too, are cautious, extending orders for civilians to carry gas masks with them at all times even after U.S. forces secured key areas of Iraq's western desert, from which Scud missiles could reach Israel. Palestinian areas were defiantly anti-American. In Nablus drivers honked horns at news of a downed U.S. helicopter or captured American soldier. Posters of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat were sell-outs in marketplaces.
Some Iraqis posted weblogs as a way to record their nation at war. They noted that dogs barking became a more dependable warning of missile attacks than the unreliable early warning system.
"As one of the buildings I really love went up in a huge explosion I was close to tears," recorded an anonymous Baghdad resident on the third day of war. "The hits were very precise," he wrote, "but when the missiles and bombs explode they wreck havoc in the neighborhood where they fall."
The blogger also kept track of gaps between Arab television reporting and reality. When Al-Jazeera carried reports of U.S. bombing he noted, "the oil-filled trenches were put on fire ... when I went up to the roof to take a look there were too many of [the fires], we heard only three explosions."
In the coming week coalition forces are counting on the widening gap between reality on the ground and Iraq's propaganda machine to win more Iraqis to their side. Tangible support from opposition groups north and south is growing. They echo the call of President Bush for a "united, stable, and free country." Kurdistan Democratic Party officer Fawzi Hariri told WORLD the next time the Bush administration lists members of its coalition, it should increase by one "to include the people of Iraq." Knowing the fighting is headed his way, he said the party "strongly supports this vision of partnership and is actively cooperating with the alliance to deliver a democratic, federal Iraq that is at peace with itself, its neighbors, and the international community."
If sleep-deprived U.S. soldiers should be tempted to doubt, they can remember that for many Iraqis, the outcome is already clear.