The Father of All Bombs

Dr Strangelove, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love rapid dominance.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love rapid dominance.

Have you heard of Harlan Ullman? Everyone in the White House and the Pentagon has. Ullman is what they call a “defense intellectual.” He was the Navy’s “head of extended planning” and taught at the National War College. One of his students was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who says he “raised my vision several levels.”

What Powell and everyone in the Bush administration sees now is Ullman’s vision for high-tech war. He calls it “rapid dominance,” or “shock and awe.” The idea is to scare the enemy to death. To win, you don’t need to inflict physical pain and destruction. Just the fear of pain, and the massive confusion it creates, is enough.

Ullman wants the U.S. to (in his words) “deter and overpower an adversary through the adversary’s perception and fear of his vulnerability and our own invincibility.” “This ability to impose massive shock and awe, in essence to be able to ‘turn the lights on and off’ of an adversary as we choose, will so overload the perception, knowledge and understanding of that adversary that there will be no choice except to cease and desist or risk complete and total destruction.”

Ullman is ready to use every kind of weapon to create shock and awe. He once said it might be a good idea to use electromagnetic waves that attack peoples’ neurological systems, “to control the will and perception of adversaries, by applying a regime of shock and awe. It is about effecting behavior.”

When it comes to Iraq, Ullman suggested cruise missiles — lots of them, right away, destroying everything that makes life in Baghdad livable. “We want them to quit. We want them not to fight,” Ullman told CBS reporter David Martin. So “you take the city down. You get rid of their power, water. In 2,3,4,5 days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted.”

Ullman is sure it will work as well in 2003 as it did in 1945: “You have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes.” “Super tools and weapons — information-age equivalents of the atomic bomb — have to be invented,” he wrote in the Economic Times. “As the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally convinced the Japanese Emperor and High Command that even suicidal resistance was futile, these tools must be directed towards a similar outcome.”

When he first invented “rapid dominance,” Ullman talked about an “eight-level hierarchy of shock and awe,” with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the top. Now, it seems, that’s where he wants to start.

Is the Hiroshima model just a metaphor? Ullman recently wrote that one way to “shock and awe” Saddam is to remind him that the U.S. has “certain weapons” that can destroy deeply buried facilities. That’s a not-even-thinly-veiled reference to the newest kind of nuclear weapons, the B-61 “bunker-busters.” L.A. Times columnist William Arkin has confirmed that the U.S. is preparing to use “bunker-busters” against Iraq. That would “break down the firewall separating nuclear weapons from everything else,” Arkin warns, and “forever pit the Arab and Islamic world against us.”

Suppose we drop the nuke in the wrong place? Even Harlan Ullman admits it could easily happen: “Of course, there will always be intelligence gaps, and no solution is perfect.” But that’s just the point. “The threat would be a Damoclean sword that might or might not descend.” In other words, the fear of nukes falling who-knows-where would scare them into surrendering without a fight. Let other Islamic nations get as angry as they like. We’ll just shock and awe them too.

And why not North Korea, while we’re at it? Ullman wants a nuclear threat there, if North Korean leaders don’t heel to U.S. commands: “To remind the North of its vulnerability, one or more Trident ballistic submarines could be permanently assigned to target North Korea.” Tridents carry 240 nuclear warheads each. One Trident might not be enough, it seems. When you use shock and awe, you use it big-time.

So here we are, destroying a huge modern city, killing civilians, and threatening nuclear attack. Yes, it’s about oil. But it’s also about shock and awe, putting on a terrifying show for the whole world to see.

If all this leaves you in shock and awe, you have had your vision raised several levels too. You see what Ullman, Powell, and all the Bushies see: the U.S. frightening the whole world so badly that no one will dare fire a single bullet at us. Let them be as angry as they like, just so they know who is the meanest, toughest son of a bitch on the global block.

That is now becoming the essence of U.S. foreign policy. And they seriously believe it will put an end to war. I suppose the Romans believed it too.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at University of Colorado at Boulder.