As a phrase, “shock and awe” appeared in the lexicon of the U.S. Military in the late 1990s, following the 1996 publication of “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance” a strategic doctrine developed for the National Defense University by retired Naval Commander Harlan Ullman and former Jimmy Carter Administration adviser James Wade. Most of us first heard the phrase in reference to the fast-forward beating we delivered to Iraq’s military in 2003. But the concept is ages old. In the 20th century, the world called it “Blitzkreig” — although the Nazis’ high-speed success could well be attributed to the rest of Europe’s failure to comprehend that the millennia of trench warfare and fixed emplacements like the Maginot Line had ended 20 years prior to World War II.
While the Nazis conducted a strategically sound campaign of rapid dominance against the Benelux nations and France, it’s worth remembering that they were operating against the Benelux nations and France. Give me the 1st Ranger Battalion and some air support, and I could march in the shade on the Champs-Élysées. If the purpose of “shock and awe” is a swift end to hostilities, I would argue that the greatest show of “shock and awe” happened just more than five years and two continents away from Herr Hitler’s party in Paris.
By late July 1945, World War II was trudging toward a conclusion. Adolf and Eva checked out of their bunker more than two months earlier, leaving Japan as the lone Axis power still standing. Nonetheless, the Japanese ignored the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, despite already considerably shocking and awesome firebombing campaigns over Japanese cities. In fact, the March firebombing of Tokyo remains the single most destructive aerial bombing raid in military history. Nearly six dozen Japanese cities were similarly leveled in the first six months of 1945, all as a result of conventional-weapon campaigns necessitated by the ultimately futile Japanese strategy of dispersing military and industrial assets throughout civilian population zones.
But still, they refused to surrender. As Allied commanders prepared for Operation Downfall, the potential invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, the Japanese remained defiant, planning their defensive Operation Ketsu-Go. Conservative casualty estimates placed total military and civilian losses in the millions. The world steeled itself for what could well be the bloodiest fighting yet to come.
And then, the defining example of “shock and awe” debuted on the world stage. Sixty-eight years ago this week, at 8:15 a.m. local time, the people of Japan — specifically, the people of the city of Hiroshima — met “Little Boy.” As many as 100,000 people died in an instant, with thousands more doomed within months. Lest the shock not be awesome enough; 68 years ago tomorrow, the people of Japan — specifically, the people of the city of Nagasaki — met “Fat Man.” Six days later, the U.S. Navy prepared the U.S.S. Missouri for a famous photo op.
Sixty-eight years later, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the lone combat detonations of nuclear weapons in history. Despite wreaking unprecedented destruction, they prevented many times more. The world has rolled to the edge of nuclear madness repeatedly since then, with brushfires nearly raging out of control from Berlin to Cuba and virtually all points in between. Arsenals have filled with destructive force beyond the worst nightmares of Hiroshima survivors. But none have been detonated.
Thanks to the proliferation of the progeny of Little Boy and Fat Man, the world sleeps every night underneath a nuclear blanket. But thanks to four days of “shock and awe” 68 years ago, the world doesn’t sleep underneath 6 feet of radioactive dirt. In defining “shock and awe,” Ullman and Wade assert that such a campaign must include “the threat and fear of action that may shut down all or part of the adversary’s society or render his ability to fight useless short of complete physical destruction.”
As a direct consequence of one week in August 1945, the threat and fear of total nuclear annihilation have shut down human society’s desire to inflict upon itself complete physical destruction. Though we can use nuclear power for war, we mostly use it for energy these days. That’s a bit shocking; it’s absolutely awesome; and, most importantly, it’s historical fact.