One of the most notable scenes in Rocky One followed Apollo Creed’s reaction to a lightning punch that sent him reeling to the canvas, his glazed eyes struggling to catch the number of the locomotive that just smashed into his jaw. After the round, he stumbled back to his corner where his outraged trainer screamed into his ear: “He doesn’t know it’s a d… show! He thinks it’s a d… fight!” The rest of the story has entered the rich tapestry of narrative Americana, but perhaps this line more than any others stands out. Apollo was brilliant, physically daunting, and hugely talented, the best in the world, in fact, but for all this, he was done in by a nothing has-been who possessed limitless determination.
As 2006 comes to a close, the imbroglio in Iraq has inspired pundits to spew out military analogies sufficient to tickle the brain cells of amateur strategists throughout the country, and clearly the Rocky theme should not be pushed too far. Apollo is not the United States, and Rocky certainly cannot be compared to sectarian thugs who massacre civilians as casually as they prepare breakfast. It’s those signature words that deserve our attention. The military component of the American adventure in Iraq—shock and awe—was conducted with the sort of brilliance we have become accustomed to expect from our armed forces. Consider the military campaign the “show” part—fearless, peerless, and unstoppable. Think of the follow-up, American efforts to build a civil society in Iraq from late spring of 2003 to the present, as the “fight” part. Let us suppose this is the viewpoint of those who considered the “show” irrelevant to their aims. Indeed, Moqtadr al-Sadr undoubtedly thinks what has been happening since summer 2003 is a fight, not a show. In which case he is right and he is winning. The question is why.
The answers are best summed in Thomas Ricks’ treatment in his appropriately entitled, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” which is a sort of shock and awe reading experience for anyone who is puzzled about what went wrong and why. Perhaps the best summary is provided by Ricks’ account of military plans to eliminate al-Sadr: “We had a couple of operations laid down in the fall of ’03 to take him out and they got called off by the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) very shortly before execution,” he quotes one officer as saying. Another senior Army officer stated, “We were prepared to act. We were almost there. Then we throttled back… we were told to hold off, ‘timing’s not right.’”
So there we have it: the timing was not considered right by civilian officials whose incompetence has resulted in the survival of a genocidal radical who since has “earned” the right to sit at a bargaining table and dictate terms of Iraq’s future. In short, al-Sadr is winning because shock and awe ended when Sadaam’s statue was pulled down from its perch in the middle of Baghdad in March 2003.
What if it hadn’t ended? What if shock and awe had continued past the point of regime change and had driven civilian policies as well? What if the CPA had realized that danger lurked beyond the “show” of elections? In short, what if Apollo Creed assumed that beyond the show he had a real fight on his hands?
This much, at least, is certain. Al-Sadr would be gone; ditto for his numerous adversaries and allies. Furthermore, the behavior of their supporters—brazen, arrogant, and contemptuous of the United States—undoubtedly would be altered if significant hunks of Damascus, Tehran, and even Riyadh were reduced to smoking ruins. When a country can spit on the United States with no penalty and work continuously through a variety of means to destroy America, then we can expect to be reviled and held in derision. But if real consequences are attached to acts of war against America, then expect hearts and minds to change. Shock and awe that continues the fight generates respect and completes missions from origination to end game; its opposite produces failure and global contempt. Compare unconditional surrender of World War Two with “proportional response” and being “throttled back”—you get the idea.
American presidents of both parties have shown remarkably little savvy dealing with our enemies beyond the initial military campaigns; witness Vietnam and Iraq. It may be because we have been so dazzled, so fascinated by military operations of the 1940s that their purpose has been obscured or forgotten, which was to break the will of the enemy. Undoubtedly, this is why Americans since that time have been good at winning specific battles, but poor at winning wars. Failure to win the fight, that is, to complete the mission, renders irrelevant the action that precedes it—namely, shock and awe. The bitter lesson of Iraq is that we are good at one, but not the other. Which means we probably won’t see shock and awe again any time in the foreseeable future.