The war in Iraq today is a laboratory and a testing ground for the biggest shift in US war fighting since World War II.
The campaign includes Cruise missiles exploding in downtown Baghdad and soldiers suited up and armed like miniweapons of mass destruction as they race across the desert. But in fact it's a kind of four-dimensional blitzkrieg whose most important weapons may be secret e-mails and cell-phone calls, leaflets raining down on enemy commanders, and pointed personal messages from Donald Rumsfeld to Saddam Hussein.
The point is to get the enemy to capitulate with as little death and destruction as possible, a situation in which " 'shock and awe' is in the mind of the opponent," as defense analyst Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington puts it, an approach that's as old as the writings of Chinese military theoretician Sun Tzu and as new as a hand-held computer.
The effort has not been without setbacks, highlighted Sunday by images of US prisoners - including apparently dead ones - showing up on the Al Jazeera TV network.
There have been ground skirmishes, some of them fierce, and no doubt there will be more.
Unsettling as these issues are to a nation hoping for quick victory, America's overall approach, militarily, seems to be working. Several thousand Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. US and British forces quickly secured oil terminals, limited the torching of Iraqi oil wells to just nine of about 500 wells in the southern part of the country, and prevented the release of 139 mines into the Persian Gulf by capturing or destroying Iraqi boats.
"It's a very, very different kind of war," says Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
"This one is much more psychological, and the reason for that is that in this war there is a mandate, since it is being billed as a war of liberation, that large numbers of civilian casualties are just not going to be tolerated."
Here too, this war is far different in that with hundreds of reporters on the scene in Baghdad and riding along with allied troops, the Pentagon wants to avoid the "CNN effect" of real-time broadcasts when things go wrong.
There have been casualties, including some civilians in Baghdad. But presumably the Iraqi regime would have broadcast the fact of widespread casualties, which had not been the case by midday Sunday. As of Sunday afternoon, at least 21 American and British soldiers had been killed as well, most of them in accidents. And Al Jazeera television showed at least four bodies and five prisoners who were allegedly Americans taken in battle.
Moreover, an American Patriot missile apparently shot down a British Tornado jet. And one soldier died and a dozen more members of the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait were injured when a fellow soldier allegedly rolled grenades into their tent.
While battlefield commanders say the pace of their advance to Baghdad is much faster than they had anticipated - US forces were within 100 miles of the city Sunday - they remain very cautious, knowing that the major tests to their war plan lie ahead.
"There will be surprises," coalition commander Gen. Tommy Franks said at his first press conference since the war began last week. "There may well be tough days ahead." Still, General Franks said, "This will be a campaign unlike any other in history, characterized by shock, surprise, flexibility, the use of precision munitions on a scale never seen, and by the application of overwhelming force."
Specifically, analysts note, this includes the kind of maneuver warfare which has seen forward units of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division dash north from Kuwait toward Baghdad without what would typically have been additional units to protect their flanks. Defense analyst Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. calls this "a new and extremely audacious move."
In all, says General Franks, the US war plan "is built on a flexibility beyond anything I have seen in my service."
It's this kind of agility, flexibility (including the ability to change plans quickly), and the use of more lightly armed and special operations forces that military reformers have been pushing for at least 20 years. Back then, young congressmen such as Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and Gary Hart led the way.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, too, has been a strong advocate of military "transformation." He's had to argue with some of the top brass - including those who pushed for a much larger force before going to war with Iraq. But so far, it seems, the dogged and forceful Mr. Rumsfeld - backed by his commander in chief in the White House - appears to have prevailed.
"The success of coalition forces seems to have vindicated the judgment of three men," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "First, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet can rightly claim that the information his community provides has been accurate and critically important to the campaign. Second, ... Franks has proven to be a flexible commander who adjusts readily to changing battlefield conditions rather than sticking with a preordained plan. Third, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's insistence on a relatively light ground force supported by abundant air power and Special Forces looks prescient."
To be sure, four days into the war is way too soon to know whether transformation truly has taken place in US military strategy, tactics, and weaponry.
"Whenever you execute a plan, the enemy gets a vote," says Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Within the past 24 hours, according to US military sources, that "vote" has included the use of civilian shields by Iraqi forces fighting fiercely in southern urban areas as well as the capture of some Americans - both of which could affect US tactics (but likely not the overall strategy).
"The real test will be to see whether the United States can get the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard to surrender so as to avoid the need for a bloody battle in Baghdad," says Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.
Even a quick victory would leave questions about nationbuilding and the war's impact on regional stability. But, as Richard Perle, who chairs a board of civilian advisers to the Pentagon, says: "Nothing settles these debates like a real encounter."