Even as a West Point cadet, H. Norman Schwarzkopf saved his admiration for men of action, soldiers who had successfully faced the test of combat. Schwarzkopf is a muddy-boots soldier, a grunt who knows the wet-sawdust flavor of field rations, the smell of fear and the bittersweet joy of going home from war intact and alive. He has no time for glory hounds, and even less for self-serving staff officers whose idea of tough duty is eating salad without a salad fork.
Schwarzkopf’s rendition of the history of the Gulf War will no doubt be disputed, but no one can finish this engaging and readable book with any confusion about the general’s empathy for soldiers. The well-being of the men and women we send off to war is a sacred trust, an awesome responsibility that weighs heavily even on broad-shouldered men. (War planners felt this sobering weight well before the Gulf War, Schwarzkopf tells us, when Ken Burns’ splendid and deeply moving documentary on the Civil War aired on PBS in Autumn 1990.)
In a widely viewed interview, Barbara Walters made much of the fact that here was a general who wept, who lay awake in the dead of night worrying about combat deaths yet to come. Schwarzkopf’s uniqueness, though, is not that he has cried but that he has vented emotions freely, as his nickname “Stormin’ Norman” attests.
Similarly, in “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” Schwarzkopf opens a good part of his life to public view and the reader gains a sense of what makes this character tick. The result is a fine and lucid book, teeming with vitality. He returns again and again to his mother’s chronic alcoholism, his troubled relationship with a sister with whom he could seldom see eye to eye, and his love for his father. The senior Norman Schwarzkopf also was a West Point graduate and it was he who first exposed young Norman to the Middle East, in 1946, while serving in Tehran as an adviser to the shah’s national police.
Schwarzkopf is a compelling storyteller, especially when he writes about soldiering. (Peter Petre’s craftsmanship no doubt helps.) Although he hit a few bumps along the way, Schwarzkopf spent most of his career on the fast track, winning early promotions, serving in high-visibility units and, on at least one occasion, making sure he did his requisite duties (and later regretting it).
Many of these pages are about Vietnam, and this is fitting. Vietnam shaped the world view and the political attitude of a generation of American officers, many of whom, like Schwarzkopf, came to hate the war for what it did to America and to the military. These officers learned to distrust politicians and disdain the press. The politicians and the civilian experts who surrounded them came to be seen as too willing to spend American lives piecemeal in efforts notable only for by obscure goals and constrained military options. Schwarzkopf indicts the Fourth Estate for its willingness to do anything for a story, even to the point of jeopardizing the lives of fighting men or compromising the mission.
The fact that Schwarzkopf spent two tours, not one, in Vietnam is revealing. In the Army of the ‘60s, virtually all career officers served a tour in Vietnam, but for a fast-riser like Schwarzkopf a second tour could be avoided, unless he pressed the point by volunteering. He volunteered. During his first tour in the mid-1960s, Schwarzkopf served as a military adviser with the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade, a world-class unit that could easily go nose-to-nose with the best American units. As Saigon was falling in 1975, the Vietnamese paratroopers fought courageously to the end, a fact that cemented Schwarzkopf’s enduring respect for his former comrades.
In 1969, Schwarzkopf returned to Vietnam and found himself in command of a troubled and dispirited American unit that bore all of the scars and rot of an unpopular, unwinnable war. For the next 20 years, Vietnam shadowed Schwarzkopf and the officers of his generation, always lurking in the mist. The thousands of Iraqi soldiers killed in the Gulf War were only one of the officers’ triumphs; the other was exorcising the ghost of Vietnam.
Schwarzkopf’s account of the events in the Gulf is straightforward and lively, although in some ways the book’s final 200 pages are predictable and truncated, ducking a couple of key questions concerning pre- and postwar events.
While the Bush Administration was still celebrating its victory in the Cold War, Saddam Hussein crashed the party. As the Iraqi forces were assembling on the Kuwaiti border, the general’s Central Command staff was fortuitously engaged in a training exercise (“Internal Look”) that posited an Iraqi invasion into the Arabian peninsula. The day before the real invasion, Schwarzkopf had told Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney that Iraq intended to move into Kuwait to snatch a bit of the emirate’s territory. Could it be that Saddam was not a gate-crasher at all but simply an unpopular relative who made a glutton of himself? Schwarzkopf doesn’t say.
Within hours of the invasion, President Bush determined to check Iraq’s occupation of all of Kuwait, but a couple of months would pass before a decision was made to send the ruffian back home. In the meantime, Schwarzkopf and his troops puzzled over their mission. Schwarzkopf described his situation as that of a command sent to compete in a grand sporting event without being told the sport: “We’d run onto the field dressed in helmets and shoulder pads, all set for football, only to have Washington hand out baseball gloves. So we’d dutifully take off the helmets and pads and gotten ready to play baseball--only to have Washington roll us a soccer ball. Except that this was no game.”
The general and his staff were frequently preoccupied with balancing the budget to pay for Operation Desert Shield. Though Japan was often derided in the U.S. press for taking a free ride on the backs of American soldiers, Schwarzkopf notes that “Had it not been for the Japanese, Desert Shield would have gone broke in August.” The financial crisis passed when a Saudi check for $760 million arrived in October, 1990.
The U.S. military is an integrated force of fighting units and support units. In contrast, Saudi Arabia subcontracts supporting tasks to civilian firms employing expatriate workers. So the movement of critical supplies to far-flung U.S. forces fell to a fleet of brightly festooned, very unmilitary-looking trucks operated by Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan drivers who would simply disappear after dumping a load of ammo. One of Schwarzkopf’s logistic wizards discovered that the drivers were great fans of American wrestling, and especially superheros like Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. So the key to maintaining a stable force of drivers was simply to announce in the morning that tonight’s video would feature Jake the Snake versus Andre the Giant and the drivers would stick around for the show.
With the decision in October, 1990, to begin offensive preparations to expel Iraq from Kuwait, there was never any confusion over the inevitability of the defeat of the Iraqi military. Instead, the puzzles were how long it would take and what the costs would be in American and allied casualties. The onslaught from the air began in January, and when the ground war finally came in February, the victory was one-sided and decisive (though significant units of Saddam’s Republican Guard managed to escape the battlefield).
Schwarzkopf wants us to believe, it seems, that the destruction of Iraq’s praetorian guard would have been even more thorough had one of his two major field commanders moved more aggressively, but at the time the scope of the victory seemed so extensive that Saddam’s regime wouldn’t last long in any case. In the event, the neatness of a 100-hour ground war was too good to resist in Washington, and though Schwarzkopf initially preferred the ring of a “five-day war,” he agreed to halt the offensive at the 100-hour mark.
When convenient, Schwarzkopf is the loyal officer, subordinate to civilian authority and unimplicated in diplomatic decision-making. When he met with Iraqi generals to lay down the terms for ending the fighting, Schwarzkopf consented to the Iraqi use of helicopters, which were then used with deadly effect to put down the Shi’ite Muslim rebellion in southern Iraq.
Schwarzkopf has nothing to say about this except that he was misled by an Iraqi “son-of-a-bitch”; that it was up to the White House to decide how to react; and that Iraqi tanks and armor were taking a more devastating toll among the rebels anyway. This is a major cop-out. If Schwarzkopf believes that the stability of Iraq justified U.S. (in)action and that the United States bore no moral responsibility for the aftermath of the war, he should say so. Instead,he observes, “General officers should never miss an opportunity to remain silent concerning matters for which they are no longer responsible.” This is a nice safe, reticent position, and therefore an uncharacteristic one for Stormin’ Norman.
Indeed, the aftermath of the war gets no significant attention in “It Doesn’t Take a Hero.” In this sense, the book mimics the planning that preceded the war. The Gulf War was a technical marvel, a feat of diplomatic engineering and an exemplar of brilliant military planning, for which Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, deserve great credit. But the key question throughout was: How about the morning after?
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the war propelled Iran into a position of regional hegemony. Geopolitics abhors vacuums, and when Iraq was defeated it was axiomatic that Iran would be the beneficiary, indeed, the big winner. Iran is now bolstering its military might, rejuvenating its nuclear programs and shopping actively in the arms bazaar. Iran’s rising importance is a major concern among the Arabs, especially after Iran claimed full control of two disputed Gulf islands earlier this year.
America’s Arab friends in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, have already begun adjusting to the new realities of Iranian power. Gratuitous predictions of looming future crises are the stuff of sound bites, not serious analyses, and future developments may move in other, more positive directions. In fact, Iran’s return to being the primus inter pares in the Gulf may presage a restoration of relations between Washington and Tehran.
In some brief “Afterthoughts,” Schwarzkopf aptly connects the U.S. success in the Gulf with the launching of the peace process to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most enduring legacy of Mssrs. Bush and Baker may well be a sturdy structure of negotiations that survives their Administration.
Spurning the step-by-step diplomatic approach exemplified by the peripatetic Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, President Bush opted for much more complex arrangements. Though Secretary of State James Baker’s extraordinary negotiating skills played no small part in launching bilateral peace talks among Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians, as well as the multilateral discussions of regional issues like water, economic development and refugees, Baker has avoided making himself the indispensable centerpiece.
Syrians and Israelis are talking, not through Baker but to each other, and that is a breakthrough of no mean significance. The multilateral talks bring together not only Arab and Israeli belligerents but also regional powers like Turkey and financial heavyweights like Japan, in an attempt to search for solutions for problems that affect all of the Middle East. In sum, there is no question that the Gulf War made possible an elaborate and far-sighted venture in peacemaking that is a fitting rejoinder to those who ask “Was it worth it?”
As we look around a world peppered by internal conflict and calls for American intervention in places like Yugoslavia, “It Doesn’t Take a Hero” is especially timely reading. No one can put down this book without a daunting sense of the scope of efforts and the months required to confront a committed aggressor. In the fullness of time, we all will come to see that the Gulf War of 1991 was an anomaly, an extraordinary assemblage of military might and diplomatic finesse that will be hard to duplicate in the coming, trouble-strewn years. As one cynic noted, the Kuwaitis were lucky that they exported oil, not broccoli.