Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who presided over the swift and devastating 1991 military assault on Iraq that transformed the Middle East and reminded America what it was like to win a war, died Thursday of complications from pneumonia. He was 78.
The former four-star general, whose burly image towering in camouflage fatigues above his troops came to define both Operation Desert Storm and the nation’s renewed sense of military pride, had been living in relatively quiet retirement in Tampa, Fla., eschewing the political battles that continued to broil over a part of the world he had left as a conqueror.
“We’ve lost an American original,” the White House said in a statement. “Gen. Schwarzkopf stood tall for the country and Army he loved. Our prayers are with the Schwarzkopf family, who tonight can know that his legacy will endure in a nation that is more secure because of his patriotic service.”
Former President George H.W. Bush, hospitalized himself with an illness in Texas, called Schwarzkopf “a true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation.”
Schwarzkopf, often called “Stormin’ Norman” for his legendary temper, was best known for commanding a 765,000-strong force of allied international troops that drove former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait six months after they’d overrun the tiny Gulf oil sheikdom, terrorized its citizens and taken over its oil fields.
It was an operation fraught with peril: Iraq had the fourth-largest Army in the world; it was equipped with a large arsenal of Soviet-supplied weaponry; it had dispatched its elite Republican Guard forces into key defensive positions; and the Iraqi president warned he had fortified the borders with moats of oil that could be set afire and turned into deathtraps for any U.S. forces that dared to venture across.
But Schwarzkopf, with an eerie degree of prescience, had rehearsed a battle with Iraq only days before the country’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and began putting it into place, convincing the leadership in Washington that the war could be won with a combination of forceful American air power and an overwhelming array of troops on the ground.
In the end, after weeks of pounding by American bombers and missiles, the ground war was over in just 100 hours, with U.S. battle casualties limited to 147 dead and 467 wounded.
On the decision of then-President Bush and Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Schwarzkopf agreed to end the war short of demolishing the Republican Guard and taking down Saddam Hussein — a decision that would dog him for the rest of his life, especially as the U.S. went to war once again against Iraq in 2003.
To the end, Schwarzkopf insisted he had accepted the decision as the right one, even if he had not embraced it with enthusiasm — continuing to inflict carnage on retreating Iraqi forces for another day would have done little to upset the balance of power in the region and might have risked more American casualties, he said.
Likewise, he rejected criticism that the halt in combat had pulled the rug from underneath nascent rebellions by Iraqi Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north, leaving them vulnerable and exposed to slaughter once U.S. forces went home.
The Kurds had been battling the Iraqi regime for years, and would continue to do so, he said. “Yes, we are disappointed that that has happened. But it does not affect the accomplishment of our mission one way or another,” he said at a news conference after the war.
The 6-foot, 3-inch general came home to a hero’s welcome, appearing at a ticker-tape parade up Broadway, the Pegasus Parade at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville and an unusual joint session of Congress, where he received a standing ovation. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II awarded him a knighthood.
“In the defeat of Saddam’s forces, he vanquished the scars on the American psyche over Vietnam,” said Frank Wuco, a former senior naval intelligence officer who helped draft battle plans during Desert Storm. “He showed the Americans, primarily the American military, what victory felt like again.”
In a 1992 autobiography written with Peter Petre, Schwarzkopf downplayed the notion of personal valor and resurrected something he’d said earlier to journalist Barbara Walters: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
Schwarzkopf was born Aug. 22, 1934, in Trenton, N.J. By graduating from the West Point military academy in 1956, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a general who served in both world wars and went on to found the New Jersey State Police, which investigated the kidnapping of the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Schwarzkopf went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering from USC and taught missile engineering at West Point before volunteering in 1966 to serve in Vietnam — a conflict he called a “cesspool,” in which he said military commanders were more interested in promoting their careers than in winning the war.
But Schwarzkopf went on to earn kudos from his own troops, at one point landing by helicopter in a minefield to rescue men trapped there. He was wounded twice and won three Silver Stars for bravery.
He commanded ground troops in the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and in 1988 took over U.S. Central Command, overseeing a staff of 700 at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa. There, he quickly discarded the old playbooks that said the Soviet Union was the biggest threat to American interests in the Middle East. He turned his sights instead on Iraq.
Headquartered in the Saudi capital of Riyadh during the buildup to Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf had a double-barreled shotgun in the corner, and in his spare living quarters, a Bible and an edition of World War II German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s “Infantry Attack.”
He often said he wished for more patience but sometimes bristled at the notion he had a bad temper.
“An awful lot has been written about my temper. But I would defy anyone to go back over the years and tell me anyone whose career I’ve ruined, anyone whom I’ve driven out of the service, anyone I’ve fired from a job,” he said. “I don’t do that. I get angry at a principle, not a person.”
He is survived by his wife, Brenda; two daughters, Cynthia and Jessica; a son, Christian; a grandson; and sisters Ruth Barenbaum and Sally Schwarzkopf.