A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 28, 2012

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. (1934-2012)

H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. who died yesterday at age 78,  won fame as the commander of US forces during Operation Desert Storm in 1991,the liberation of Kuwait. Two decades later, his fame may seem bit of a mystery to some, but at the time the US was still mired in the legacy of the defeat in Vietnam: the image of the evacuation of the Embassy on Saigon in 1975 (the iconic image of people clinging to the runners of helicopters leaving the Embassy roof). Other than small-scale operations against weak opponents (Grenada 1983, Panama 1989), the US had not had a combat success ins recent memory. That, plus his photogenic and colorful press conferences, made him an instant military hero in the US, where the press dubbed him "Stormin' Norman."

Schwarzkopf, as Commander of US Central Command (CINCCENT), had an interesting bsckground in the Middle East. His father. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Senior, had been head of the New Jersey State Police and Chief Investigator on the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping in 1932. Subsequently, after (re)joining the US Army at the beginning of World War II, the older Schwarzkopf was tasked with taking over the Iranian National Police after the US and Britain deposed Reza Shah and placed his son on the throne. Young Norman joined his father in Tehran at the age of 12. After West Point, the young man served in Airborne units.

Like his senior during Desert Storm, Colin Powell, Schwarzkopf was a product of Vietnam, and had s "never again" attitude towards that war: both had risen to senior commands in the era when the US Army was rethinking its entire doctrine and emphasizing mobility, deep attack, and air-land-battle doctrines, which came to fruition in Desert Storm. It was a totally different training and mindset that Schwarzkopf the Vietnam leader and 1956 West Point graduate brought to warfare than that, say. of David Petraeus, who graduated from West Point in 1974 after US forces were no longer engaged in combat in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf had extensive tactical combat experience in Vietnam, initially as a captain, and won three silvers stars in that conflict. Few US generals since his time have had that kind of infantry experience.

Schwarzkopf's execution of Desert Storm was very much by the book. a result of the new doctrines the Army had hammered out after Vietnam. His most distinctive maneuver, the "Hail Mary pass" or "left hook" to outflank the Iraqi Army, captivated American imagination at the time, though Napoleon would have found it in his own playbook. His choice of title for his memoir, It Doesn't Take a Hero, may have been an attempt to downplay some of the hero worship. He was not politically ambitious.

I think, however history may remember Desert Storm for its motivations and results, Schwarzkopf will be remembered by military historians as a highly competent practitioner of the military art as defined by the Army of his day. He was popular with those who served under him and successfully executed the most important military operation of his career. He was also called "The Bear," which may have been a better characterization than "Stormin' Norman," however fond the press may have been of the latter.  Like other West Pointers who took the phrase "Duty, Honor, Country" more seriously than their own fame, may he rest in peace.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

His military exploits get most of the attention, but he was also a skilled diplomat who tried to understand and accommodate the motivations of his allies. Although the U.S. forces had an overwhelming preponderance of power, Norm was careful to give public deference to our coalition partners.