He may have channeled the no-nonsense fighting spirit and know-how of Gen. George S. Patton. He might have been this generation’s Dwight D. Eisenhower – a military hero-turned president – if he’d had the personal ambition.
He sure had the popularity.
Instead, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf pulled a Douglas MacArthur – and faded away.
From the spotlight, anyway. The military hero of the first Gulf War spent his twilight years quietly helping children and charities before his passing last Thursday at 78.
It’s difficult to overstate Schwarzkopf’s importance to modern U.S. military history.
The Gulf War of 1991 was this country’s first major ground assault since the Vietnam War – and we all know how that one ended. The United States desperately needed a confidence boost, the clarity of a decisive end, and as few coalition casualties as possible.
In addition, we were taking on one of the world’s most unscrupulous, unbalanced bullies, a would-be Hitler, and the mother of all trash-talkers in Saddam Hussein.
And was it just us, or did it strike you that the media at the time fell all over themselves to constantly lavish the word “elite” on Saddam’s “Republican Guard” forces? Good grief.
Well, Schwarzkopf showed the world just who was elite.
There are probably two kinds of military heroes: the men who risk life and limb for their country and countrymen, and those visionary leaders who successfully command them. Norman Schwarzkopf was both kinds, having earned three Silver Stars for valor, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and more in Vietnam.
The prosecution of the first Gulf War has been criticized for allowing Saddam to remain in power, and for giving him a long-enough leash to create the need for a second Gulf War. But Schwarzkopf didn’t have authorization to do any more than liberate Kuwait and a good chunk of the world’s oil supply, and he did that masterfully and with a minimum loss of life.
Moreover, it was an inept and thoroughly corrupt United Nations that helped Saddam recover (see: Oil for Food scandal).
Perhaps the most enduring memory of the ’91 war was when then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell explained the 30-nation coalition strategy in attacking the Iraqi army: “First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”
The ambiguity of the first Gulf War’s end wasn’t Schwarzkopf’s doing. Rather, he lent America’s all-volunteer Armed Forces a clarity and John Wayne-style swagger that cut off and killed any of the country’s remaining self-doubt from the Vietnam era.
He was, as any hero, the right man at the right time.