April Handgrenade 2020

John T Kuehn's picture

April 20 2020 Handgrenade of the Month

John T. Kuehn

The Myth of Norman Schwarzkopf and Desert Storm

Continuing with the theme of lobbing handgrenades at myths of military history.  This one  is a little long, but we are all locked away in self isolation or stay at home orders or quarantine, so here goes.

Americans seem to have to have these impossible heroes because they are addicted to the idea of “great man (and woman, but mostly men) history.”  It is a comforting philosophy of history because it ascribes large historical agencies to exceptional human beings.  The problem is, not everyone in the right place at the right time is exceptional.  If they are not exceptional they must be manufactured, usually by the US press—and now social media—which itself (the press that is) very much subconsciously reflects the public’s addiction to “great man” agency. 

Enter Norman Schwarzkopf.

The myth goes something like this:  a talented but underappreciated general is sluffed off into a backwater command at the Central Command, newest kid on the block of global combatant commanders.  The big jobs are in Europe, the Pacific, and even Southcom, which had just fought a successful war for regime overthrow in Panama (Operation Just Cause 1989-1990).

The rest is history, another “anti-great” man, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait and Schwarzkopf rises to the occasion, single-handedly building a formidable coalition and then smashing the Iraqi Army in four days to liberate Kuwait.  A book is even published (by Schwarzkopf and another writer) afterward that highlights this myth, It doesn’t Take a Hero,  but it should have been entitled You Don’t Have to Look Like Doug MacArthur to be a Hero or Heroes Feign False Modesty.

So what is the real story?  Desert Shield, the operation to protect Saudi Arabia, and Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait, were the products of a national security system manned, staffed and led by literally thousands of very talented people—from President GHW Bush down to guys like Dave Deptula in the back hole at Riyadh doing air planning to admirals Stan Arthur and Riley Mixson and the US Navy fleets in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, and quiet modest generals like Fred Franks (not Tommy, Freddy) and some not so quiet ones like Barry McCaffery.  And Jim Baker (SECState) and General Collin Powell (Chariman JCS).  And even some folks who are now routinely vilified…Dick Cheney (SECDEF),  Hosni Mubarak (of Egypt), and Hafez al Assad (Syria).  Even the Iranians did their part when they did not return Saddam’s renegade air force to him after the humiliating defeat in Kuwait and remained quiescent on Centcom’s sea-ward right flank.

So who was Schwarzkopf?  He was a typical Army general.  He climbed the ladder of promotion during the Cold War, principally employng what we would now call a “toxic” leadership style, he was a “screamer.”  Thus the nickname “Stormin” Norman.  Nonetheless, he who knew how to play the game, who not to piss off, who to cultivate, and he had a record of success in command.  Was he competent? Indeed, in fact it was his experience trying to keep Navy officers like Vice Admiral “Hammering” Hank Metcalf during the Grenada fiasco (1984) from going too far off the farm that gave him the key lessons about joint and coalition warfare.  It also gained him the attention of Powell and others.  His experience in Grenada—what not to do-- served him well when presented with the lead role in DESERT SHIELD/STORM. 

But military genius?  No.  Hero, well if one needs heroes those would be the guys (and a few gals) in combat with the Iraqis.  For example LT Sonny ___, of VQ-1, female mission commander of an un-armed and un-afraid EP-3, flying signals reconnaissance for the joint force during the entirety of the air campaign (7 weeks) and the 4 day ground war.  Or LCDR Scott Speicher, still missing, shot down flying his F-18 from the Saratoga over Iraq, or Air National Guard Wild Weasel pilots, going into downtown Baghdad on D-day of the air war with nothing but guts and anti-radiation missiles.  Or all those ground forces, crossing the berm, like HR McMasters, not sure what the world’s fourth largest army, recently blooded in 8 years of combat, had waiting for them on the other side.  Or those poor slobs on the Tripoli and Princeton, doing damage control to keep their ships from sinking after hitting mines in the northern Persian Gulf.

As for Norman, the rest of the story, his true limitations—detailed at length in The Generals War—were revealed in the hours just before he helped end the fighting, when a worried President Bush asked General Powell if the war could end based on the incendiary (literally) CNN video of the so-called “highway of death.”  Powell asked Schwarzkopf if it could end, and then Schwarzkopf decided, with very little reflection that a ceasefire could be established.  At the “peace” meeting at Safwan, Schwarzkopf was slow rolled by his Iraqi counterparts, with no help from Powell, the President or the State department, into agreeing to allow helicopter flights, which the Iraqis then used to bloodily suppress the Shia Arab revolt in S. Iraq.  The rest of the story.

More often than not it does not take a hero, to lead the world’s largest most well-funded military with the world’s best equipment to accomplish a limited result in an almost perfect operating environment—with no Soviet threat at the backdoor--and with absolute command of the air and command of the sea everywhere except the northern Persian Gulf.  And it doesn’t take a hero to make some real mistakes and assume he is equal to the political and diplomatic challenges of the endgame—when he clearly is not.


*Full disclosure, the author, too, is not one of the heroes either, having served in comfort aboard the USS John F. Kennedy as a staff officer on the Carrier Group TWO/Battle Force RED SEA staff  commanded by Rear Admiral Mixson as electronic warfare office from August 1990 to February 1991.  Just a not so quiet professional doing the job he was trained and educated (at the Naval Postgraduate School) to do.

Sources:  My own DS/DS experience and:

Bacevich, Andrew., “The United States in Iraq: Terminating an Interminable War,” in Matthew Moten, ed., Between War and Peace: How America Ends its Wars, edited by Matthew Moten. Detroit: The Free Press, Detroit, 2012.

Bourque, Stephen,  The Road to Safwan, The 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the 1991 Persian Gulf War (University of N. Texas Press, 2007).

Gordon, Michael R. and., and General Bernard E. Trainor. The General’s War, The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (Back Bay Books, 1995).

Schwarzkopf, H.Norman, with Peter Petre, It Doesn't Take a Hero : The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf  (Bantam Books, 1993).

I believe that it would not be inappropriate to challenge the basic premise of this hand grenade and that on the basis of several different factors. The most basic being that historians and popular thinking are far more weighty in giving credit to Colin Powell than to Norman Schwarzkopf, Powell's personal and professional profile have continued in the media and press long after Schwarzkopf's has vanished, and there were several books authored in the post-war period and by nearly everyone who had a significant or near tangential role to play in the events and the aftermath. If looked at through the lens of all of these Powell is the person whose name ought to be here and not Schwarzkopf.

While Schwarzkopf certainly did gain significant recognition and accolades in the post-war period his profile began to recede from the press and the political establishment not long after the war and certainly after the mistake with the helicopters and the Shia rebellion. Which is an entirely separate issue about sustainability and whether it would have proven to have been a good thing for Iraqi stability or the US and its interests in the region. However, the media darling and favorite clearly became Colin Powell and this is no more made certain than by the overt media campaign to get him to run for president following his retirement and challenge Bush. The disappointment in the media when he refused to run and made way for Clinton was palpable. But he remained a media figure and was continually credited with the winning of the war to the point that one would almost be forgiven for thinking that he had run the war on the ground and had been in charge to the point of signing the treaty. The acclaim continued well on into the next Bush administration and there was a sense of deep betrayal on the part of the media by not only joining the Bush administration but also by advocating the second invasion. Schwarzkopf was left completely in the rear view mirror and almost nobody consulted him or had him as a guest commentator.

Regarding post-war books, who did not publish a post-war book touting their experience? Both he and Colin authored books and I had in my possession the book authored by the Saudi general at the time, Khaled Bin Sultan whose title "Desert Warrior" was a real salute to self. The impulse to promote and to remain in the public eye I think it perfectly acceptable and from the reading that I have done on the subject I have generally found that most historians credit Schwarzkopf with being a competent, credible commander who was perfect for the job selected and followed the procedure and got done what Washington wanted to be done. I have never read nor perceived any impulse to label him a genius or anything like that, the war was not even long enough or large enough to garner such an unnecessary and outrageous accolade, whomever would have attempted to give that him. Certainly there was a lot of love for Schwarzkopf during the combat phase and we watched with interest his press briefings which were informative and in some instances he brought humor into them. They were very basic, down-to-earth briefings not the literal Hollywood productions that the second Bush administration initially designed and implemented during the Iraq War.

Finally, there are some real great men who have truly led in battle in meaningful and life changing ways. While we may not agree on who they were nor agree on the merits it does not diminish their talent. The vast majority of service members do an excellent job and retire to the quiet life. That quiet life does not in any way undermine their value. While some persons names have been left to history more than others no one's accomplishments should be diminished simply because of some smacking of elite status. In our society, like Greek society, I think that we are in need of examples of excellence and excellence in every field. If I could instill positive virtues and ethics in my son then I will do so by pointing him to the example of many men in war in history. In fact I have had the opportunity to do so on more than one occasion and to speak to men who were homeless and I used some generals of past wars to demonstrate to them examples of excellence, arete.

Yeah, I think this hand grenade is a bit of a dud, no offense! I just do not see much of a 'myth' praising Schwarzkopf as either military genius or military hero following DS/DS. The consensus seems to be he was competent at most of it, and wasn't up for Safwan, which never should have been his responsibility to start with. Basically, I doubt anyone will disagree with your analysis of Schwarzkopf.

I believe a stronger case could be made for the 'Myth' of Colin Powell, from DS/DS and onward, but such a myth would go beyond military and into political history.

Years ago, after I had served a hitch in the peacetime US Army, I made the acquaintance of a man who had served as an officer in the Vietnam War and ended up severely injured from a mine explosion. This individual, Thomas E. Bratten Jr. (1946-2005), lost his left leg, left arm, and part of his right hand. For the rest of his life he was relegated to a wheelchair. I was a freelance journalist at the time and wrote a profile on Captain Bratten.[1] Later, he became Maryland's Secretary of Veterans Affairs. When he passed, the _Washington Post_ noted that Capt. Bratten was "one of Maryland's most highly decorated veterans."[2]

On one occasion we were swapping stories and Tom mentioned that his old battalion commander was at the time serving as post commander of Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Tom shared that once a week his old battalion commander calls him on the phone, to check up on him to see how he is doing. This was some fourteen years after Tom had incurred the injuries in the minefield.

When I heard Ft. Stewart, home of the 24th Infantry Division, I interrupted that after serving in the 1st Ranger Battalion I had spent a half year in an infantry unit there. All I could think was: "ragbag to the max." The infantry brigade I served in four years prior was highly undisciplined and I doubted if it could have ever functioned in time of war. "I sure could give that post commander some advice about his 'two-by-four,'" I brashly stated. (The pejorative term for the 24th was "two-by-four" because it was like a scrap piece of wood, something that ought to be discarded.)

Tom said that I should write it down and he would pass it on to the general. He indicated that the general would be very interested in receiving my candid commentary.

So I wrote pages and pages of critique on legal-size note paper. I had many recollections of having served at Ft. Stewart as a corporal and acting squad leader. I gave my missive to Tom and it felt good getting off my chest the many grievances.

Later, to my surprise, I received a letter from the two-star general. The 30 January 1985 letter, typed on stationery with a red flag with two gold stars, included the reply, "The Fort Stewart that you refer to in your letter is not the same I see today. The Division and installation have gone through a lot of growing pains during the last decade. Many significant improvements have been made in unit combat readiness, soldier and family support programs, leadership development and unit cohesion." Yes, that was certainly not the Ft. Stewart I knew.

I had to chuckle at the mild slight at the end of the letter: "... and always remember one thing: 'A good leader never walks by a mistake!'" This general, I later learned, disdained special operations forces, so he no doubt had little appreciation for the insights coming from a young, arrogant Ranger who had equal disdain for mechanized infantry.

At the time, that general was a nobody to me, but some five years later he became a household name. The general was H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Whatever the myths there may be about "Stromin' Norman," there is no myth about the "off camera" graciousness of the above story. One has to respect a general who each week calls an old officer who had been maimed on his watch. It speaks of genuine human decency at the level of first class. Also, had my letter simply been filed in the waste basket with no reply, that would have been perfectly understandable.

In the _New York Times_ obituary for General Schwarzkopf, the incident in which Thomas Bratten was injured is highlighted, and it suggests something of the heroic. "On May 28, [1970], the colonel [Schwarzkopf] ordered his helicopter down to rescue troops who had wandered into a minefield. Some were airlifted out, but he stayed behind with his troops. A soldier tripped a mine, shattering his leg and wounding the colonel, who crawled atop the the thrashing victim to stop him from setting off more mines."[3]

[1] R.E. Chapman, "Vietnam Officer Lived Through 3 Mine Blasts," _Montgomery Journal_ (Rockville, MD), 25 May 1984, pp. A1, A6.

[2] Joe Holley, "Capt. Thomas E. Bratten Jr. Dies; Veteran's Activist," _Washington Post_, 30 June 2005, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2005/06/30/capt-thomas-e-br...

[3] Robert D. McFadden, "Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. Commander in Gulf War, Dies at 78," _New York Times_, 27 Dec 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/28/us/gen-h-norman-schwarzkopf-us-comman...

Schwarzkopf's book by no means suggested that he was an "underappreciated general" who was "sluffed off into a backwater command at the Central Command." On the contrary, he made it clear that he had been offered a choice of commands, and had startled them by asking for Central Command.

His book also does not suggest that he built the coalition against Iraq "single-handedly." He does claim, credibly to my eyes, to have been a major and useful participant in the coalition-building.

If I wanted to criticize the book, I would start with its lack of a good explanation for why he was so eager to launch a major American attack directly across the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, into the teeth of what he believed were the strongest Iraqi defenses.

It worked out fine. The Iraqi defenses turned out to be much weaker than expected, and the Marines sent on the direct attack into Kuwait had a relatively easy time. But Schwarzkopf did not know the Iraqi defenses would be that weak, and he does not pretend that he knew. So why risk having the Marines suffer heavy casualties in one prong of a two-prong offensive--the Marines going directly across the border into Kuwait, and the "left hook" going through the desert to the west--when the left hook by itself would have been perfectly adequate to achieve victory?

I am not saying it would be impossible to find a good justification for Schwarzkopf's decision, but he does not provide a good justification.

Interesting handgrenade. From what little I do know of the Gulf liberation for Kuwait, it seemed like a very good 'system' operation from decisions, plans and operations down to results.

Had the Iraqi mil, from its prepress to Allied ops reputation held up, might indeed the results turned out quite different ? Everyone it seems underestimated the weaknesses of the Iraqi hold on Kuwait and their forces then. Had those estimates proven different how different the results ?

More interesting, who selected Gen. Norman to lead the field operations ? As to hi assault directly into the teeth of the Iraqi defense, from the little available, was it not part of a plan to tie down the forces, while more mobile units, including the left hook forces were able to make their presence successful ?

I think there was very little doubt within the "national command authorities" about who would be in command. Schwarzkopf was CINC of CENTCOM and there was no reason not to defer to him as the Coalition CINC. A really smart decision that came sometime later was sending Lt. Gen. Cal Waller over to be his Deputy CINC. From what I understand, Waller did a good job containing "Stormin' Norman's" occasional outbursts of rage and ensuring a smooth-running staff operation.

That the Iraqi military would not pose much of a problem was known here and there within the Intelligence Community, to those who had some knowledge of the Iran-Iraq War, and the few of us who paid attention to the "humint" coming from the Saudis, what they learned from the many "line crossers" (deserters) whose information was discounted by most analysts in the "three letter" agencies. For those guys, SIGINT, overhead, and "bean counting" mattered the most. But for those of us who paid attention to what the line-crossers said, the low manning level in the Iraqi front-line units, and their abysmal morale was well-known.

We certainly did have the best picture of the enemy laydown ever seen, thanks to overhead. Every US first-echelon commander knew exactly what was beyond the next sand dune. And the enemy in turn had absolutely no useful picture of what was beyond visual range, no OTH recon capability at all. After the air campaign they had maybe 60 percent of their tanks and 40 percent of their field artillery operational. Pretty much guaranteed a walkover.

"Pretty much guaranteed a walkover." Bang-on! I remember well the woeful tales from "experts" and the media about the "battle-hardened Iraqi Army", of those formidable Austrian artillery pieces, of former SECDEF MacNamara (wrong-footed as usual) "thousands and thousands will die!"


Stanley Sandler

Critcal, major weakness completely overlooked and not recognized at the time, just before Kuwait events was the totally non-existent Iraqi Air Force.

Without any credible air force, Iraq never had a chance against the air superiority of the US and Allies.

This war was a classic example of the critical importance air superiority presents.