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).