His name meant “Black Head.” The media dubbed him “Stormin’ Norman.” But the grateful men he led into battle called him “The Bear.” H. Norman Schwarzkopf, America’s last great hero-general of the 20th century, passed away last week at the age of 78.
A full generation has passed since Schwarzkopf was the Most Famous and Admired Man, but it isn’t just the young folks who could profit by remembering his life.
Although admirable, it was likely unremarkable that the son of a soldier would himself pursue that career, first at Valley Forge Military Academy, then West Point, and into the service as a missile engineer. It was in Vietnam where Schwarzkopf first separated himself from the pack. Given his specialty, he could easily have served from the back lines earning credit for combat duty without the hazards of actual combat. Instead, Schwarzkopf volunteered for two tours of hard duty, in the jungles, rice paddies, and the one minefield where he nearly lost his life saving several of his men. He won three silver stars for valor, but more importantly he won the unwavering loyalty of the men whose lives he valued equal to his own.
The years immediately after Vietnam were among the darkest for the U.S. military. Public support and internal morale were at all-time lows. Schwarzkopf himself was deeply dispirited, disgusted with the “peace movement” and politicians of all stripes. After giving serious consideration to resigning from the Army, he decided to stay and help breathe new life into our armed forces. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Schwarzkopf took on the challenges of the era, modernizing our military, smoothing the transition to an all-volunteer service, and reinstituting a culture of pride and discipline that had virtually disappeared after Vietnam.
To become a high-ranking officer in the Army, you need to be more than a fighter. You need to be a manager, a communicator, and even a politician. In other words, you have to be a leader, and Schwarzkopf was a gifted one. Few officers ever progress beyond the rank of Major, but he was promoted to Lt. Colonel in ‘68, Full Bird in ‘75, and eventually up to 4-Star General in ‘88. Had he retired then without further ado, he would’ve been counted as among the elite military leaders of his generation.
It was the primum movens of the post-Cold War world, the first motion from which the balance of contemporary international relations has flowed: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The officer tasked with the world’s response was not specially selected for the task. Norman Schwarzkopf just happened to be in charge of Central Command, CENTCOM, the Army’s geographic jurisdiction that included the Middle East. All you need to know about our military presence in the region is that CENTCOM’s headquarters is located 7,500 miles away from Kuwait, in Tampa, Florida.
Scwarzkopf’s orders were simple. Organize a Tower-of-Babel-like expeditionary force of one million men from 40 mutually suspicious countries segregated into two parallel command structures, stage them 7,500 miles away in an exotic land with a culture nearly inverted from our own, in an environment which the U.S. military had very little experience, and from there defeat the world’s fourth largest army while minimizing civilian casualties and not exceeding the limited United Nations mandate of restoring Kuwait’s territorial integrity.
All of Schwarzkopf’s management, communication, and yes, political skills were called upon. He convinced King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to allow the coalition to deploy on the Kingdom’s territory. He convinced Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that his greatest contribution to defeating Saddam was to do nothing, even in the face of outrageous provocation. He assembled the largest and most diverse multinational fighting coalition the world may ever see, along with their weapons, equipment, food, supplies, medical support, and clear orders.
And then there was the military strategy. Saddam anticipated an attempt to retake Kuwait City from land and sea, building all of his defensive fortifications accordingly. Instead, Shwarzkopf devised his famous “left-hook” strategy, a flanking maneuver from the long, virtually undefended desert border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The line of infantry and armor just swung clockwise. It was straight from the textbooks, reminiscent of Chamberlain’s legendary counter-attack at Gettysburg. And it worked perfectly; the Iraqis within Kuwait were cut off, those outside fled for their lives.
Desert Storm was over in 100 hours. Of one million troops, fewer than 200 were killed from enemy fire. Such was the demonstration of overwhelming force and surprise and professionalism. Schwarzkopf didn’t realize it, and there’s no evidence that he would ever put it this way, but the long, divisive shadow of Vietnam was lifted, there in the desert, across the broad shoulders of “The Bear.”
He was initiated as a national hero with a glittering ticker-tape parade up Fifth Avenue. He was immediately offered the Army’s top uniformed post – Chief of Staff. The White House seemed his for the asking. He turned them down. In that tradition so American we forget it descends from the Roman Cincinnatus, Schwarzkopf wanted only to be thanked for his service and retire to his wife and family. He spent his last 20 years serving as a spokesman for prostate cancer awareness and for protection of grizzly bears, sat on the boards of corporations and children’s charities.
Looking back, Schwarzkopf summed it up: “I may have made my reputation as a general in the Army and I’m very proud of that but I’ve always felt that I was more than one-dimensional. I’d like to think I’m a caring human being.”
Thank you, General, for answering the call of your country, not just for victory, but for unity, confidence, and heart.