Many Americans expected Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. to run for political office after he capped off his 35-year military career with a quick and victorious campaign in the Persian Gulf. But, the ghost writer of Schwarzkopf’s 1992 memoir It Doesn’t Take a Hero said, that just wasn’t who he was.
Schwarzkopf, who died Thursday night at 87, just didn’t have Washington ambitions, said Peter Petre, who spent a year conducting interviews at Schwarzkopf’s Tampa home and helping the autobiography take shape.
“I remember the news reports at the time,” Petre said. “He was being courted, much like (Gen. Dwight) Eisenhower, from people on both sides of the aisle. But from the minute I met him, he was always very clear that he was a soldier and not a politician. He felt that very strongly.”
Petre, whose ghostwriting credits include the autobiography of former IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. and Total Recall, a 2011 memoir by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was selected by Schwarzkopf from a field of candidates to help write what contemporary critics called an important first draft of history for the Gulf War.
Petre met with the general at Central Command Headquarters in Florida, and the two of them had instant chemistry, he remembered. The writer’s lack of military background did not deter Schwarzkopf.
“I don’t think he was looking for a lot of military expertise. He was looking for a writer,” Petre said.
Soon after, Petre attended Schwarzkopf’s change-of-command ceremony at CentCom as the general transitioned into retirement.
It was not surprising to those close to Schwarzkopf that he did not seek a Senate seat or plan a presidential run once he laid aside his uniform, Petre said. In the ranks, troops draw a distinction between “political generals,” who value rotations to Washington, D.C. and clout on the Hill, and “military generals” who prefer to stay closer to the units and further from the public eye.
“Norm was one of the latter,” Petre said. “He really was a soldier.”
As memoirist, Petre said, Schwarzkopf had a powerful memory and an impressive work ethic.
“He was amazing; he could talk for eight hours a day,” he said. “He could really stay focused. Once he decided to do a memoir, he was really motivated.”
The Gulf War, a credit to Schwarzkopf as commander of the coalition forces, lasted a lean seven months and sustained only 148 American casualties. While critics have faulted the architects of the war for failing to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, Schwarzkopf’s decisions here were informed by earlier life experience, Petre said.
As told in the book, Schwarzkopf had been to Baghdad as a youth while his father, H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr., worked under the CIA to convince the Shah of Iran to return to power. He understood the tribal and religious dynamics in play.
“(Schwarzkopf) very much felt that to go on to Baghdad, as some of the more bloodthirsty critics were saying, would have been a very costly operation,” Petre said.
And Schwarzkopf may have believed the Iraq War, begun in 2003, bore out his reasoning.
“What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites?” The Washington Post reported his asking, the year of the invasion. “That’s a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan.”
But while Schwarzkopf’s strategic decisions and leadership style have been thoroughly documented, less widely observed was his warmth and his sense of humor, said Petre.
“He has a great sense of people and a wonderful sense of people,” he said. “When you read the book, his dealings with the Saudis and his co-commanders in the coalition, it’s very interesting and very funny.”
Petre, who stayed sporadically in touch with Schwarzkopf after the book project was complete and said he was deeply saddened to learn of the military legend’s death, said the “Stormin’ Norman” nickname did not convey the Schwarzkopf that many around him knew.
“The only people who got stormed at were subordinates who screwed up,” he said. “The troops really liked him. He was a real soldier’s soldier.”
The 1992 memoir, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, is available from Bantam Books.