General H. Normal Schwarzkopf passed on Thursday at the age of 78. He liked to tell people that the “H” didn’t stand for anything, but the General stood for plenty. Among many other virtues, he had a true warrior’s keen appreciation for peace and benevolence, spending his latter days on charitable endeavors, including a Florida camp for sick children called Boggy Creek.
The world came to know him as “Stormin’ Norman,” but his troops called him “The Bear,” and it suited him better. He had a reputation as a tough-talking, no-nonsense general, but it always seemed odd to judge his temperament against the general population, rather than grading his tough talk on a curve with other effective military commanders. A wise Commander-in-Chief doesn’t put the nonsense generals in charge of combat operations.
Schwarzkopf’s stormin’ image was burned into the public mind during a Gulf War press briefing, best remembered for his introduction of the “luckiest man in Iraq.”
It wasn’t just the entertainment value that made this such an indelible moment. It was the way Schwarzkopf’s clear competence made room for such a moment of workplace humor. The General was like the best history teacher you ever had, teaching history as it unfolded. People too young to remember the first Gulf War may not appreciate how many ghosts from Vietnam and Jimmy Carter were put to rest by the stellar performance of the U.S. military, thanks in no small part to Schwarzkopf’s leadership and conduct.
He knew exactly what he was doing, because he wasn’t “just” a tactical genius – he was a combat soldier too, returning from the battlefields of Vietnam with three Silver Stars, three Distinguished Service Medals, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. One star in that constellation was earned in a minefield. He was quite well-prepared for the media minefields he would navigate a quarter-century later. Schwarzkopf knew how the American public felt about a military it had grown increasingly disconnected from… and he knew, from the bottom of his heart, how they should feel.
Schwarzkopf retired soon after the end of Gulf War I, and chose not to enter politics, although all sorts of red carpets would have been rolled out for him. His decision should be respected. Military leaders don’t always make good civilian leaders, and a number of unsuccessful candidates from every corner of the political spectrum can testify that distinguished service doesn’t always trump other considerations in the minds of voters. But how wonderful a Norman Schwarzkopf campaign would have been to watch! And how our politics might have benefited from a few stiff shots of The Bear’s no-bull attitude, even if he never made it to the White House!
Because he retired and chose not to seek higher office, Schwarzkopf chose not to render much in the way of public criticism of the second Gulf War, but on the occasions he spoke up, it was clear he didn’t like some of what he was seeing. It seems fair to say the General didn’t have much appetite for “nation-building.” And there we have one of the great vexing questions of history, for many critics of the first President Bush and his top general were prone to observing, throughout the Nineties, that various horrors – including the second war – could have been averted, if Bush and his military commanders had “finished the job.” (This included many on the Left. Try renting the movie Three Kings if you’d like a refresher.)
The student of history becomes comfortable with second guesses; we know things in 2012 that we didn’t know in 1999, or 1991. One specific critique Schwarzkopf offered of the Iraqi occupation was, “I don’t think we counted on it turning into jihad.” If he had been in charge, that seems like the sort of thing he would have counted on. He had a very keen understanding of the importance of willpower and morale to military success – he delivered many informative lectures on the subject during those famous Gulf War press briefings. He thought one of the reasons the supposedly formidable Iraqi military rolled over during Operation Desert Storm was the poor quality of its leadership. Unconventional armies “deployed” away from recognized battlefields can find different sources of morale.
Schwarzkopf’s theories of mechanized military efficiency took full account of how difficult it could be to sustain American civilian support for prolonged operations. He did say that he thought the concerns of the second Bush Administration about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were reasonably well-founded; he might have envisioned dealing with them by hitting harder and getting out faster.
In the years ahead, America will enjoy no shortage of excellent commanders who study General Schwarzkopf’s strategies with keen interest. It’s part of the legacy he leaves us, along with Camp Boggy Creek. Kind to children, reverent towards nature, and efficient in the conduct of Man’s most terrible business… I suspect he would strongly object to being described as “one of a kind,” but hopefully wouldn’t mind being remembered as an exceptional citizen of an extraordinary nation, and a legendary leader of the fabled company that has defended her across the centuries. His former Commander-in-Chief, George H.W. Bush, said that Schwarzkopf “epitomized the ‘duty, service, country’ creed that has defended our freedom and seen this great nation through our most trying international crises. More than that, he was a good and decent man – and a dear friend.”
He was always there when we needed him. May we never forget how much we needed him.
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