The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.
The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.
There is nothing remarkable about this—even World War II, supposedly the “good war,” ended in a muddle whose legacy included the Cold War and the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. The very existence of North Korea, which continues to bedevil us with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is an offshoot of the ceasefire that ended World War II. But it runs counter to the myth that somehow wars have ever been easier to end than they are today.
What was Schwarzkopf’s role in the mixed outcome of the Gulf War? Certainly he played less of a part than more senior figures such as President George H.W. Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell. It was they, and ultimately the commander-in-chief alone, who gave the military its marching orders, set narrow war goals (perhaps justifiably, in light of how difficult it subsequently proved to pacify Iraq), and insisted on ending the ground war after 100 hours even though Saddam’s elite Republican Guard had not yet been destroyed. Even if the George H.W. Bush administration’s decision to stop short of occupying Iraq looks better in hindsight, its willingness to encourage revolts against Saddam and then leave the people of Iraq to his tender mercies tarnished what was otherwise a proud moment in our military history.
Schwarzkopf’s responsibility for the outcome was secondary, but he did not do enough to warn the politicos about the consequences of their actions and he did convey somewhat misleading information about how far advanced his plans for the destruction of the Republican Guard actually were. Even worse, in the cease-fire negotiations which he handled personally, he naively allowed the Iraqi regime to continue flying rotary-wing aircraft, little realizing that they would be used for the suppression of popular revolts.
“Stormin’ Norman” apparently did not view it as his duty to deal with such matters. He was a superb soldier who inspired the troops and kept confidence in the war effort back home (and around the world) with his bravado briefings. But he exemplified the narrowly tactical outlook adopted by most U.S. military commanders—one that makes it harder to translate tactical success into lasting strategic success.
None of this should take away from his genuine heroism, exemplified by an incident during the Vietnam War when, as a battalion commander, he ventured into a minefield to pull some of his soldiers to safety. Nor does it deprecate his considerable dedication to the Army and the country, and the great skill he showed in implementing (if not designing) the famous “left hook” which routed Saddam Hussein’s army.
But it does suggest that there were certain limits to his generalship which, as Tom Ricks argues in his new book The Generals, continue to confound the U.S. to this day—witness the uninspired performance in Iraq of Ricardo Sanchez, George Casey, and other generals who were perfectly competent tacticians but did not always grasp the big picture. One of the few exceptions was David Petraeus, but now he is disgraced because of a scandal unrelated to his military capabilities.
There are a few potential successors to Petraeus waiting in the wings, but they must face long odds to rise to the top in an Army bureaucracy that favors hard-charging tacticians such as Norman Schwarzkopf or Tommy Franks over geo-strategic big thinkers. Trying to revise those personnel policies should be a major to-do item on the agenda of the next secretary of defense, whoever that may be.