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The General Who Cried : IT DOESN'T TAKE A HERO: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, With Peter Petre (Bantam Books: $25; 530 pp.)

November 01, 1992|Augustus Richard Norton | Norton is professor of political science in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy

Even as a West Point cadet, H. Norman Schwarzkopf saved his admiration for men of action, soldiers who had successfully faced the test of combat. Schwarzkopf is a muddy-boots soldier, a grunt who knows the wet-sawdust flavor of field rations, the smell of fear and the bittersweet joy of going home from war intact and alive. He has no time for glory hounds, and even less for self-serving staff officers whose idea of tough duty is eating salad without a salad fork.

Schwarzkopf's rendition of the history of the Gulf War will no doubt be disputed, but no one can finish this engaging and readable book with any confusion about the general's empathy for soldiers. The well-being of the men and women we send off to war is a sacred trust, an awesome responsibility that weighs heavily even on broad-shouldered men. (War planners felt this sobering weight well before the Gulf War, Schwarzkopf tells us, when Ken Burns' splendid and deeply moving documentary on the Civil War aired on PBS in Autumn 1990.)

In a widely viewed interview, Barbara Walters made much of the fact that here was a general who wept, who lay awake in the dead of night worrying about combat deaths yet to come. Schwarzkopf's uniqueness, though, is not that he has cried but that he has vented emotions freely, as his nickname "Stormin' Norman" attests.

Similarly, in "It Doesn't Take a Hero," Schwarzkopf opens a good part of his life to public view and the reader gains a sense of what makes this character tick. The result is a fine and lucid book, teeming with vitality. He returns again and again to his mother's chronic alcoholism, his troubled relationship with a sister with whom he could seldom see eye to eye, and his love for his father. The senior Norman Schwarzkopf also was a West Point graduate and it was he who first exposed young Norman to the Middle East, in 1946, while serving in Tehran as an adviser to the shah's national police.

Schwarzkopf is a compelling storyteller, especially when he writes about soldiering. (Peter Petre's craftsmanship no doubt helps.) Although he hit a few bumps along the way, Schwarzkopf spent most of his career on the fast track, winning early promotions, serving in high-visibility units and, on at least one occasion, making sure he did his requisite duties (and later regretting it).

Many of these pages are about Vietnam, and this is fitting. Vietnam shaped the world view and the political attitude of a generation of American officers, many of whom, like Schwarzkopf, came to hate the war for what it did to America and to the military. These officers learned to distrust politicians and disdain the press. The politicians and the civilian experts who surrounded them came to be seen as too willing to spend American lives piecemeal in efforts notable only for by obscure goals and constrained military options. Schwarzkopf indicts the Fourth Estate for its willingness to do anything for a story, even to the point of jeopardizing the lives of fighting men or compromising the mission.

The fact that Schwarzkopf spent two tours, not one, in Vietnam is revealing. In the Army of the '60s, virtually all career officers served a tour in Vietnam, but for a fast-riser like Schwarzkopf a second tour could be avoided, unless he pressed the point by volunteering. He volunteered. During his first tour in the mid-1960s, Schwarzkopf served as a military adviser with the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade, a world-class unit that could easily go nose-to-nose with the best American units. As Saigon was falling in 1975, the Vietnamese paratroopers fought courageously to the end, a fact that cemented Schwarzkopf's enduring respect for his former comrades.

In 1969, Schwarzkopf returned to Vietnam and found himself in command of a troubled and dispirited American unit that bore all of the scars and rot of an unpopular, unwinnable war. For the next 20 years, Vietnam shadowed Schwarzkopf and the officers of his generation, always lurking in the mist. The thousands of Iraqi soldiers killed in the Gulf War were only one of the officers' triumphs; the other was exorcising the ghost of Vietnam.

Schwarzkopf's account of the events in the Gulf is straightforward and lively, although in some ways the book's final 200 pages are predictable and truncated, ducking a couple of key questions concerning pre- and postwar events.

While the Bush Administration was still celebrating its victory in the Cold War, Saddam Hussein crashed the party. As the Iraqi forces were assembling on the Kuwaiti border, the general's Central Command staff was fortuitously engaged in a training exercise ("Internal Look") that posited an Iraqi invasion into the Arabian peninsula. The day before the real invasion, Schwarzkopf had told Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney that Iraq intended to move into Kuwait to snatch a bit of the emirate's territory. Could it be that Saddam was not a gate-crasher at all but simply an unpopular relative who made a glutton of himself? Schwarzkopf doesn't say.

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