General Norman Schwarzkopf dead at 78

General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, hero of the Gulf War and one of the most esteemed generals in recent US history, died in Florida at the age of 78 yesterday. His death was due to complications arising from a recent bout of pneumonia, according to his sister Ruth.

New York Times:

In Operation Desert Storm, General Schwarzkopf orchestrated one of the most lopsided victories in modern warfare, a six-week blitzkrieg by a broad coalition of forces with overwhelming air superiority that liberated tiny Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, routed Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and virtually destroyed Iraq's infrastructure, all with relatively light allied losses.

Winning the lightning war was never in doubt and in no way comparable to the traumas of World War II and the Korean conflict, which made Eisenhower and MacArthur into national heroes and presidential timber. But a divisive Vietnam conflict and the cold war had produced no such heroes, and the little-known General Schwarzkopf was wreathed in laurels as the victor in a popular war against a brutal dictator.

A combat-tested, highly decorated career officer who had held many commands, served two battlefield tours in Vietnam and coordinated American landing forces in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, he came home to a tumultuous welcome, including a glittering ticker-tape parade up Broadway in the footsteps of Lindbergh, MacArthur and the moon-landing Apollo astronauts.

"Stormin' Norman," as headlines proclaimed him, was lionized by millions of euphoric Americans who, until weeks earlier, had never heard of him. President George Bush, whose popularity soared with the war, gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Congress gave him standing ovations. Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary knight. European and Asian nations conferred lavish honors.

History, as history is wont to do, paints a somewhat different picture of Schwarzkopf - some of it not very flattering. The Times mentions an excellent book about the Gulf War, "The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf" by Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times and the retired general Bernard E. Trainor, that puts some chinks in Schwarzkopf's armor by portraying him "as a second-rate commander who took credit for allied successes, blamed others for his mistakes and shouted at, but did not effectively control, his field commanders as the Republican Guard slipped away." While it's true that most of Saddam's best troops escaped (they were pulled back to defend Baghdad), it is also true that his brilliant plan to encircle Iraqi forces played out over a battlefield thousands of square miles in diameter - easily the largest battle of encirclement since World War II.

Another depiction of Scwarzkopf, this one by by Roger Cohen and Claudio Gatti in "The Eye of the Storm," offers up a different take on the general's impact on America:

"His swift triumph over Iraq in the 1991 gulf war came as a shock to a nation that had been battered, by failing industries and festering economic problems, into a sense that the century of its power was at an end," they wrote. "Schwarzkopf appeared abruptly as an intensely human messenger of hope, however illusory or fragile."

As is the case with many good generals, Schwarzkopf was not shy about promoting himself. This resulted in a highly successful post-military career. He wrote a best selling book, and his name was bandied about for political office on  several occassions. But he resisted the temptation and ended up retiring quietly to Florida.

Schwarzkopf was certainly larger than life and his skills as a field commander were rightly praised in the aftermath of the war. But his huge victory was won against a vastly inferior enemy, and there were moments during the war where the general did not cover himself in glory.

But perception is reality, and Schwarzkopf stood as a symbol of US military dominance in the post cold war world. He seemed to encapsulate American virtues of hard work and steely eyed determination while exhibiting a no-nonsense, businesslike approach to his job. That, and the liberation of an obviously grateful Kuwait, made Americans feel proud of their country.