A better view of an American general
AP File Photo
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf visits his tank troops during Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia in this 1991 photo. He died in late December.
Reading the obituary of someone you have known personally happens with increasing frequency once you have passed your three-score-and-10 allotment. And even if you are not related and didn’t know the deceased all that well, it can be unsettling. This is especially true if the person is a public figure and the obituary writer seems to be a little heavy on the warts. That is rather the way I felt while reading the New York Times obituary of Lt. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (ret.), who died on Dec. 27 of complications from pneumonia at the age of 78.
The snarkiness of the Times obit, begins with its third sentence. “In Operation Desert Storm, General Schwarzkopf orchestrated one of the most lopsided victories in modern warfare. ... 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.”
I was assigned to Schwarzkopf’s headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War and during the war itself. I talked to him regularly. Before West Point, Schwarzkopf had attended schools in Europe. He spoke fluent French and German, listened to Luciano Pavarotti and Willie Nelson and was interested in hunting and ballet.
I learned some of this from him and some from his autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take A Hero.” I wouldn’t call the book self-effacing, but four-star generals are not wallflowers.
The first weeks of the Gulf War were limited to an air campaign against Saddam Hussein, involving bombing and cruise missile attacks against Baghdad and other strategic targets in Iraq and around Kuwait. There were daily news briefings at Schwarzkopf’s HQ and they were usually conducted by a lieutenant colonel from the general’s staff.
However, with a growing number of Scud missile attacks by the Iraqis on Riyadh, some of which had landed not far from the command headquarters, interest was growing over what was being done to curtail the attacks.
On this particular occasion, with all American and many international networks covering the HQ briefing live, the colonel seemed to know almost nothing, and the natives (i.e., the news media who were being kept very much in tow and not allowed to travel around the country) were becoming very restless. The result was a shambles. The moment the briefing was over one of the general’s aides came to me and said his boss wanted to see me and a few of the other senior correspondents immediately.
The media facilities were in a hotel across the street from command headquarters and connected by an underground tunnel. Within minutes, I and a few others were taken directly into Schwarzkopf’s office. It was the first time I had been in his inner office. Normally, he met reporters in a larger adjacent room. Schwarzkopf was not happy, but neither was he ranting. He wanted us to explain what had happened.
We told him that given the build-up in interest in this story, it was no longer acceptable to send out a lieutenant colonel to brief the press with basically nothing to say. The briefer should be a general officer who knew exactly what was happening and who could give the news media some perspective and details. I think I added it would be best if Schwarzkopf himself could brief whenever possible. He quickly indicated he would follow this advice, thanked us all and ushered us out.
But I and at least one other senior reporter in the group came away with a potentially more important story than the likely changes for future briefings. What we had seen behind the general was a large map of the area showing the long Iraq-Saudi border with Kuwait far to the east on the Persian Gulf. No surprise there.
But what was highly unusual was that much of the map, including the entire western area, was covered with a rough swatch of military camouflage that looked like it had been hurriedly tacked up when someone realized that news reporters were about to enter the commanding general’s office. What would we have seen — the battle plans for the impending land war?
As we were on our way back to the hotel Andy Glass, a veteran reporter for the Cox Newspaper chain said to me, “Did you see what I saw?” We both drew the same conclusion — that the camouflage was covering the location of the main U.S. forces and their invasion routes for the liberation of Kuwait. And the fact that they were 200 miles to the west of Kuwait, strongly suggested the invasion would go north into Iraq, then turn east for about 200 miles and then south, ending up directly behind the Iraqi troops who were dug in to face the anticipated frontal assault.
Days later that is precisely what happened. It would come to be known in military annals as Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” maneuver.
Andy and I immediately agreed we could not use this information, but knowing the plan would help us in our subsequent reporting. Over the next few days on ABC News’ “Nightline,” “World News” and a prime-time special, I was asked variously about reports the U.S. Marines were rehearsing for an amphibious landing near Kuwait City and the Egyptians were massing directly south of Kuwait. In each case, I said something along the lines of — when the land war begins, we should not automatically assume it will be a frontal assault on Kuwait.
My superiors were happy with that and so apparently was Schwarzkopf. A few years later, he gave me a most helpful interview for my 1996 Harvard research paper on the potential consequences of live television coverage of war. He may or may not have been a brilliant general. But he was a good one and a decent man. And the Times obit, which used the phrase “second-rate commander,” did not do him justice.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.