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Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, 78, ‘Stormin’ Commander in Persian Gulf War

December 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the U.S. commander of forces during the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was dubbed "Stormin' Norman" for his no-nonsense style and swift victory. Margaret Warner talks to New York Times reporter and author Michael Gordon about Schwarzkopf, who died at the age of 78.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next: the life and legacy of the man credited with victory in the first Iraq war.

Norman Schwarzkopf was already a highly decorated Army general, but a virtual unknown to most Americans when the first Gulf War propelled him to fame. The war was triggered by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990.

Schwarzkopf commanded the coalition that drove the Iraqis out, and earned himself the nickname Stormin’ Norman for his military success, for his reputed temper, and for his no-nonsense image at televised briefings.

GEN. NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF, U.S. Army: Let me put it this way: It’s going to take as long as it takes for the Iraqis to get out of Kuwait and the United Nations resolutions to be enforced.

MARGARET WARNER: Born in Trenton, N.J., Schwarzkopf graduated from West Point in 1956. He served two tours in Vietnam, earning three Silver Stars for Valor, one for saving troops from a mine field. He also earned a Purple Heart and a raft of other medals.

Schwarzkopf stuck it out in the Army through the lean post-Vietnam years, rising through the ranks.

In 1988, he took over the U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Middle East. So it fell to him to command Operation Desert Storm, which opened in January 1991 with six weeks of allied bombings against the Iraqi army.

A few weeks into the air campaign, he spoke to NewsHour correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault from his headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: Saddam Hussein is not a military man. He thought of this war in tactical terms, OK, at the lowest level. He never thought of it in strategic terms.

And what is happening all of a sudden he is finding that he taking a terrible licking strategically, and he has no capability to react to that. I don’t think we are close to breaking Saddam’s will. I don’t think that that is breakable.

But I certainly think that we have the capability of breaking the will of his military. And I think we are making progress in that direction, from all the reports that we get.

MARGARET WARNER: Three weeks later, U.S. forces led the powerful ground offensive that routed the Iraqis from Kuwait in 100 hours.

Schwarzkopf said later he agreed with President George H.W. Bush’s decision to stop the war then, rather than drive to Baghdad. Days after the ground offensive ended, the allied commander met with defeated Iraqi generals to discuss the terms for a cease-fire.

NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: I would say very candidly that the Iraqis came to discuss and to cooperate, with a positive attitude.

MARGARET WARNER: Later, Schwarzkopf was criticized for letting Saddam’s military retain the right to fly helicopters, which were used to attack rebellious Shiites and Kurds.

But in the immediate flush of victory, the general received a hero’s welcome back in the U.S., including a standing ovation during a joint session of Congress in May 1991. That summer, he retired from active service.

NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: I have got to tell you, no matter now eloquent the orator, no matter how prolific the poet, no matter how lyrical the songwriter, no words can ever capture the emotions that go through a person’s heart when he stands for the last time and hears the national anthem and salutes the American flag, representing the county that he has gladly, proudly served for the last 35 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Schwarzkopf never pursued political office himself, but he did campaign for President George W. Bush. And he initially endorsed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but later criticized the Pentagon’s war planning.

Mostly, though, Schwarzkopf devoted his time to serving as a board member and spokesman for charitable causes, living quietly in Tampa, Florida, where he died yesterday at the age of 78.

In a statement, the first President Bush, now ailing himself, called his Gulf War commander “a true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation.”

And for more on Gen. Schwarzkopf and his legacy, we are joined by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon. He co-authored the book “The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf.”

And, Michael, welcome.

Take us back, first of all, to the Gulf War more than two decades ago. What was it about General Schwarzkopf and what he did that made him be regarded, at least by many, as a hero?

MICHAEL GORDON, author of “The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf”: Well, this was a time at which the American military didn’t have the confidence of the American public, the way it does now.

Whatever people think of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, they generally believe that the military has done its part. And that wasn’t the case then. So we had an all-volunteer force. There were a lot of weapons that had not really been tried in combat, like the stealth fighter, not really in operational circumstances.

And they were being put to the test. And there was also the hangover from Vietnam, the Vietnam syndrome, where people wondered, could we — since Vietnam was certainly not a victory, could the American military really succeed in a major conflict abroad?

MARGARET WARNER: So, really, how hard was it, what the Gulf War — how hard was strategy? How much did he contribute to the strategy and to the execution?

MICHAEL GORDON: It was a massive undertaking. And I covered it. And I think a lot of people don’t — even now, you look back on it, it was really daunting.

The United States had more than 500,000 troops in the region. And we have 66,000 in Afghanistan now. We had allies like Syria, Egypt, Britain, France. You had to hold together this coalition, which was an usual coalition of the willing, so to speak.

The administration, Jim Baker got U.N. sanction for this operation. And it was just — we had no headquarters in the region. Right now, CENTCOM, the Central Command, has a forward headquarters in Qatar. There was nothing like that.

The Arab states were — didn’t really want the Americans there and on a permanent basis.

So we had — all of this had to be moved first to Saudi Arabia and to region, first in an defensive operation, and then in an offensive operation. So it took months and months for this to even — just to prepare for this.

MARGARET WARNER: And he was in charge of that. But now he was, as we alluded to in the piece, also criticized for making some strategic mistakes. What were those?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, there were really two goals and primary goals in the conflict. One was to evict the Iraqi forces from Kuwait after, which was done in the 100-hour ground war, after six weeks of bombing. Let’s remember that.

But the other one was to destroy Saddam Hussein’s offensive power, primarily his Republican Guard forces, because the thinking was, if you didn’t destroy them, they could always come back to menace Kuwait again.

Plus, there was a subtext. They were hoping to weaken Saddam’s hold on power by getting at the most capable and loyal forces on his command.

We did the first. We didn’t fully do the second. At the end of the day, a significant number of the Republican Guard forces managed to escape. And this became his — they were instrumental in putting down the Shia rebellion in Southern Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: But was that his fault? Was that based on some kind of mis-assessment or bad strategy on his part? Or was it just the way the war unfolded and then ended so quickly?

MICHAEL GORDON: It was a complicated series of circumstances.

But, first, there was a lot of pressure from Washington, from the White House, from the Pentagon to end the war in 100 hours to avoid the fear piling on.

Second, Washington really didn’t have an accurate picture of what was happening on the battlefield. There was a lot of confusion, the veritable fog of war. And neither really did Schwarzkopf.

He didn’t know where all the moving pieces were at the time. He thought he knew, but, in retrospect, the situation, not as much had been achieved as he thought.

So those were two factors that I think contributed to the decision to end the war at 100 hours, which was quite controversial among a lot of the officers in the fight at the time, because they thought it was a day or two too soon.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about Schwarzkopf? He said later, oh, I agreed with the decision. But was that his recommendation, or was that a decision, a political, essentially, or geopolitical decision made in Washington?

MICHAEL GORDON: It was a decision made in Washington that he acquiesced in. And he was challenged by his deputy commander, Cal Waller, who uttered an expletive. And then Schwarzkopf said to General Waller, well, then you go argue with him.

But he signed off on it.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is Schwarzkopf’s legacy and the legacy of the Gulf War, in terms of the way the U.S. wages war today or the way the military operates?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, it was a validation of the all-volunteer military. It showed that a lot of the weapons really do work.

MARGARET WARNER: Some of these credible precision weapons that…

MICHAEL GORDON: Yes, the precision weapons, even the M-1 tanks covering great distances, the stealth fighter, cruise missiles, all of that, they worked better than I think a lot of people thought they might work.

So it restored a lot of the confidence of the military. The United States accomplished one of its primary objectives at minimal cost. And there were less than 150 killed in action Americans or people who died of their wounds. So that was all to the good.

But the war — the war termination was very messy. The Iraqis were allowed to fly helicopters. That was actually a mistake Schwarzkopf made in the cease-fire talks.

The Iraqis had said, we just need to get around the bridges that are destroyed. But then they used these helicopters to attack the Shia. Saddam clung on to power more than President Bush thought he would, the first President Bush.

MARGARET WARNER: Did…

MICHAEL GORDON: And so the war, the second war that happened, in 2003, was a war of choice, not a war of necessity. But it was the messy way in which the first war ended that presented the United States with that choice.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Gordon, New York Times, thank you.

MICHAEL GORDON: All right. Thank you.