For those who came of age during World War II, or post-9/11, the death Thursday of retired Army general H. Norman Schwarzkopf may not be of great moment. But for those of us who came of age during Vietnam, when that war veered from the discredited Gulf of Tonkin to the Tet Offensive to Kent State, he was a godsend.
While there was trepidation before the Persian Gulf War began in January 1991 — a six-week bombing onslaught followed by a 96-hour ground campaign — it pitted a Cold War superpower against Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein (it was a mismatch that would have to be replayed 12 years later). Nonetheless, the U.S. went wild after the U.S.-led coalition pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
After a six-month buildup in Saudi Arabia that looked like a martial bolero, Schwarzkopf burst into American living rooms just about the same time CNN did. As intrepid Cable News Network crews stationed in Baghdad followed the twists and turns of incoming Tomahawk cruise missiles, Schwarzkopf briefed reporters from his headquarters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, two weeks into the war.
“I’m now going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq,” Schwarzkopf said as a video of an air strike against an Iraqi bridge appeared on a television screen. “Keep your eye on the crosshairs.” A vehicle appeared, driving across the bridge, as an American pilot targeted the span. The truck drove into, and across, the bomber’s crosshairs, and then scooted off screen. “And now, in his rear-view mirror,” Schwarzkopf quipped, as an explosion filled the screen, destroying the bridge, but leaving the Iraqi truck driver alive.
Schwarzkopf was a bona fide American hero, complete with a New York parade and talks of a presidential run. There had been no such military heroes in this country since World War II’s Dwight Eisenhower. “By God,” declared President George H.W. Bush, himself now ailing at a Houston hospital, “we’ve licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
The son of the superintendent of the New Jersey state police, who investigated the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son in 1932, Schwarzkopf made the Army his career. He won recognition in Vietnam for taking care of the soldiers under his command and ended up as the third commander of U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon post responsible for the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, in 1988. (His two most recent successors, Army General David Petraeus and incumbent Marine General John Allen, have found their careers derailed, at least temporarily, by scandal.)
“General Schwarzkopf’s skilled leadership of that campaign liberated the Kuwaiti people and produced a decisive victory for the allied coalition,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday night. “In the aftermath of that war, General Schwarzkopf was justly recognized as a brilliant strategist and inspiring leader.”
Following his incandescent fame, Schwarzkopf retired to Tampa six months after the Gulf War’s end. He died there, of complications related to pneumonia, at 78.
Reporters had their own shorthand to spell his complicated surname right: “War Kop, no T.” Battleland can recall taking his two young sons to the Gulf War victory parade in Washington on June 8, 1991, down by the Lincoln Memorial. He was proud to show them what the U.S. military can do when the stars align.