WASHINGTON - To add a dash of Hollywood to the military briefings from Central Command in Qatar, the Pentagon enlisted a top art director (fresh from a Michael Douglas movie) to design the high-tech set, with its sleek, futuristic podium and giant plasma screens. It is a far cry from the flip charts that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf used during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
But the person front and center this time - Gen. Tommy Franks, who as chief of Central Command is directing nearly 300,000 troops in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq - is the antithesis of flash and glamour.
At 57, the Oklahoma-born and Texas-reared artillery man is a big, imposing four-star general known for his gruff demeanor and salty language, his profound indifference to the limelight and his fierce devotion to the muddy-boots soldiers - those he has called the military's "blue-collar workers" - whom he has led into combat.
"He is what we like to call a soldier who also happens to be a general," says Army Maj. Steve Warren, who served under Franks in South Korea in the late 1990s.
In his desert camouflage fatigues, with his Texas twang, close-cropped hair and no-nonsense style, the 6-foot-3 Franks held his first televised briefing of the war Saturday. But it's unlikely the steady and straight-shooting general will achieve the kind of superstar status that the dynamic Stormin' Norman did during Operation Desert Storm.
He's uncomfortable in the spotlight and may send aides to conduct many of the daily briefings, as he did Sunday, while he hunkers down behind the scenes. Even Franks has noted the contrast with the earlier gulf war general saying, "Tommy Franks is no Norman Schwarzkopf."
"Tommy Franks is not a show guy," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "He's steady. He's an old football coach, a big man, a confident guy. Soldiers love and trust him."
In his briefing from Qatar yesterday, he was direct, unflappable and careful not to make any headlines. Asked about Hussein's televised address, he said, "I started to give a joke analogy, and I don't think I will." Instead, he said simply, "This is not about one man; this is about an oppressive regime. So that's my view."
His message for Iraqis who might have a finger on the trigger of a weapon of mass destruction: "Don't do it."
Since July 2000, when the former private was awarded his fourth star and named chief of Central Command, Franks has been responsible for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia - 25 countries from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan that make up the most volatile region of the world.
Unlike many of his predecessors who came out of the U.S. Military Academy, Franks rose through the Army ranks after an undistinguished - dismal, in fact - brush with academics.
But those who have worked with him praise him as a solid and hard-working leader and note his particular talent for engaging those above him and below him.
As a division commander in South Korea, he was known to leave golf games with senior officers to drink a beer with the enlisted troops picnicking by the seventh hole. Recently, at a dinner at his new headquarters in Qatar, he insisted on sitting at a corner table with a sergeant rather than at the table with other generals and dignitaries.
But in the past year, it has been his dexterity in dealing with his formidable and famously demanding boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and other top Pentagon officials in developing the strategy for war that has served him well, say some involved in the planning.
"Rumsfeld is a hard boss, and a number of his principal subordinates are ideologues, so discussions with them are difficult," says one longtime Franks associate. "Tommy had to work through some of that."
He also had to work through initial reservations on the part of top administration officials about whether Franks - less polished, articulate and intellectual than some of his predecessors - was up to the job of commanding a war in Iraq.
Although the war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 had been generally deemed a success, skeptics wondered whether Franks was innovative enough to lead a 21st-century war on terrorism and criticized him for failing to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
But rather than allow Franks to retire as he was planning to do last year, President Bush asked the loyal, steady and personable general - who, like George and Laura Bush, grew up in Midland, Texas - to stay on for the mission in Iraq.
Rumsfeld reportedly rejected Franks' initial plans to topple Hussein, thinking the strategy looked too much like that of the 1991 gulf war - with a long air campaign followed by a ground attack - and involved too many troops.
The defense secretary wanted a quicker, lighter operation with a force half the size that Franks envisioned, a stronger special forces presence, and a more simultaneous air-and-ground attack.
After 14 months of discussions and video-conference calls between Pentagon planners and Franks' Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., the plan that eventually emerged is "a campaign unlike any other in history," as Franks said Saturday.
The resulting plan is a mix of the two visions. As Rumsfeld wanted, it has an early start to the ground war and a heavy use of special forces. But it also has the larger number of troops that Franks and other military officials argued was imperative.
"Tommy Franks brought to this discussion 30 years of dealing with real-world military operations," says McCaffrey, a ground commander in the gulf war and former Clinton administration drug czar. "The end result is something everyone has huge confidence in."
What's more, the deliberations proved to administration officials that Franks' blunt, forceful style and his esteemed place within the military culture were good complements to the styles of Rumsfeld and his civilian brain trust of deputies such as Paul D. Wolfowitz.
"A genius like Wolfowitz and an incredible leadership powerhouse like Rumsfeld, they understand what they've got - a thoughtful, strong guy running the theater," McCaffrey says of Franks. "Since their buns are on the line, they're smart enough to be grateful."
Franks and Rumsfeld talk daily. These days, with Franks in the Qatar desert 700 miles from Baghdad, the conversation is often by video conference.
Product of Texas
A lover of fast cars and motorcycles, quail-hunting, country music, cigars and margaritas, Franks is very much a product of the dusty plains of Midland. Neither George nor Laura Bush knew young Tommy Franks, the son of a mechanic and stay-at-home mother, even though Franks and the future first lady were a year apart at Midland Lee High School.
At a recent reunion, their high school principal lightheartedly told the general, "You were not the brightest bulb in the socket."
Indeed, Franks dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin to join the Army and, as he has said, "grow up."
After rising quickly to artillery officer, Franks served in Vietnam, where he was wounded and earned three Purple Hearts. Upon returning home, he married and finished college under an Army program, studying business administration.
He continued his climb up the Army's ladder, serving in Texas, Germany, the Pentagon, Desert Storm, where he directed helicopter and ground units as assistant division commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, and later, South Korea.
"If you're good, you're loyal, and you can lead, it's a good way to get ahead in army life," says retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, former commander in Bosnia and a longtime friend.
Retired Army Col. Don M. Snider, a political science professor at West Point, says he believes Franks has functioned well "in an amazingly difficult role." He notes the failures of the political dimension of the operation, such as Turkey's lack of cooperation with the United States, and the more limited goal - regime change - of this war.
"This is a new way of thinking," says Snider. "From what I can see, Franks gets it and understands what needs to be done."
In a recent interview on ABC, Franks said he would like history to view him as an American who takes his job seriously and a family man.
Franks and his wife of 33 years, Cathy, have a daughter, Jacqy, a son-in-law who is in the 1st Armored Division and two grandchildren, who refer to the general as "Pooh."
Cathy Franks has often accompanied her husband on official trips aboard his 707 command plane, a practice that was recently the subject of a Pentagon investigation. The inquiry examined allegations that Franks allowed his wife to sit in on classified briefings and did not pay the government for all of her expenses when she traveled with him.
The review found that Franks "inadvertently" allowed top secret information to be discussed in his wife's presence but cleared the general on all other charges. Rumsfeld said he had full confidence in the combat commander.
Now, it is in large part up to this soldier's soldier to instill confidence, not only in his superiors, but in a vast audience as he directs the U.S. and allied fighting and, from time to time, updates the world on the war's progress.
"He's courageous," says Nash. "I pray a little bit for him every night."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun