Schwarzkopf: Making peace with his past


Washington -- When Norman Schwarzkopf sat down last year to write his autobiography, he had a good idea of what he wanted to present. It would be a straightforward account of his 35 years of service in the U.S. Army, something like "The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant" -- a book he admired greatly and one considered one of the best memoirs by a military man.

The bulk of the book, of course, would deal with Mr. Schwarzkopf's own role as commander-in-chief of the victorious Allied forces during the just-ended Persian Gulf war. But then something happened. He started writing about his mother's alcoholism, for many years a closely guarded family secret. And then he wrote about his own drinking problems. And how psychic wounds caused by two tours in Vietnam would not heal. Before he knew it, he had produced a book unlike anything he had envisioned.

That book, "It Doesn't Take a Hero," hit the bookstores last week. Although at times surprisingly forgiving, even kind, given Mr. Schwarzkopf's reputation as a forthright and opinionated man, "Hero" is crisply written and often diverting.

I used to dread coming home at night. I'd go around the side of the house, where there was a window that looked into the kitchen. I'd stand in the dark and look inside and try to judge what kind of night it was going to be. Mom had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. When she was sober, she was the sweetest, most sensitive, loving, and intelligent person you could ever meet. But when she was drunk she was a holy terror."

"I didn't expect quite so much personal emotion to come out," concedes Mr. Schwarzkopf, 59, wearing a dark blue business suit that doesn't seem nearly as natural a fit on his burly frame as the Army fatigues he wore for so many years. "When you have gone back and taken a very hard look at yourself, you tend to remember over the years mostly the good stuff -- only the fun stuff, only the things that turned out right. And when you go back and take this analysis of yourself, you're forced to revisit things that you'd rather not revisit, revisit times you'd rather not revisit."

There were raised eyebrows in the publishing world last year when it was announced that Bantam was reportedly paying Mr. Schwarzkopf more than $5 million for the rights to his memoirs. First-time authors, of course, don't usually merit that kind of advance, but then, most novice authors didn't also head an army that secured one of the fastest victories in modern warfare. (First-time authors don't have 750,000 copies of their books out in the first week of publication, either.)

The book will have to be a huge best seller for Bantam to recoup its investment, but early signs are good. Last Wednesday, Mr. Schwarzkopf signed the staggering number of 2,000 copies of his book at a suburban Washington bookstore.

One reason, he wrote "Hero," he says, was concern over what he sees are misconceptions about the gulf war.

"There's a lot of misguided revisionist thinking going on now," he says, his frustration evident, for "every war I've ever been involved in, some myths pop up and you can't seem to kill them." That's why he hopes his book "leaves the image that the gulf war was a very successful war that accomplished a great many things. . . .

"No, we didn't need to continue on to Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein, as a lot of people are saying now," Mr. Schwarzkopf continues forcefully. "We weren't authorized to by the U.N. resolution -- only to force Saddam from Kuwait -- and we would have become hopelessly bogged down in a deteriorating country [Iraq]. We would have been considered occupying forces."

Questions about the war's denouement notwithstanding, Mr. Schwarzkopf unquestionably emerged from Desert Storm a star. Physically, he was striking: 6 feet 3, 220 pounds. He was quick-thinking and blunt; his press briefings at Central Command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, showed him at his best -- in command, eloquent when needed, brusque and acerbic when he didn't like the line of questioning. Then one would see hints of his famous explosive temper, which had earned him the nickname "Stormin' Norman."

When the war against Iraq was completed in six short weeks, he and the rest of the Desert Storm forces were treated to glorious homecomings -- Mr. Schwarzkopf at the head of a ticker-tape parade in New York, taking in the Kentucky Derby, and so on.

His public visibility elicited some grumbling. Even Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a friend and a person with whom Mr. Schwarzkopf worked closely during the gulf war, was concerned, according to a new book. Howard Means writes in "Colin Powell: Soldier/Statesman -- Statesman/Soldier": "Among those who appeared to believe that Schwarzkopf had stayed on too long at his dance with celebrity was Colin Powell, according to a high-ranking Pentagon official who had talked to him about the matter in November, 1991. 'I know,' this official says, 'that Colin feels Schwarzkopf has overplayed his hand.' "

Retired Army Col. Harry G. Summers, a distinguished fellow at the Army War College and an analyst for NBC-TV during the gulf war says: "During my lectures at the military senior services schools in the wake of the Gulf War I found that Schwarzkopf was held in general high regard. Many senior officers, however, objected to his calling the turning movement in the desert a "Hail Mary" play, which suggested it was made in haste and desperation. That term belied the detailed planning of his staff, the immense logistical effort involved, and the years of hard work that went into AirLand battle doctrine, the very basis of that maneuver."

Mr. Summers also found concern over Mr. Schwarzkopf's "disparaging remarks about Gen. Fred Franks and VII Corps [Mr. Schwarzkopf felt General Franks did not move his troops fast enough during the ground war]. It is axiomatic in the military that one of the ways you weight the main attack is by the commander's presence on the battlefield. . . . If Schwarzkopf was so concerned about the main attack in the desert, why wasn't he up front with Franks rather than at his desk in Riyadh?"

But Mr. Summers adds: "It is also axiomatic that a leader is responsible for all that his unit does or fails to do, and most senior officers were willing to concede him his successes." The incident with General Franks was not the first time Mr. Schwarzkopf has been criticized for his demeanor with colleagues. He's been characterized as a near-tyrant with his staff, most recently in a new book published in England written by Gen. Peter de la Billiere, commander of the British forces during the gulf war.

"He was a terror as a boss, often furious when unhappy or dissatisfied, infamous for shooting the messengers who brought bad news," wrote Bob Woodward in "The Commanders," a book that studied the U.S. military build-up to the gulf war. But Mr. Schwarzkopf has an emphatic response to that depiction: "That's bull----."

After considering for a few seconds, he continues: "I think I know one of the individuals who told that to Woodward. I guess the best way to describe that is this: A lot of guys, when they make general officer, they stop working. They think it's perfectly all right to run around and have all the perks but they don't have to know very much about the job. They can delegate everything.

"I don't agree with that. I think it's the other way around -- when you're a general officer, you work harder. You know more -- that's why you're a general. I make people who are on my staff work for me. . . .

He goes on to point out that many former staffers have stayed in touch with him -- "a few have even told me that they loved me," he says unashamedly. But clearly, the criticisms sting.

Asked if writing "Hero" helped him understand himself better, Mr. Schwarzkopf answers after a long pause: "No. Because there are psychological scars that I picked up during the Vietnam era that I will carry to my grave. I think there are psychological scars that I picked up in the gulf war that I will carry to my grave. Some things have happened that I will never understand -- some betrayals . . ."

Betrayals by whom?

"There's a bunch of stuff in 'The Commanders' that people told Woodward that simply isn't true," he answers quickly. He refuses to amplify his remarks, but does add: "I will never understand that, but hey, that's my problem. I got to live with that."

That's why, he says, he is so gratified to receive the constant attention from the American public.

"These criticisms do hurt," he says, "But let me tell you the flip side: The American people, every place I go -- I can't go to a restaurant, I can't go to a lobby or airplane terminal, I can't go to McDonald's without the American people coming up and saying, 'Hey, General, great job. Thank you for what you did, thank you for what your troops did.'

"That happens everywhere, all across the country. And as long as that's going on, that counters all the other stuff."

Though he says he's unsure what he'll do next in his life, he discounts any involvement in politics -- "I'm apolitical." But he hints that when he sits down in the new year to consider his options, he won't choose quiet retirement.

"I never cease to marvel that the American public holds me in high esteem, and therefore I feel obliged to do something about it," Mr. Schwarzkopf says. "If I were to just turn around and walk away from all that, I would probably feel very guilty, because it seems to me that when you find yourself in that position, you need to contribute something more to your country."

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