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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,198

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This is the grave of Norman Schwarzkopf.

Schwarzkopf was born in 1934 in Trenton, New Jersey, to a military family. His father was a West Point cadet who had left the military to go into police work and later would be the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, a truly incorruptible institution. Then the father rejoined the military during World War II. In any case, military values were expected and as his father stayed in the military after World War II, young Herbert (a name he later came to despise) followed him around wherever and grew up quite a bit in Iran in the late 40s. Going to West Point was almost inevitable and he did well there, both militarily and on the football team.

Schwarzkopf rose pretty fast in the Army and was also very ambitious. While he was teaching at West Point, he was unhappy at the lack of promotion opportunities, so he eagerly volunteered to be an “advisor” to the South Vietnamese. He was brave, that’s for sure, quickly leading troops into battle, earning two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart within a few months. He was famous for having a very short temper and yelling at subordinates, which given the general incompetence in Vietnam, maybe wasn’t a bad idea. Anyway, he was one of the only rising officers who came out of the Vietnam War as a superstar, by that time having earned yet another Silver Star and another Purple Heart.

After the war, Schwarzkopf was one of the right-winger types who thought the treatment of the returning soldiers disgusting and he almost resigned from the Army to work for them. But he didn’t. By the late 70s, he was a general and continuing to rise due to successfully completing a lot of organizational assignments in an era without a lot of direct combat. By 1988, he was named commander of CENTCOM and he became known one of the first leading generals to argue the U.S. needed to shift emphasis from the Soviets to the Middle East.

And then Saddam Hussein stupidly invaded Kuwait.

The thing about Schwarzkopf is that he isn’t really that interesting. He’s a perfectly capable general who led a war against a massively overmatched nation that was easily won. So why was he seen as a hero? That has everything to do with the time in which the Gulf War took place. The early 1990s saw two things converge. The first was the long-running desire by war-mongering conservatives to get over the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” in which Americans didn’t actually want to fight wars. For the right, this hamstrung foreign policy and led to problems such as Reagan not being able to just funnel all the money he wanted to the Contras, for example. Republicans were desperate for a war like this. They tried to promote the ridiculous invasion of Grenada as a way to get over Vietnam, but that was just not big enough. But war against Iraq was. In fact, if you go to the George Bush Library in College Station, or at least if you did about 15 years ago when I was there, you see a whole room on how the “war,” scare quotes quite intentional, got the nation over the Vietnam Syndrome. This is just ridiculous. But the media was all in on this. Reporting on the Iraq War was so exciting for a generation of reporters who wanted Their War. So they were all in on this too. Thus, both Colin Powell and Schwarzkopf became national heroes. In the end, Powell, a smarter and more politically savvy individual, proved the more lasting figure. But that wasn’t for the media trying to make that out of Schwarzkopf. Moreover, the media loved him. He cultivated them and played them like a fiddle. He integrated them into American operations. He let them be critical. He answered their questions. He never talked back to them, even though he was a cranky old bastard. He knew their value in the propaganda operation at home.

Second, you have the “Greatest Generation” bullshit just coming into national consciousness. As the World War II generation started dying off in large numbers, their terrible children started romanticizing their parents by comparing them so positively to their own ways. The irony of this is that the draft-dodging, Vietnam-protesting ways was the least bad part of the Boomers, but this is exactly what they wanted to purge. So they could now support another Great War that was morally just (which, I mean, was mostly true until Bush and Schwarzkopf and Powell just let Saddam go all-in on genocide against the very Iraqi minority populations we urged to revolt against him) and show that they could learn from their parents too. From that moment to Tom Brokaw’s ridiculous Greatest Generation book to John Kerry reporting for duty at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, it was a gigantic war fetish moment, even for Democrats.

This leads us back to Schwarzkopf. Everyone feted him upon the victory, one that almost any officer could have achieved given the massively overwhelming firepower of the U.S. and the bloated Iraqi army with its zero morale. He got his own parade on Broadway. Both parties were interested in him running for political office. He had no interest in that nonsense. He was a very conservative man but did not identify as a Republican in the early 90s and certainly didn’t want to play politics of that kind. He retired instead. He sold his memoirs for a cool $5 million. He was a conservationist type of hunter and was on the board of The Nature Conservancy and an advocate for the recovery of the grizzly bear. He leaned more conservative politically as time went on and actively endorsed both George W. Bush and John McCain, not surprisingly. He became quite critical though of the war in Iraq, for obvious reasons that it was so poorly planned and executed. He felt that ideology trumped strategy, which of course he did. None of that was going to get in the way of him endorsing the people who ran the war that way of course.

My understanding is that the writers who have looked at Schwarzkopf’s actual actions during the Gulf War are highly divided. Given how many of these writers are really just popular military writers who real historians don’t take seriously, I’m not particularly sure what to think. To my knowledge, we don’t have a really great account of that war by a professional historian that is seen as the standard that someone like myself who isn’t a specialist on the thing must read. Possible I am missing something though. But the general run-down is that some see him as a brilliant tactician and others see him as making a lot of mistakes that left Saddam in power and laid the groundwork for the second war twelve years later.

Schwarzkopf had a lot of the typical old guy diseases. He fought off prostate cancer. He beat that. But pneumonia did him in. That was in 2012 and he was 78 years old.

Norman Schwarzkopf is buried in United States Military Academy Cemetery, West Point, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other figures associated with the Gulf War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Bush is in College Station, Texas and Colin Powell is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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