[This review was published in the Spring 1993 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 118-126.] 


Book Review


It Doesn’t Take a Hero

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, with Peter Petrie

Bantam Books, 1992 


            For reasons I don’t quite understand, tears welled up in my eyes from time to time as I read It Doesn’t Take a Hero.  It wasn’t that the book makes any play at pathos or sympathy; if anything, it is an understated telling, flowing along easily in a personal vein.  But it is a story of a lifetime of service by Schwarzkopf and the many fellow-soldiers who shared those years with him.  Nothing weighs heavily in the book, but just the same the themes of dedication and sacrifice run consistently through the narrative.

            Certainly no book is better for rekindling an appreciation of America’s veterans—Schwarzkopf’s beloved ‘troops.’  There will be few readers, I suspect, who will not have tears in their eyes during Schwarzkopf’s matter-of-fact narrative, say, about the indomitable spirit of the men, some of them multiple amputees, who were in the veterans’ hospital with him (following surgery on his back) after one of his tours in Vietnam.

            It’s trite to say it, but I will: I had difficulty putting the book down.  Some of what I say in this review may sound critical, because there are many important issues to discuss; but, that aside, this is a book that all Americans will enjoy and will benefit from reading.           

A Broad Span: From West Point to the Gulf

            As an autobiography, it covers the broad span of Schwarzkopf’s life.  His childhood included some time in Iran, where his father, himself a general, played a vitally important role during World War II, and afterwards in preventing a Communist take-over.  His father taught him honor, he says, and his mother tolerance; but tragedies unfold as we read that his mother became an incurable alcoholic and one of his sisters a far-left radical who only reconciled herself to him during the Gulf War.  We get an inside look at his years as a cadet at West Point and as a young officer.  His first tour in Vietnam was as an advisor to a South Vietnamese unit, for which he had great respect; and his second tour gave him a command in the same hell-hole where the My Lai massacre had occurred a couple of years before.  We see the Army’s demoralization and eventual recovery after Vietnam; and when Grenada comes along, Schwarzkopf was in the midst of it and accordingly tells us much that we have either forgotten or never knew.  All of this would make a grand book in itself, but of course the reason most people will read it is for a “from the horse’s mouth” insider’s account of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, for which Schwarzkopf was the commander in chief. 

Schwarzkopf Personally

            In large part, the narrative provides a character study.  His father’s influence and the code of “duty, honor, country” impressed at West Point, he says, made the Army more than merely a career for him; it was a calling.  Only once did he take an assignment just so it would enhance his career.  He abhorred such ‘ticket-punching,’ and sought out the assignments that would provide him with real work to do.  Above all else, he loved the infantry and to be in command of troops.  He seems to have undergone some migration in his own philosophical orientation, although he remains politic in staying clear of comment, other than passingly, on social and political matters.  Back in the ’50s, he considered Senator Joseph McCarthy a “lunatic with no concept of the rights of the individual,” but thought it probable nonetheless than McCarthy was right about the Communists.  In the early ’60s, Schwarzkopf was a liberal, an admirer of JFK, and one who feared Goldwater.

            He makes no generalized declaration of conversion to conservatism, but later attitudes are hard to reconcile with the tendency of these early views.  He favored America’s going into Vietnam, although he always thought Americans should have been there as advisors to the South Vietnamese rather than to have made the war primarily America’s own.  He developed a profound respect for the South Vietnamese, and thought the press way off base in its belittling descriptions of them.  The treatment of American troops as they returned from Vietnam infuriated him—so much so that he resolved to “punch out” anyone who might spit on him after his own return (he’s a big man, and no one did).

            He pondered bitterly the loss of American will.  This irresolution and its effects were brought home to him forcefully when his unit captured a directive from Ho Chi Minh telling the Vietcong that, in effect, the war would be won on the American homefront if only the Communists toughed it out long enough.  “All you have to do is hang on.  The American people are not tough enough to see this war through and we are.”  One of the great mistakes, Schwarzkopf says, was that no general mobilization was declared as a way to get the American public behind the war.

            Later, he voiced skepticism about “believing every word in the Washington Post.”

And after the collapse of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975 he felt that Congress had betrayed the South Vietnamese by its withdrawal of the promised support after Nixon resigned.  “The war should never have been allowed to end that way.” 

His Views on a Variety of Important Subjects

            I will make the point that the Schwarzkopf book is more a personal story than a reflective analysis, but first it’s worth noting that Schwarzkopf has much to tell us on a whole series of issues, which I will review in more-or-less random order.

            1.  Much attention is given to the condition of the Army since the Korean War.  Subject, of course, to many exceptions, he felt that it was morally bankrupt after that war and during the Vietnam War.  Within a short time after he graduated from West Point, a quarter of his class quit the Army, disillusioned by the reality they confronted there.  Despite Eisenhower’s command of NATO and eight-year presidency, the Army was incapable of having met the Soviets in Europe.  Troop leadership was downplayed while the Army became obsessed with hardware.  During Vietnam, even West Point had to pander to recruit and then hold cadets.  In 1970, General Westmoreland commissioned a scathing report about the condition of the officer corps, the obsession with statistics, and the quagmire over body counts.  When the Modern Volunteer Army concept was gone to, it adopted gimmicky “bells and whistles” to try to satisfy the troops, many of whom had little discipline.  Those stationed in Germany were such as to grate badly on German nerves with the loud ‘boom-boxes’ they carried off base.

            But then things began to turn around.  A move to make it a ‘thinking Army’ began in about 1975, and it started looking realistically at its problems instead of indulging in the moronic optimism that had so long been de rigueur.  Recruiting came to be based on pride-of-service rather than ‘what the Army can do for you’; and pay was increased.  (It took a while, because the boom-box episode comes into the telling even in the midst of this improving trend.)  It became possible to weed out the incompetent NCOs and to address the drinking and drug problems.  At the same time, a new generation of high-tech weapons beefed up the Army’s combat power.  By the time of the Gulf War, the Army was something that Schwarzkopf was truly proud to command.

            2.  His ‘on the ground’ account tells us a lot about what happened in Vietnam.  He believed in working closely with the South Vietnamese and believed in involved leadership: he couldn’t stomach officers who ate off china while their men were out in the jungle.  He tells of a horribly sloppy and ill-prepared base-camp; of officers who remained in command for so short a time that they never faced the consequences of their incompetence; of an entire patrol (except for one survivor) whose members were killed because they went to sleep while on ambush; of troops letting Vietcong just walk through an ambush, out of fear of confronting them (something, he says, that wouldn’t have happened if they had had good NCOs).  Meanwhile, a sugarcoated version of events was sent up to President Johnson; and Washington micromanaged the bombing, picking the targets.  In the midst of all this, many good men struggled and did serve their country magnificently at great sacrifice, and it is one of the hallmarks of Schwarzkopf’s book that he relished courage and dedication when he found it.

            3.  He tells the details of the Grenada invasion, but I am especially struck by his summary: “My own emotions about the operation were complicated.  Above all I was proud that we’d gotten the job done and elated that the American public… had come out in support of its troops.  At the same time, America had lost more lives than it needed to, and the brief war had revealed lots of shortcomings—an abysmal lack of accurate intelligence, major deficiencies in communications, flareups of interservice rivalry, interference by higher headquarters in battlefield decisions, the alienation of the press, and more.  Yet these deficiencies had come to light in America’s own after-action reports.  America was through trying to paper over problems as in Vietnam….”

            4.  The long-standing neglect of the Middle East by our State Department and in America’s military planning is brought up again and again.  Until recent years, the Middle East was assigned to the Pacific command, headquartered in Hawaii, many thousands of miles away—and accordingly received little attention.  When Iran seized American embassy personnel in Tehran in 1979, America had almost no Army, Navy or Air Force capabilities in the area.

            5.  After the Gulf War was over, the author of this review wrote a long piece for the April 1991 Conservative Review entitled “The Gulf War’s (Intolerable) ‘New Journalism’.”   It is pertinent to my discussion there that Schwarzkopf reports that CNN served as the eyes and ears of the Saddam government at a time when our bombing had blinded the Iraqis.  “One night early in February, we’d turned on CNN… A live report from a pool correspondent with the troops… said breathlessly, ‘There has just been a major artillery duel in my location between the 82nd Airborne and the Iraqis.’  ‘Son of a bitch,’ I exclaimed.  The 82nd Airborne was the division furthest to the west, and any halfway competent Iraqi intelligence officer watching CNN could easily note the time and then canvass his forces to find out precisely where the exchange of fire had taken place.  He would then discover that the 82nd was positioned for a flanking attack, a fact we had taken great pains to conceal….”

            He also tells how an issue of Newsweek a few days later contained a map showing almost the precise flanking attack that was being prepared.  “I called Powell: ‘This stinks!’”  Fortunately, other magazines showed incorrect battle plans, which threw up something, at least, of a smokescreen.  But it was no thanks to either CNN or Newsweek that disaster did not befall the United States in its ground campaign.

            6.  We all remember the propaganda barrage that was leveled against the United States in America’s own media for having blasted a bunker that was claimed to be a ‘civilian shelter’ in Baghdad.  Accordingly, it’s important to know what Schwarzkopf says about it.  We find that he assured Powell that the United States had indeed hit the correct target, which was a command-and-control bunker that had long been on the target list.  It was a “legitimate military target.”

            7.  As this is written, the Clinton administration has just taken its first steps to allow homosexuals into the military.  Schwarzkopf’s book never comments on this issue directly, but it’s worth noting what he had learned from four decades of experience: “…what I’d learned in war: that loyalty to one another was what motivated soldiers to fight.  Camaraderie and cohesion at every level of the 24th [Mech.] had to be encouraged.”  This world is standing on its head when a man who dodged the draft has become President and thinks himself to know more about how to run the Army than those who have given their lives to it. 

And Certainly Not Least, the Gulf War

            The book relates the story of Desert Shield (the military build-up in defense of Saudi Arabia) and Desert Storm (the attack into Iraq and Kuwait) on almost a day-to-day basis, starting each discussion with entries from Schwarzkopf’s log.  Even though we know the outcome, this is as intriguing as watching a fine Who-Done-It? for a second time.

            Here are some details many might have forgotten: Saddam had failed in one of his main purposes in the war with Iran, which was to gain access to the Persian Gulf.  He began his troop movements toward Kuwait after threatening that nation and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for exceeding their oil quotas.  When the UAE asked the U.S. for help, it risked the scorn of all Arab nations.  Then shortly before Saddam went into Kuwait in early August, American diplomats were in agreement that he wouldn’t attack; and even as the invasion started, Schwarzkopf thought that Saddam would grab only certain parts of Kuwait.  Instead, Saddam took the whole country and immediately began massing tanks as though preparing to go into Saudi Arabia.  It wasn’t until mid-September, by which time America was well underway with its build-up, that Saddam gave up the idea of taking Saudi Arabia.  Schwarzkopf’s forces were strictly suited for defensive purposes until in late October he was promised the additional forces that would be needed for an attack.  Even as late as the end of November, the British were unclear what American political and strategic aims were. 

Unanswered Questions

            And now I come to my major criticism.  On a number of important questions, the book fails to be reflective or explanatory.  Here are some of the many questions that I had hoped would be answered by an authoritative book on the Gulf War:

            1.  Since Saddam was massed on the Saudi border in early August, why did he let America and its allies build up its forces opposite him rather than attack before the allies had the strength to resist?  He could have slaughtered the opposing forces if he had attacked before America was ready.

            Schwarzkopf tells us that Gen. Colin Powell warned Saddam (in December, which was awfully late) that the United States would use unconventional weapons if he used chemicals.  But Saddam’s conduct was inexplicable unless there was a lot more to it.  Did Saddam hold back from all these things because America was threatening nuclear retaliation?  I don’t know, and perhaps the answers are classified information.

            2.  Was it appropriate, or unavoidable, that the United States went into Saudi Arabia with so little understanding with the Saudis or with anyone else?  Oddly, the United States was undertaking a military effort under multinational auspices with almost nothing worked out with those other nations.

            It turns out that America had no prior ‘host-nation-support-agreement’ with the Saudis for a Saudi financial underwriting of the costs.  This led the United States into being jacked around unmercifully about reimbursement for the costs the United States was incurring in Saudi Arabia for provisions.

            Even in late September, Schwarzkopf was left worrying about whether the Saudis would let allied forces attack from Saudi soil—a crucial issue, since that’s where our build-up had taken place!

            About the French, Schwarzkopf tells us in regard to mid-December that they had put their forces under Saudi command—and that “now it was unclear whether they’d participate in the offense at all.”

            The Syrians’ tanks were to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the Egyptians in the reconquest of Kuwait.  The entire offensive plan, Schwarzkopf says, was put in jeopardy in late December when the Saudis passed word that the Syrians had decided not to take part in the attack.  Schwarzkopf had to scramble for a solution, which came in the form of his suggestion that the Syrians wouldn’t have to fight the Iraqis unless it was to help the Egyptians, as fellow-Arabs, if they got into trouble.

            3.  Schwarzkopf repeatedly says that a very important strategic objective, not only for the United States but for the Arabs in general, was not just to get Saddam out of Kuwait but to destroy his invading forces “so that he could never use them again.”

            What sense, then, did it make for the Bush administration and the U.N. to keep demanding of Saddam, up until the time the air war began, that he “get out of Kuwait”?  If he had taken them up on it, he would still have been hovering over Kuwait and the entire Middle East with the world’s fourth largest army.

            4.  What explains the total one-sidedness of the war?  How is it that 545,000 armed men, fighting from prepared positions and armed with massive artillery, could inflict virtually no casualties?

            True, their troops weren’t as good as their enemies thought, they’d been pounded from the air for many days, and their army’s electronic eyes and ears were out of operation.  But Schwarzkopf reports various occasions on which there was a direct gun battle, even with the Iraqis getting in the first shots—but with the attacking forces suffering almost no losses.  It all reminds me of that incredible passage in Herodotus in which he reports that at the battle of Plataea the Persians lost 297,000 men, while the Greeks lost only 159.  I’ve always chuckled over how anybody could believe that, much less write it.  But now we have a total counterpart, which we really do believe.

            Again, it’s odd that the book doesn’t reflect about this.  It certainly isn’t what Schwarzkopf expected to happen.  Before the ground campaign started, he says, he didn’t know whether it would last three days or drag on into a many-month stalemate.

            5.  Schwarzkopf had considered it essential to destroy the Republican Guard, Saddam’s elite force north of Kuwait.  Even as late as February 25, his objective was a maximum destruction of Saddam’s war machine.  On February 27, he wanted to continue the attack for at least one more day, sweeping into the Gulf and destroying everything on the way.  But then the administration came up with the idea of ending the ground assault at a magical “100 hours.”  This left Saddam with lots of equipment that he got out by repairing the downed bridges.  He had enough helicopters and tanks “to have devastating effects” on the insurgents who rose up against Saddam in Basra and other cities.

            This was the White House’s decision, not Schwarzkopf’s, and he’s disinclined to say anything critical of it.  If we chose not to destroy Saddam’s army and particularly the Republican Guard, why didn’t the United States at least make it a condition of the cease-fire that they turn over all their arms?  The allies were victors de facto, certainly; but, strangely, they chose not to cast the end of the war in terms of a surrender.  To an odd extent, they, not the Iraqis, were the petitioners.

            6.  Is it enough to fight a war and then for the victor, Pontius Pilate-like, to wash its hands of the aftermath, taking no responsibility for what ensues?

            At the end of World War II, America had no concern for the hundreds of thousands of Russians we forced back into Stalin’s hands; in the Gulf War, we were content to let chaos and slaughter reign inside Iraq after the cease-fire, at the cost of thousands of lives as Saddam imposed his will on the insurgents.  I remember watching in agony from half a world away, feeling it ‘criminal’ to be so oblivious to the tragic loose-ends that followed in the train of a job only partly completed.  The book makes no discussion of this.

            It Doesn’t Take a Hero is a compelling and inspiring story told by a great military leader.  Despite the humility expressed by the book’s title, Schwarzkopf truly ranks among one of America’s heroes.  Those wanting a fully satisfying account of the Gulf War, though, will have to supplement Schwarzkopf’s book with other histories.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Dwight D. Murphey