‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf was a formidable figure: formidable in size, in his fearsome temper—and as a genius in the art of war.
I first met the General in Oman a few weeks before the unleashing of the First Gulf War of 1990, where he commanded a remarkable array of coalition forces, including Egyptians and Syrians. At first glimpse it was hard to take seriously the bear-like figure, bursting out of his desert fatigues, with a cap that seemed several sizes too small. But within five minutes it was plain that here was a most remarkable man. Speaking very directly, he made it clear that the coming battle would be ‘short and sharp.’ He was surprisingly open in outlining his strategy. Rather than butt his head up frontally against Saddam’s formidable fixed defenses, he would perform (in American football parlance) ‘an end-run far to the west.’
This was more or less what he did do, defeating Saddam’s massive forces in 100 hours of battle. What the record reveals is that, as well as being a brilliant strategist and battlefield manager, in dealing with the Arab forces under the Coalition Command, he proved to be also a diplomat and politician of quite staggering ability. And he had studied history.
Meeting him again in London after the Gulf War, I asked him what the precedents had been for his classic battle plan of ‘Desert Storm.’? The ‘Manstein Plan’ which had defeated France by splitting the Allied armies in May 1940 was one, he said; though more immediate had been its forerunner, the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ of 1914. This great turning movement was intended to swing the Kaiser’s army round behind Paris, taking the French from the rear. It failed — only just; but it was a similar manoeuvre, of far greater daring, which enabled Schwarzkopf to pin Saddam’s Republican Guard up against the Euphrates within a hundred hours.
Privately he had favoured going on, into Iraq, to complete the smashing of Saddam’s forces. That might well have saved the West the disaster of Blair’s baby, the Second Gulf War. But, as ground commander, he was held back by the restraining influences of both his superior, General Colin Powell (whom he held in total respect), and the admirable but wimpish President, George Bush Senior.
At our second encounter, I asked Schwarzkopf what had been his biggest headache in the war? He replied instantly: ‘The media.’ It was, he explained, ‘a management problem; in Vietnam, we had 80 press, and news came on TV 36 hours later; in the Gulf we had 2,060 – and instantaneous TV – how do you control such a huge number?’ In 1990 he had ‘switched off all TVs in my HQ,’ If there were heavy losses, ‘I didn’t want it to get into the brain cells of my staff – better to rely on their own instantaneous judgments than Stateside experts, often giving wrong assessments.’
I asked him what might have happened if there had been CNN on Omaha Beach, that first bloody day of June 6 1944? He replied simply: ‘There would have been no D-Day plus 2.’ His British counterpart, General de la Billière, confirmed to me he had shared ‘Stormin’ Norman’s’ anxiety about the media; as he wrote to his wife when Gulf One began: ‘It really is war by TV.’