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Opening Arguments

Stormin' Norman

I neglected to say anything on the passing of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, someone I admired very much. If I had posted last week, it probably would have been overly sympathetic, the view of a former soldier of another soldier who did it longer and much better. This, I think, is a more balanced and accurate look at the general. On his role in the Gulf War:

Schwarzkopf’s responsibility for the outcome was secondary, but he did not do enough to warn the politicos about the consequences of their actions and he did convey somewhat misleading information about how far advanced his plans for the destruction of the Republican Guard actually were. Even worse, in the cease-fire negotiations which he handled personally, he naively allowed the Iraqi regime to continue flying rotary-wing aircraft, little realizing that they would be used for the suppression of popular revolts.

“Stormin’ Norman” apparently did not view it as his duty to deal with such matters. He was a superb soldier who inspired the troops and kept confidence in the war effort back home (and around the world) with his bravado briefings. But he exemplified the narrowly tactical outlook adopted by most U.S. military commanders—one that makes it harder to translate tactical success into lasting strategic success.

None of this should take away from his genuine heroism, exemplified by an incident during the Vietnam War when, as a battalion commander, he ventured into a minefield to pull some of his soldiers to safety. Nor does it deprecate his considerable dedication to the Army and the country, and the great skill he showed in implementing (if not designing) the famous “left hook” which routed Saddam Hussein’s army.

But it does suggest that there were certain limits to his generalship which, as Tom Ricks argues in his new book The Generals, continue to confound the U.S. to this day—witness the uninspired performance in Iraq of Ricardo Sanchez, George Casey, and other generals who were perfectly competent tacticians but did not always grasp the big picture. One of the few exceptions was David Petraeus, but now he is disgraced because of a scandal unrelated to his military capabilities.

I think the comments about the "limits to his generalship" could apply to all commanders. We want them to see some of the big picure, at least enough that the tactical successes are in service to strategic successes, and enough to tell their civilian bosses of pitfalls they might not have foreseen. But the more they go beyond that, the more they get into areas best left to elected leaders, who represent us all, after all. They go to war in our name, and the generals should just tell us how to do it, not what to do or why.


Bob G,
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 11:58am


You make an excellent point regarding TACTICAL and STRATEGIC aspects to waged warfare.

And yes, every general (no matter how many stars) or commander, or even a budding emperor (Napoleon comes to mind) never sees the ENTIRE picture.

No one general can do it all, and maybe that's why we often have plenty to go around...

(sometimes more than we have troops in the trenches)

But once in a while, a couple will rise above the rest.


Good post.

Stay safe out there.