Thoughts on the Passing of General Schwarzkopf

When I read the note of the General’s passing, it was a bittersweet moment. The sweetness came from the flash of pleasant memories from the year of my life under his command as a member of the grand coalition that pushed the Iraqi’s out of Kuwait. General Schwartzkopf was a bit more than a decade older than me and his passing is another reminder something that we all face which is the finality of death.

Was he a brilliant leader? Was he a brilliant strategist and a modern day Patton or Bradley? I don’t know. That’s for historians who study the Schwartzkopfs of the world to tell.

What I do know was that General Schwartzkopf was savvy enough to effectively lead a coalition of that included ground forces from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Omani and the United Arab Emirates who fought alongside Western armies from France, the U.K. and the U.S. That alone made him very Eisenhower-esque.

Together, the coalition army pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait in less than a hundred hours of ground combat. It was a victory by a technologically superior, well led army following a well thought out plan. The strategy made Schwartzkopf very Patton-esque or enabled comparisons to another master of desert warfare, the German general by the name of Rommel. Keep in mind, the Iraqi army, which except for its elite divisions was poorly led and most of the conscripts didn’t want any part of fighting, especially after being bombed relentlessly for more than month.

I was too far down the totem pole and out on a ship in the Persian Gulf and never met him. I did see the effect and impact of the decisions he made and often caught wind of the internal tensions of the coalition brought about by different rules of engagement allowed by some of the participating forces. And, then there was the ying and yang of some of the operational tasking that was clearly driven by U.S. inter-service rivalries. Along with the U.S. Navy, in the Persian Gulf, there were navies from twenty-eight nations supporting the land forces, including the Soviet Union which was in the process of imploding.

The mission of the U.N. force was to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The air and ground campaign was and will be for many years, a model that will be studied in war colleges all over the world.

The Arab members of the coalition made it clear that regime change in Iraq was not part of the mission. This point is often lost in much of the commentary about what is often referred to as the First Gulf War. It is also one of the reasons why the war ended when it did. If the cease fire hadn’t stopped the fighting, we could have easily destroyed the Iraqi Republican Guard units fleeing into Iraq. The decision was made not to attack them and less than a year later, these same units were used to put down a Shiite rebellion in southern Iraq.

With perfect hindsight, we had the opportunity to completely destroy the Republican Guard as a military force and put Saddam Hussein out of business in 1991. We had the forces on the ground to properly occupy Iraq, find and destroy its military arsenals and chemical weapons which, at the time were not dispersed all around the country and, with some effort, create a new government. But we didn’t because our Arab allies would not have supported us. Instead, we wound up with ten plus years of half war while we were trying to enforce no-fly zones and sanctions that Hussein successful evaded.

One of the ironies of Desert Shield and Storm is within two years of the victory, the leaders of the Western democracies and the major architects of the coalition – President George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher of the U.K. and France’s Prime Minister Edith Crosson – were no longer in office. In 1991, President Mitterand, the president of France was already battling the prostate cancer that finally took his life in 1996. Yet, in Iraq, Saddam Hussein would remain in power until he was deposed in April, 2003. To many on the Arab street and those who don’t fully understand the democracies operate, the conclusion that many drew was the winner of Desert Storm was Iraq and Saddam Hussein because he was still running Iraq and those who led the coalition against him, were no longer in power!

My point is that in 1991, we – the U.S. – were brilliant in putting together a coalition to expel Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. Politically, everything fell into place. The military campaign was outstanding in execution. But in my humble opinion, we failed in the post-war phase. We didn’t have a realistic, executable plan with what to do with the aggressor, Saddam Hussein once his forces were pushed out of Kuwait. He was left in power leading a nation that was bruised and battered by its defeat. Yet, Hussein was defiant and still running a regime that was notorious in its brutality as well as its support for terrorism.

Having a viable plan to rebuild a defeated nation is the American way of going to war. It is one thing to defeat a nation’s army quickly which we did in 2003. It is another to ensure the defeated nation recovers. We invaded Iraq in 2003 with the bare minimum of forces necessary. Again, the strategy and execution was brilliant particularly against an army that for the most part, didn’t want to fight. Hussein’s strategy was clear from the outset, i.e. turn the conflict into a protracted urban guerilla war in which the U.S. forces continue to take casualties. Tactically, Hussein succeeded and we were not prepared. Religious differences – Shia versus Sunni – were exploited by the Iranians which made the problem of effectively governing while fighting a guerrilla war even more difficult.

We didn’t have enough troops on the ground to occupy the nation and keep Iraq pacified while we tried to help it rebuild. It is now naïve to believe that Western style democracies are built overnight from a traditional tribal, Middle Eastern culture.

Contrast this with what we did as an occupying army in Germany and Japan after World War II. In 1945, the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. were vast. Yet, under MacArthur’s leadership, we managed to help Japan rebuild. This is a lesson we didn’t learn or remember in 2003. A well thought out plan similar to Marshall’s strategy for Germany or MacArthur’s one for Japan may have been a cheaper in terms of lives and dollars. To succeed, you have to start with an occupying army of sufficient size and combat power to hold and pacify the country. In 2003, it would have taken longer to put that force in place, but if we did, I believe the investment in lives and dollars would have been less. And that is the sad part.

Marc Liebman