Norman Schwartzkopf: The Tarnished Hero

Now that American general Norman Schwartzkopf has been laid to rest and all the accolades befitting a war hero have been bestowed upon him, it’s probably safe to look a little more objectively at the man.

There is little doubt that in the military, Schwartzkopf was much admired for his loyalty and support of American soldiers.  He’s often thought of as the man who “won” the 1991 Iraq conflict and the man who came on TV every day to give us encouraging news about the war effort.  For many, he epitomized the very nature of American military hubris with his cocky assessment of the Iraqi army and of Saddam Hussein.

This hubris and the dehumanization of the Iraqis went a long way toward diminishing the image of the United States around the world.  You don’t have to be a Saddam apologist to dislike how Schwartzkopf handled his job in the early 1990’s.  In watching many clips of him over the past week, it all came rushing back to me what an embarrassment he was to our country.

Comments like these two show the arrogance of Schwartzkopf and much he damaged our image abroad during his career as “stand-up general. “Going to war without France is like going to war without an accordion” and “As far as Saddam Hussein being a great military strategist, he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational arts, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier.  Other than that, he a great military mind, I want you to know that. (as the journalists laugh)”

Many of his “pep talks” sounded like the stuff you get from over-hyped football coaches making their last-minute locker room speeches.  His grandfatherly demeanor and his rah-rah rabble made him a media sensation.  We couldn’t seem to get enough of his “down home humor” on the rising death tolls among the Iraqi military and civilians.  His unsophisticated patriotism transported me back into the middle of Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.”

More importantly, Schwartzkopf was instrumental in limiting access to the truth about the war by creating “the embedded journalist.”  While hailed as a way to get the American people news of the war while keeping the journalists safe, the embedded journalist program actually, and intentionally, limited our access to news.   In exchange for a promise to tell only the news the military approved, journalists were allowed “unprecedented” access to the soldiers and the battles.

In the end, of course, the American people were not allowed to see what was really going on.  If all we could hear was what the American military wanted us to hear, then we were only going to hear news that assured us that everything was fine.  The fact that the military and Schwartzkopf argued that this censorship was “protection” for journalists only made it harder to attack the policy.  We all want, after all, our journalists to be “safe” on the battlefield.

Combine this controlled access to information with the ban on showing American military caskets on tv or in the newspapers, and you have a tidy little war in which the military creates and carries out its own plans without any civilian scrutiny.  The casket ban (lifted in 2009) was perhaps the most damning indictment of Schwartzkopf’s plan to run his war his way and without the scrutiny of those pesky journalists.  Claiming he was protecting the privacy of the families of dead soldiers, (something everyone this side of WestboroBaptistChurch should agree with), Schwartzkopf was really trying to prevent what happened in Vietnam.  As the body count rises, citizens are more likely to demand an end to the conflict.  It was never adequately explained how showing a flag-draped casket was violating anyone’s privacy since there was no way to tell who was in the casket.  But when Grandpa Norman smiles and tells us it’s best for us, we collectively nod our heads and thank God that Schwarzkopf is looking out for us.

Until the embedded journalist program is ended, we will never be able to know the truth about what’s going on during wartime.  And Schwartzkopf’s patronizing assertion that his “truth” is the only one we need to worry about is not particularly convincing.  Now that he has died, we can afford to pay less homage to his legacy, and continue to repair the damage he did to our country’s reputation.

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