Inside the General's Head WAR IN THE GULF

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

February 13, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — My colleagues in Riyadh won't agree, but in one critical way the U.S. commander out there may be telling the world more, rather than less, than it needs to know. By the world, in this case, I mean Saddam Hussein.

Since reporters in the Persian Gulf theater are allowed little contact with the troops in the field, so far our side is personified not by GI Joe but by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who is running the show. He is to this war what Eisenhower was to World War II, MacArthur was to Korea (up to a point), and Westmoreland was to Vietnam.

But there are differences, in both method and personality.

In Saigon, for example, the daily press briefings were called ''the 5 o'clock follies,'' because reporters considered it a song-and-dance routine that put out the official line. That line sometimes varied from what reporters had seen with their own eyes in the field. But those who have covered both that war and this one find themselves longing for the bad old days in Saigon. The follies put out much more detailed news than what comes out of the briefings in Saudi Arabia.

In Saigon, an officer told what had happened in the past 24 hours, identifying specific units and targets, describing battles blow-by- blow. Sometimes reports were held up until an action was completed, and sometimes there were debates, over questions like whether a given clash was an ''ambush'' or a ''meeting engagement.'' The Army preferred the latter.

But in contrast to current briefings in Riyadh and at the Pentagon, there was something more than procedure to argue about -- substance, loads of it. There may be good reasons: These briefings, unlike the ones in Saigon, are telecast -- live -- and presumably Saddam Hussein in his bunker can still receive them. Of course, the flip side of that makes live TV the perfect medium for planting disinformation at enemy headquarters.

While General Schwarzkopf's briefers are offering very little beyond Nintendo pictures about operations, the four-star general himself is telling all there is to know about what makes him tick. In history, opposing generals have gone to great lengths to get inside the minds of their enemies, and to protect their own thoughts from the other side.

In Vietnam, General Westmoreland was reluctant to do on-the-record briefings. I traveled extensively with him, got to know him well in writing a book about him, yet he refused flatly to tell me what books of strategy or what battles he learned most from, or even what historic generals he most admired.

One of them may have been Stonewall Jackson, for in being so reticent, General Westmoreland was emulating the Confederate hero. In a war when generals' official battle reports were often published soon after they were written, Jackson made his terse and uninformative. In an army that did not issue medals, he disappointed his subordinates by being stingy with official praise for individuals. He was unwilling to offer the enemy any grain of information that might be useful in the next battle.

Since General Schwarzkopf became famous, everything an opponent might want to know about his past has been spread on the record, with his cooperation. For example, when he was at West Point, his favorite general was Alexander the Great. Perhaps because it seemed impolitic for the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East to admire the ancient conqueror of that region, the general has disclosed that since cadet days, he has ** dropped Alexander as his favorite. Now he likes U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Creighton Abrams.

If I were in Mr. Hussein's bunker, I would be reading up on these American heroes. I would note that Grant opted for a war of attrition, slugging his way to Richmond at the cost of tens of thousands of soldiers' lives. I would find that Sherman, who said something approximating ''War is hell,'' did his best to make it that, scorching the earth of the Confederacy. I would read that Abrams, before succeeding Westmoreland in Vietnam, was a World War II tank commander who later updated the U.S. armored-warfare manual, emphasizing the shock value of mass attack.

If I were Mr. Hussein, I would smile, anticipating that General Schwarzkopf was going to fight just the kind of war that suited me best. Then I would blink a few times and wonder -- could all this be disinformation, spread to deceive Iraq before the Allies strike some other way? Not being Mr. Hussein, I will pray that that's just what it is.

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