Schwarzkopf: Making peace with his past

October 05, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- When Norman Schwarzkopf sat down last year to write his autobiography, he had a good idea of what he wanted to present. It would be a straightforward account of his 35 years of service in the U.S. Army, something like "The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant" -- a book he admired greatly and one considered one of the best memoirs by a military man.

The bulk of the book, of course, would deal with Mr. Schwarzkopf's own role as commander-in-chief of the victorious Allied forces during the just-ended Persian Gulf war. But then something happened. He started writing about his mother's alcoholism, for many years a closely guarded family secret. And then he wrote about his own drinking problems. And how psychic wounds caused by two tours in Vietnam would not heal. Before he knew it, he had produced a book unlike anything he had envisioned.

That book, "It Doesn't Take a Hero," hit the bookstores last week. Although at times surprisingly forgiving, even kind, given Mr. Schwarzkopf's reputation as a forthright and opinionated man, "Hero" is crisply written and often diverting.

I used to dread coming home at night. I'd go around the side of the house, where there was a window that looked into the kitchen. I'd stand in the dark and look inside and try to judge what kind of night it was going to be. Mom had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. When she was sober, she was the sweetest, most sensitive, loving, and intelligent person you could ever meet. But when she was drunk she was a holy terror."

"I didn't expect quite so much personal emotion to come out," concedes Mr. Schwarzkopf, 59, wearing a dark blue business suit that doesn't seem nearly as natural a fit on his burly frame as the Army fatigues he wore for so many years. "When you have gone back and taken a very hard look at yourself, you tend to remember over the years mostly the good stuff -- only the fun stuff, only the things that turned out right. And when you go back and take this analysis of yourself, you're forced to revisit things that you'd rather not revisit, revisit times you'd rather not revisit."

There were raised eyebrows in the publishing world last year when it was announced that Bantam was reportedly paying Mr. Schwarzkopf more than $5 million for the rights to his memoirs. First-time authors, of course, don't usually merit that kind of advance, but then, most novice authors didn't also head an army that secured one of the fastest victories in modern warfare. (First-time authors don't have 750,000 copies of their books out in the first week of publication, either.)

The book will have to be a huge best seller for Bantam to recoup its investment, but early signs are good. Last Wednesday, Mr. Schwarzkopf signed the staggering number of 2,000 copies of his book at a suburban Washington bookstore.

One reason, he wrote "Hero," he says, was concern over what he sees are misconceptions about the gulf war.

"There's a lot of misguided revisionist thinking going on now," he says, his frustration evident, for "every war I've ever been involved in, some myths pop up and you can't seem to kill them." That's why he hopes his book "leaves the image that the gulf war was a very successful war that accomplished a great many things. . . .

"No, we didn't need to continue on to Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein, as a lot of people are saying now," Mr. Schwarzkopf continues forcefully. "We weren't authorized to by the U.N. resolution -- only to force Saddam from Kuwait -- and we would have become hopelessly bogged down in a deteriorating country [Iraq]. We would have been considered occupying forces."

Questions about the war's denouement notwithstanding, Mr. Schwarzkopf unquestionably emerged from Desert Storm a star. Physically, he was striking: 6 feet 3, 220 pounds. He was quick-thinking and blunt; his press briefings at Central Command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, showed him at his best -- in command, eloquent when needed, brusque and acerbic when he didn't like the line of questioning. Then one would see hints of his famous explosive temper, which had earned him the nickname "Stormin' Norman."

When the war against Iraq was completed in six short weeks, he and the rest of the Desert Storm forces were treated to glorious homecomings -- Mr. Schwarzkopf at the head of a ticker-tape parade in New York, taking in the Kentucky Derby, and so on.

His public visibility elicited some grumbling. Even Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a friend and a person with whom Mr. Schwarzkopf worked closely during the gulf war, was concerned, according to a new book. Howard Means writes in "Colin Powell: Soldier/Statesman -- Statesman/Soldier": "Among those who appeared to believe that Schwarzkopf had stayed on too long at his dance with celebrity was Colin Powell, according to a high-ranking Pentagon official who had talked to him about the matter in November, 1991. 'I know,' this official says, 'that Colin feels Schwarzkopf has overplayed his hand.' "

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