War chief's four stars on a blue collar

Franks: The gruff but steady U.S. general is known for his ability to connect with superiors and sergeants alike.

War In Iraq

March 25, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - To add a dash of Hollywood to the military briefings from Central Command in Qatar, the Pentagon enlisted a top art director (fresh from a Michael Douglas movie) to design the high-tech set, with its sleek, futuristic podium and giant plasma screens. It is a far cry from the flip charts that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf used during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

But the person front and center this time - Gen. Tommy Franks, who as chief of Central Command is directing nearly 300,000 troops in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq - is the antithesis of flash and glamour.

At 57, the Oklahoma-born and Texas-reared artillery man is a big, imposing four-star general known for his gruff demeanor and salty language, his profound indifference to the limelight and his fierce devotion to the muddy-boots soldiers - those he has called the military's "blue-collar workers" - whom he has led into combat.

"He is what we like to call a soldier who also happens to be a general," says Army Maj. Steve Warren, who served under Franks in South Korea in the late 1990s.

In his desert camouflage fatigues, with his Texas twang, close-cropped hair and no-nonsense style, the 6-foot-3 Franks held his first televised briefing of the war Saturday. But it's unlikely the steady and straight-shooting general will achieve the kind of superstar status that the dynamic Stormin' Norman did during Operation Desert Storm.

He's uncomfortable in the spotlight and may send aides to conduct many of the daily briefings, as he did Sunday, while he hunkers down behind the scenes. Even Franks has noted the contrast with the earlier gulf war general saying, "Tommy Franks is no Norman Schwarzkopf."

"Tommy Franks is not a show guy," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "He's steady. He's an old football coach, a big man, a confident guy. Soldiers love and trust him."

In his briefing from Qatar yesterday, he was direct, unflappable and careful not to make any headlines. Asked about Hussein's televised address, he said, "I started to give a joke analogy, and I don't think I will." Instead, he said simply, "This is not about one man; this is about an oppressive regime. So that's my view."

His message for Iraqis who might have a finger on the trigger of a weapon of mass destruction: "Don't do it."

Since July 2000, when the former private was awarded his fourth star and named chief of Central Command, Franks has been responsible for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia - 25 countries from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan that make up the most volatile region of the world.

Unlike many of his predecessors who came out of the U.S. Military Academy, Franks rose through the Army ranks after an undistinguished - dismal, in fact - brush with academics.

Solid, hard-working

But those who have worked with him praise him as a solid and hard-working leader and note his particular talent for engaging those above him and below him.

As a division commander in South Korea, he was known to leave golf games with senior officers to drink a beer with the enlisted troops picnicking by the seventh hole. Recently, at a dinner at his new headquarters in Qatar, he insisted on sitting at a corner table with a sergeant rather than at the table with other generals and dignitaries.

But in the past year, it has been his dexterity in dealing with his formidable and famously demanding boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and other top Pentagon officials in developing the strategy for war that has served him well, say some involved in the planning.

"Rumsfeld is a hard boss, and a number of his principal subordinates are ideologues, so discussions with them are difficult," says one longtime Franks associate. "Tommy had to work through some of that."

He also had to work through initial reservations on the part of top administration officials about whether Franks - less polished, articulate and intellectual than some of his predecessors - was up to the job of commanding a war in Iraq.

Although the war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 had been generally deemed a success, skeptics wondered whether Franks was innovative enough to lead a 21st-century war on terrorism and criticized him for failing to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

War planning

But rather than allow Franks to retire as he was planning to do last year, President Bush asked the loyal, steady and personable general - who, like George and Laura Bush, grew up in Midland, Texas - to stay on for the mission in Iraq.

Rumsfeld reportedly rejected Franks' initial plans to topple Hussein, thinking the strategy looked too much like that of the 1991 gulf war - with a long air campaign followed by a ground attack - and involved too many troops.

The defense secretary wanted a quicker, lighter operation with a force half the size that Franks envisioned, a stronger special forces presence, and a more simultaneous air-and-ground attack.

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