This post was originally published earlier in 2021 as we looked back on the 30th Anniversary of the First Gulf War. It is re-posted on the occasion of the funeral for Colin Powell
We continue the series on the First Gulf War, underway 30 years ago. Today we focus on the leadership: Powell & Schwarzkopf
Commander in Chief
George H.W. Bush was the Commander in Chief. He was elected to office in November 1988, defeating Michael Dukakis. Bush served two terms as Vice president under Ronald Reagan. I found him to be very approachable as I served in the honor guard at the Class of 1982’s Graduation. “How you doing,” he asked me as he made his way from the stage to the limousine. I was not supposed to speak as I stood saluting with my rifle, I did so anyway. “Fine sir”, as he smiled and walked by.
Bush had served in a variety of positions, Ambassador to China, US Representative from Texas. He had left the Northeast to go to the west plains of Texas to start a successful oil business in 1950. It was refreshing to hear of a president who was not a lifelong politician.
Most importantly George Bush had served in the military. His exploits as Navy pilot are chronicled in a past blog. At one time in American history, if a man ran for office and had not served in the military, it counted as a major strike against him. “Why didn’t you serve,” was a common question of candidates. Bush’s firsthand experience in the military served the First Gulf War cause well.
General Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs. He was finishing a decorated military career. Powell served in Vietnam as a captain and a major. He commanded the high-profile V Corps in Europe as a Lieutenant General. Moving through the ranks, he entered “quasi” civilian life when he served as National Security Adviser under Ronald Reagan.
CINC Central Command
General Norman Schwarzkopf, a West Point graduate, was the commander of Central Command located in Tampa Florida. Like Powell, Schwarzkopf had served two tours in Vietnam as a young officer. Norman’s dad was a military man as well, serving as an advisor in Iran following World War II trying to help the Shah establish a western style democracy. His Dad also established the New Jersey State patrol, among his other accomplishments.
Schwarzkopf assumed command of Central Command in 1988 responsible for the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. He immediately realized that US plans for the region centered on a Soviet invasion of Iran. Schwarzkopf correctly anticipated a more likely threat. The buildup of Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein. Central Command began planning for such a contingency months before the Iraqis invaded Kuwait.
The Key Moment
When president George HW Bush drew a line in the sand and told Iraq they most withdraw from Kuwait or face dire consequences, Powell and Schwarzkopf went for a visit. They approached President Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney with a message. “If you want us to fight a war for you, you need to let us run it”, was the essence of the message.
Both Powell and Schwarzkopf had served in Vietnam as young officers and witnessed/lived firsthand the awful tactics and strategies employed when President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara ran the war from Washington DC.
Johnson and McNamara’s arrogant micromanagement of the military is well chronicled in the book, Dereliction of Duty, by H.R. McMaster. I commend it highly. As an example, Johnson and McNamara, would have the Air Force Chief of Staff stand outside the Oval Office, while they personally chose targets on a map to bomb in North Vietnam.
The results for our military in theatre in Vietnam were disastrous.
Powell and Schwarzkopf did not want a repeat performance in the Persian Gulf – and they were not going to stand by and let it happen. Mr. President, I you want to have us fight a war, you have to let us run it.
Fortunately, both President Bush and Secretary Cheney understood the principle of military control, but military leadership and execution.
My youth pastor told me as a 16-year-old, everything rises and falls on leadership. He was right and we saw the effect in the First Gulf War.
Next time, we will look at the leader of the air campaign.