When H. Norman Schwarzkopf drove Saddam Hussein’s force out of Kuwait, he not only won the Mother of All Battles, he also recaptured the standard from Giap’s trophy room. From 1975 until that February, 1991 the accepted narrative forged by the press in Vietnam was that America was bound to lose any clash of arms in the Third World. Schwarzkopf’s performance shattered that narrative so thoroughly that some regarded its effects as dangerously destabilizing.
He died today at 78.
Shortly after his famous victory Schwarzkopf addressed the corps of cadets at West Point. But anyone who had hoped to hear a lesson in strategy and tactics heard something else. Schwarzkopf argued that victory required more than mere strength; more than competence. It above all demanded the kind of virtue best described as the opposite of cynicism; a kind of keeping of the faith; the determination never to undertake so sacred a business as war for anything so frivolous as a bubble reputation at the polls or to advance talking points. He told the cadets that:
To be a 21st-century leader, you must have two things: competence and character.
I’ve met a lot of leaders that were very, very, very competent. But they didn’t have character. For every job they did well in the Army, they sought reward in the form of promotions, in the form of awards and decorations, in the form of getting ahead at the expense of somebody else, in the form of another piece of paper that awarded them another degree. The only reason why they wanted that was because it was a sure road to faster promotion, to somehow get to the top. You see, these were very competent people, but they lacked character…
I’ve seen competent leaders who stood in front of a platoon and saw it as a platoon. But I’ve seen great leaders who stood in front of a platoon and saw it as 44 individuals, each of whom had his hopes, each of whom had his aspirations, each of whom wanted to live, each of whom wanted to do good. So, you must have character. Some great man once said that character is seen only when nobody is watching. It’s not what people do when they are being watched that demonstrates character, it’s what they do when they are not being watched that demonstrates true character. And that’s sort of what it’s all about. To lead in the 21st Century, to take soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coastguardsmen into battle, you will be required to have both competence and character. You say, “How do I do that?. How do I do that?” The answer is very simple–and I guess this is what I really want to tell you most of all. You are being taught every day at this great institution how to do that. I have a classmate–one of the most ethical and moral people I’ve ever met. I was discussing with him one day what gave him his great character. He said, “Norm, that’s easy. When I went to West Point, I was one of those guys that really believed what they told us up there. And I still do.”
Out there among you are cynics. They are the people who scoff at what you are learning here. They are the people who scoff at hard work. But they don’t know what they are talking about, let me tell you. I can assure you that when the going gets tough and your country needs them, they are not going to be there. They WILL NOT be there. But you will.
Competence with character. That’s what you must have. That’s what you are going to carry with you from West Point. Those of you who really believe what you are learning here. To hell with the cynics. Believe it! Believe it! Believe it! You must believe it if you are going to be a leader of the 21st-century military. You must believe it!
Today, two decades after Desert Storm, belief is once again out of fashion. Like the Vietnam generation the public is told that conflicts are to be ‘managed’ never to be won. But that problem, I think Schwarzkopf tried to tell us, arises from the poverty of the ends rather than a lack of the means. Victory must never be defined in terms of impossibilities. But it must be defined in some fashion. It had to be cast as something achievable.
He called the courage to embrace the right ends ‘character’. I suppose the opposite of this virtue would be named ‘opportunism’ or you could use the term that was once current as a form of abuse until Schwarzkopf retired it from the dictionary; you could call it Vietnam.