Death Of A Hero

Photograph: Bob Daugherty/AP

The General, The Media Adulation And The Forgotten Victims

By David Cromwell


One measure of a society’s honesty is what it says about its political and military leaders when they die. Are the deceased leader’s perceived virtues exalted, while any blemishes are airbrushed out of the picture? Recent media coverage following the death of General “Stormin’ ” Norman Schwarzkopf, the Allied military commander during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, is a case in point.

A glowing tribute to the general appeared in the Independent by Rupert Cornwell, the paper’s longstanding safe pair of hands on US politics. Cornwell revved up the rhetoric:

‘Not since the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, and Generals named Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur, was there a US military hero like Norman Schwarzkopf. He had brains, self-confidence and swagger by the truckload. He gave quotes to die for. Most important of all, he was a winner.’

Cornwell quickly reached top gear:

‘The first Gulf war, in which Schwarzkopf commanded the 670,000-strong US-led coalition force that swept Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991 in a ground war lasting 100 hours, restored to the American military the self-belief, reputation and prestige that had been lost in the disaster of Vietnam a generation earlier. And for the first time in almost half a century a general had caught America’s national imagination.’

An obituary in the Daily Telegraph contined the theme, noting of the 1991 Gulf War:

‘It had been utterly one-sided. Schwarzkopf had expected between 10,000 and 20,000 casualties and was, by his own admission, profoundly surprised that only a few hundred Allied soldiers were killed in the campaign. When he made his victory speech he described the toll as “miraculous”.’

There was no mention of the not so ‘miraculous’ Iraq death toll (which we’ll come to below). But that’s par for the course.

Schwarzkopf’s autobiography, noted the Telegraph, was titled ‘It Doesn’t Take A Hero’. But he was a sensitive hero, as The Times took pains to point out:

 ‘He served in Vietnam, and came back a far more thoughtful soldier.’


‘Not only had he endured the political anxieties of the Vietnam War but had also travelled widely and lived in the Middle East as a boy. Schwarzkopf was the first to perceive that his military plans must not upset the rulers of Saudi Arabia, from where the attack on Iraq was to be launched, the British, French or any other national member of the coalition, otherwise it would quickly begin to fall apart. (‘General H. Norman Schwarzkopf; Commander of coalition forces during the First Gulf War who was noted for his professionalism and his tactical and political awareness’, Obituary, The Times, December 29, 2012).

The Los Angeles Times stitched together a whole series of propaganda gems to maintain the mythology of the US as the good guys. Readers were told that ‘burly “Stormin’ Norman” came to define the nation’s renewed sense of military pride.’

The paper gave pride of place to warm words from former President George Bush Sr., as did much of the rest of the corporate media. Schwarzkopf, he said, was ‘a true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation.’ The newspaper noted that Schwarzkopf saw the Vietnam War as a ‘cesspool’ in which ‘military commanders were more interested in promoting their careers than in winning the war.’ The implication was that if only the US had had more burly heroes in Vietnam, the US might have won that war!

President Obama was not to be outdone in the gushing praise-storm. ‘We’ve lost an American original’, the White House said in a statement.

‘Gen. Schwarzkopf stood tall for the country and Army he loved. Our prayers are with the Schwarzkopf family, who tonight can know that his legacy will endure in a nation that is more secure because of his patriotic service.’

The Guardian also fondly remembered the great man – ‘I’d like to think I’m a caring human being’- and provided a hagiographic gallery of heroic Schwarzkopf images on its website.

If all this glorification of a military commander had happened in the North Korean or the Soviet-era press, lavishly praising an ‘original’ who’d given years of ‘patriotic service’ in wars abroad, it would have rightly elicited scorn and ridicule amongst commentators here.

Destroying Iraq’s Life Support Systems

The US-led attack ‘to drive Saddam from Kuwait’ in the Gulf War began on January 16, 1991. French diplomat Eric Rouleau later observed that Iraqis:

‘had difficulty comprehending the Allied rationale for using air power to systematically destroy or cripple Iraqi infrastructure and industry: electric power stations (92 percent of installed capacity destroyed), refineries (80 percent of production capacity), petrochemical complexes, telecommunications centers (including 135 telephone networks), bridges (more than 100), roads, highways, railroads, hundreds of locomotives and boxcars full of goods, radio and television broadcasting stations, cement plants, and factories producing aluminum, textiles, electric cables, and medical supplies.’ (Eric Rouleau, ‘The View From France: America’s Unyielding Policy toward Iraq’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 1, January/February 1995).

Noam Chomsky noted that the massive assault on civilian infrastructure was ‘a form of biological warfare, having little relation to driving Iraq from Kuwait — rather, designed for long-term U.S. political ends.’ This was not so much war, ‘but state terrorism, on a colossal scale.’ (Noam Chomsky, ‘Deterring Democracy’, Vintage, 1992, p. 410).

Former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark said that: 

‘U.S. planes flew more than 109,000 sorties, raining 88,000 tons of bombs, the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas […] Iraq lost between 125,000 and 150,000 soldiers. The U.S. has said it lost 148 in combat, and of those, 37 were caused by friendly fire […] U.S. planes pounded troops in the Kuwaiti theater of operations and southern Iraq with carpetbombing, fuel-air explosives, and other illegal weaponry.’ Napalm bombs and cluster bombs were unleashed. (Ramsey Clark, ‘The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf’, Thunder’s Mouth, 1992).

Media reporting underpinned and amplified the military script that the Allied attack would rely on ‘surgical’ strikes and ‘smart’ bombs against ‘Saddam’s war machine’. John Pilger exposed the propaganda carried in the British press:

‘ “GO GET HIM BOYS,” said the London Daily Star on the day war broke out. The London Daily Mirror juxtaposed pictures of a soldier and an airman beneath the banner headline, “THE HEROES,” with a scowling Saddam Hussein, headlined “THE VILLAIN.” […] anything short of resolute military action was, like the Munich Agreement in 1938, the work of the “spineless appeasers” (said the London Sun) and “the give-sanctions-a-chance-brigade” (Daily Express).’ (John Pilger, ‘Hidden Agendas’, Vintage, 1998, p. 44).

Pilger added:

‘ “The world watched in awe,” reported the Daily Mirror, “as Stormin’ Norman played his “home video”—revealing how allied planes are using Star Wars technology to destroy vital Iraqi targets. Just like Luke Skywalker maneuvring his fighter into the heart of Darth Vader’s space complex, the US pilots zeroed into the very heart of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad.” (Ibid., p. 45).

BBC News presented a suitably sober version of the same propaganda:

‘The BBC’s David Dimbleby spoke urgently about the “surgical” effect of the new bombs, which were known by the name “smart,” as if to endow them with human intelligence. As Greg Philo and Greg McLaughlin wrote in their review of the reporting of the war, the assumption that the “surgical” weapons ensured low civilian casualties freed journalists from their humanitarian “dilemma.”‘ (Ibid., p. 45).

Philo and McLaughlin noted:

‘Like two sports commentators, David Dimbleby and the BBC defence correspondent, David Shukman, were almost rapt with enthusiasm. […] They called for freeze-frames and replays and they highlighted “the action” on screen with computer “light-pens.” “This is the promised hi-tech war,” said Shukman. “Defence contractors for some time have been trying to convince everybody that hi-tech weapons can work…. Now, by isolating [the target], they are able to destroy [it]…without causing casualties among the civilian population around.'” (Quoted, Ibid., p. 45).

But as Ramsey Clark noted after the Gulf War:

‘The surgical strike myth was a cynical way to conceal the truth. The bombing was a deadly, calculated, and deeply immoral strategy to bring Iraq to its knees by destroying the essential facilities and support systems of the entire society. . . . The overall plan was described [by Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman] after interviews with several of the war’s top planners and extensive research into how targets were determined […]: “Many of the targets were chosen only secondarily to contribute to the military defeat of [Iraq]. . . . Military planners hoped the bombing would amplify the economic and psychological impact of international sanctions on Iraqi society. . . They deliberately did great harm to Iraq’s ability to support itself as an industrial society. . . .” Compounded by [United Nations] sanctions [maintained especially at the behest of Washington and London], the damage to life-support systems in Iraq killed more after the war than direct attacks did during the war. . .’ (Clark, op. cit.).

Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team on Iraq, reported that the allied bombardment:

‘effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care…Food warehouses, hospitals and markets were bombed. Power stations were repeatedly attacked until electricity supplies were at only 4 percent of prewar levels.’ Hoskins’ team asked themselves ‘if these children are not the most suffering child population on earth.’ (Quoted, Mark Curtis, ‘The Ambiguities Of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945’, Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-90).

The major international relief agencies reported that 1.8 million people had been made homeless, and Iraq’s electricity, water, sewage, communications, health, agriculture and industrial infrastructure had been ‘substantially destroyed’, producing ‘conditions for famine and epidemics.’ The Clark Commission concluded that the US-led assault violated the Geneva Convention of 1949 which expressly prohibits attacks on ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas…crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works,’ as well as ‘dams, dykes and electrical generating stations,’ without which there will be ‘consequent severe losses among the civilian population.’ (Pilger, op. cit., p. 53).

A UN team visiting Iraq immediately after the Gulf War summarised:

‘the recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the infrastructure…. Most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous…’ (Quoted, Howard Zinn, ‘A People’s History of the United States’, Perennial, 1999, p. 599).

The Flesh And Blood Of Collateral Damage

As for the war dead, Pilger observed that:

‘General Schwarzkopf’s policy was that Iraqi dead were not to be counted. One of his senior officers boasted, “This is the first war in modern times where every screwdriver, every nail is accounted for.” As for human beings, he added, “I don’t think anybody is going to be able to come up with an accurate count for the Iraqi dead.” In fact, Schwarzkopf did provide figures to Congress, indicating that at least 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed. He offered no estimate of civilian deaths.’ (Pilger, op. cit., p. 51).

Indeed when Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the number of Iraqis killed, he said: ‘It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.’

Among the number that didn’t ‘terribly interest’ Powell, or presumably Schwarzkopf, were the 400 people, possibly many more, who were incinerated in the Amariyah civilian bomb shelter in Baghdad when two bombs landed on it in the early morning hours of February 13, 1991. Many, perhaps most, of the dead were women and children.

Ramsey Clark recounts that:

‘Neighborhood residents heard screams as people tried to get out of the shelter. They screamed for four minutes. Then the second bomb hit, killing almost everybody. The screaming ceased. The U.S. public saw sanitized, heavily edited footage of the bombed shelter. But the Columbia Journalism Review reported in its May/June 1991 issue that much more graphic images were shown on news reports in Jordan and Baghdad […]. The Review obtained the footage via unedited C.N.N. feeds and Baghdad’s W.T.N., and described it as follows: “This reporter viewed the unedited Baghdad feeds […]. They showed scenes of incredible carnage. Nearly all the bodies were charred into blackness; in some cases the heat had been so great that entire limbs were burned off. Among the corpses were those of at least six babies and ten children, most of them so severely burned that their gender could not be determined. Rescue workers collapsed in grief.”‘ (Clark, op. cit.).

In 1995, Maggie O’ Kane had a moving piece in the Guardian about Sergeant Joe Queen from Bryson City, North Carolina. He had seen much of the war from inside a US armoured bulldozer:

‘His job was to bury the Iraqis alive in their trenches and then cover over the trenches real smooth so the rest of the Big Red One, as the First Armoured Mechanised Brigade is called, could come nice and easy behind him.

‘Joe Queen doesn’t know how many Iraqi troops he buried alive on the front line. But five years later, at his military base in Georgia, he remembers well how it worked:

‘”The sand was so soft that once the blade hits the sand it just caves in right on the sides, so we never did go back and forth. So you are travelling at five, six, seven miles an hour just moving along the trench . . . You don’t see him. You’re up there in the half hatch and you know what you got to do. You did it so much you could close your eyes and do it . . . I don’t think they had any idea because the look on their faces as we came through the berm was just a look of shock.” […] Military sources in Baghdad and Washington put the total number of Iraqis buried alive during the war as between one and two thousand.

‘”While I was retreating, I saw some of the soldiers trying to surrender, but they were buried. There were two kinds of bulldozers, real ones, actual ones, and also they had tanks and they put something like a bulldozer blade in front of them. Some of the soldiers were walking towards the troops holding their arms up to surrender and the tanks moved in and killed them. They dug a hole in the ground and then they buried the soldiers and levelled it.’ (Maggie O’Kane, ‘Bloodless Words Bloody War‘ [the original title as given in the Lexis-Nexis database], Guardian, December 16, 1995).

In December 2012, on the death of the war ‘hero’ General Schwarzkopf, the Guardian presumably felt it prudent not to refer back to its own journalist’s powerful reporting from 1995. If not prudence, then perhaps amnesia.

Patrick Sloyan of the US publication Newsday had also written about the mass slaughter of Iraqi soldiers in trenches:

‘The U.S. Army division that broke through Saddam Hussein’s defensive frontline used plows mounted on tanks and combat earthmovers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers — some still alive and firing their weapons — in more than 70 miles of trenches, according to U.S. Army officials… The unprecedented tactic has been hidden from public view… Not a single American was killed during the attack that made an Iraqi body count impossible…

‘Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Vulcan armored carriers straddled the trench lines and fired into the Iraqi soldiers as the tanks covered them with mounds of sand. “I came through right after the lead company,” [Col. Anthony] Moreno said. “What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples’ arms and things sticking out of them. . . .” [General Norman] Schwarzkopf’s staff has privately estimated that, from air and ground attacks, between 50,000 and 75,000 Iraqis were killed in their trenches. . . . Only one Iraqi tank round was fired at the attackers, Moreno said.’ (Patrick Sloyan, ‘Buried Alive: U.S. Tanks Used Plows To Kill Thousands In Gulf War Trenches’, Newsday, September 12, 1991).

As President George Bush, Sr. proudly proclaimed after the Gulf War:

‘The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula.’

A horribly appropriate turn of phrase in light of the mass desert-sand burial of live soldiers.

Many of the soldiers were conscripts from the Kurdish and Shia communities so cruelly persecuted by Saddam. These were the same people called upon by George Bush Sr., Prime Minister John Major and General Schwarzkopf to ‘take heart’ and ‘rise up in revolt’. (Pilger, op. cit., pp. 50-51). As well as Iraqi soldiers, the death toll for Iraqi civilians was truly horrific. Pilger notes that:

‘Shortly before Christmas 1991, the Medical Educational Trust in London published a comprehensive study of casualties. Up to a quarter of a million men, women and children were killed or died as a direct result of the American-led attack on Iraq. This confirmed American and French intelligence estimates of “in excess of 200,000 civilian deaths.”‘ (Ibid., pp. 52-53).

Using the Lexis-Nexis news database, we searched all UK press reports and obituaries about General Schwarzkopf and we could not find a single mention of the live burial of Iraqi soldiers by bulldozers. Or the deaths of several hundred civilians in the Amariyah shelter. Or the total death toll of Iraqis.

But these are matters we are trained not to be ‘terribly interested’ in. Instead, we are encouraged to focus on the positives of the Gulf War. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser for Jimmy Carter, gloated afterwards:

‘The benefits are undeniably impressive. First, a blatant act of aggression was rebuffed and punished…. Second, U.S. military power is henceforth likely to be taken more seriously… Third, the Middle East and Persian Gulf region is now clearly an American sphere of preponderance.’ (Zinn, op. cit., p. 599).

Very little of the sickening reality on the ground – all the incinerated men, women and children of the Amariyah shelter, the tens of thousands of sand-suffocated and slaughtered soldiers, the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, and the hidden agendas of Western power – somehow made it into the news reports and obituaries about that ‘burly hero’, General “Stormin’ ” Norman Schwarzkopf. That would be too difficult, too painful, too honest.



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