The US secretary of defence Leon Panetta has described Schwarzkopf as "one of the great military giants of the 20th century", which is perhaps an exaggeration, given the Iraqi army's propensity to dissolve. But Schwarzkopf may be best viewed as having come up with the answer to "Vietnam Syndrome", the feeling among the US military that that war had been lost at home, not on the battlefield, and the accompanying resolution not to go into battle unless they were sure they could win.
Since 1988 Schwarzkopf had been head of US Central Command (with responsibility for the Middle East and north Africa), based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Shortly before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, he had staged war games in anticipation of such an eventuality. These plans became Operation Desert Shield, the mission to protect oilfields in Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi threat. Then, as diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis in Kuwait continued, he spent months building a coalition force of more than 700,000 troops, drawn from more than 20 countries, including the UK, but three-quarters of them from the US.
Saddam failed to meet a UN deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait and in January 1991 a six-week aerial bombardment was launched that paved the way for Iraqi forces to be driven out of Kuwait in a ground attack that was over in four days. This meticulously planned and executed approach belied Schwarzkopf's image as "Stormin' Norman", a nickname that owed more to his temper than his tactics; he preferred another nickname bestowed on him by his soldiers, "Bear".
Reluctant to pursue unwinnable battles, he backed President George HW Bush's decision not to move on Baghdad and remove Saddam from power. Schwarzkopf's agreement to allow the Iraqis to use what had been no-fly zones proved fatal to the growing domestic resistance movements against Saddam. He later said: "Had we taken all of Iraq we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit." Although he supported President George W Bush's subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq, he was severely critical of Bush's defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's extensive use of reservists and private contractors, and, when the casus belli of weapons of mass destruction proved false, he warned against ignoring the responsibilities of an occupying power.
Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Jr was born in Trenton, New Jersey, where his father, Col Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Sr, was head of the New Jersey state police. Because his father hated the name "Herbert", Norman's birth certificate was later amended to show simply the initial H. As a teenager, he spent time in Iran, where his father was posted after a CIA-organised coup brought the Shah to power.
He attended schools in Tehran, Geneva and Frankfurt, becoming fluent in German and French, before finishing his schooling at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, and following in his father's footsteps to the US Military Academy at West Point, New York state.
Schwarzkopf's career was one of steady but unspectacular advancement. After serving with combat units, and in Berlin in the early 60s, he received a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California, and taught at West Point. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam and then, after another tour at West Point, returned there as a combat commander, winning three Silver Stars, most notably for leading the rescue of a unit trapped in a minefield, and saving the life of a wounded soldier who had triggered a mine. His nickname was earned as he screamed hot-tempered orders for more helicopters to help the evacuation.
He served again in Germany, at the US Army War College, and was vice-commander during the US invasion of Grenada in 1983. In 1988, he took over Central Command, not considered a fast-track to advancement, but the effectiveness of his planning skills was proved by Operation Desert Storm. After the war he retired from the army, rejecting a number of offers to run for political office. His 1992 autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero, became a bestseller. In 1993 he was treated for prostate cancer, becoming a national spokesman for campaigns against the disease.
Schwarzkopf is survived by his wife Brenda, a son, Christian, and two daughters, Cynthia and Jessica. "I hate war. Absolutely I hate war," he said in a 1992 interview. "Good generalship is the realisation that you've got to figure out how to accomplish your mission with the minimum loss of human life."
• Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, military commander, born 24 August 1934; died 27 December 2012
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