BOOK REVIEW / Stormin' Norm pips fawnin' Pete: 'It doesn't take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H Norman Schwarzkopf' -with Peter Petre: Bantam, 17.99 pounds; 'Storm Command' - General Sir Peter de la Billiere: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

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ANYONE who seeks to comprehend the nature of the Anglo-American coalition in the Gulf war has only to turn to the index of these two books. Sir Peter de la Billiere has no fewer than 87 references to his American counterpart, 'a man I could like and respect, a man with whom I could do business'. By contrast, the index to Schwarzkopf contains just six references to de la Billiere, described as 'a legendary soldier and adventurer'. The accidental killing of nine British soldiers by American A-10 jets during the war - a case which remains notoriously unresolved since the US pilots involved have not been made available for questioning in Britain - occupies six pages in de la Billiere's book. Schwarzkopf briskly dismisses this 'upsetting development' in two sentences.

If the two generals display a mutual admiration, they also share a certain self-approbation. Schwarzkopf, who ruthlessly condemns many of his fellow officers in Vietnam and shouts at his field commanders in the Gulf, is a big bull of a man who relishes power and philosophises about immortality in a letter to his wife Brenda on the eve of war. De la Billiere, whose own wife Bridget is the long-suffering recipient of daily musings on the war from her husband, appears to have fewer reservations. He reminds us how his farewell from Aldershot en route to the Gulf was held beneath the portico from which Earl Haig departed to command the British Expeditionary Forces in 1914. 'I simply felt that I was the man for the job,' he tells us, and adds, chillingly: 'Fortunately for me, I had always managed to find unrest somewhere in the world.'

Not so fortunate for others, of course. But these are men whose politics are as blunt as their sensitivity. 'I was a dedicated anti-communist and looked forward to working in America's defence,' Schwarzkopf says of his early days in the US army. De la Billiere is an ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher. 'You did indeed put the Great back in to Britain,' he tells her in a cloying letter written after what he describes as the 'vicious party squabble' among Conservatives. Mrs Thatcher, he adds, 'held the respect of every man' among the British forces in the Gulf, a remark which - given the decidedly pro- Kinnock leanings of some of them - is palpably untrue.

It Doesn't Take A Hero describes Schwarzkopf's lonely boyhood with a distant father and alcoholic mother and takes us through the filth and depression of Vietnam - where the future general clearly showed immense courage - to the apotheosis of the Gulf war. He hurls abuse at his fellow generals when they fail to obey his orders, loses patience with the inefficiency of the Saudi commander, Prince Khaled - whom he portrays as little more than a buffoon - and ignores King Fahd's orders to destroy the Saudi town of Khafji after it has been occupied by Iraqi troops. Only a few punches are pulled: Schwarzkopf makes just a passing mention of the dismissal of General Mike Dugan, the US air force Chief of Staff in the Gulf, who was fired for revealing to the press what was evidently the truth - that Saddam Hussein and his mistresses were on the American air force's hit list.

By comparison, de la Billiere's 348 pages are a masterpiece of discretion and constant, embarrassing praise for his service colleagues and those of his political bosses whom he admires. Tom King is 'pleasant and easy to get on with'. Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine is 'an extremely intelligent man, always very well turned out'. Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi (the man who lost part of his massive fortune in the BCCI scandal) is 'another old and trusted friend of Britain . . . a greatly respected ruler . . . a man whom one instantly respects because of his manner and background'. There are pages of this stuff, which - combined with a weary litany of the general's car and air journeys across Saudi Arabia and his descriptions of over-wealthy emirs - may cruelly remind the reader of Private Eye's 'Secret diary of John Major'. It is a colourless book whose most irritating characteristic is its failure to exploit the themes which might have made it fascinating.

De la Billiere, for example, manages to obtain Saudi agreement to give British troops virtual diplomatic immunity from Islamic law. He complains about the French army's separate command structure, and moves the 7th Armoured Brigade from the US Marines to the western offensive into Iraq in order to minimise British casualties. When it seems that the Israelis are going to join the war, de la Billiere begins to devise a plan which would allocate part of Iraq for Israeli military operations - Schwarzkopf admits that he actually bombed Iraqi targets requested by Israel - but none of these themes is sufficiently explored. Even the chapter devoted to the suffering and endurance of an SAS team inside Iraq is marred by de la Billiere's coy refusal to identify the Arab country in which the principal survivor found safety. (It was either Jordan or Syria, probably the latter.)

Both generals demonstrate navety. Neither dwells on the extent to which Saddam Hussein was a creature of the West, encouraged by America and Britain to pursue his aggression against Iran in the war which led inevitably to the invasion of Kuwait. Indeed, de la Billiere seems unable to grasp the extent of Saudi and Kuwaiti complicity in that earlier, much more costly gulf war. The Gulf rulers were shocked, he writes, because Saddam's invasion, 'went dead against all the principles of honour, integrity and neighbourliness on which Arab culture is based'. But this is nonsense. The Gulf nations were shocked because they thought Saddam was their ally. They had spent billions of dollars supporting his monstrous war against Iran, so they thought they had bought him off. They were wrong.

This is the sordid reality behind the second Gulf war which, for the people of the region - especially for those in Iraq who were asked to support Schwarzkopf's and de la Billiere's armies and who were then left in the lurch - continues to this day. General Schwarzkopf sells at a penny less than de la Billiere and is a better buy. Gulf war addicts must purchase them both - and pray for better in the future.