BOOK REVIEW / Into the front lines with Stormin' Herbert: 'It Doesn't Take a Hero' - H Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre: Bantam, 17.99

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AT THE height of the second Gulf war, General H Norman Schwarzkopf finds a line from Sherman, a line of decisive ferocity, and tapes it on his desk: 'War is the remedy our enemies have chosen. And I say let us give them all they want.'

Schwarzkopf was as good as his word. He bombed the daylight out of Iraq with round-the-clock fury, and then let loose his armies with a scorching, Patton-style send-off: 'I do not want a slow, ponderous, pachyderm mentality. I want VII corps to slam into the Republican Guard. The enemy is not worth a shit. Go after them with audacity, shock action and surprise.' It was total war, and it was - in the military sense at least - total victory. When he exchanged notes about prisoners of war, Iraq had 41. Schwarzkopf had 'sixty thousand . . . or sixty thousand-plus.'

A year later, Schwarzkopf seems to have attempted what looks like total autobiography. He blazes through his past, beginning with the moment his father solemnly presented him (aged seven) with an army sabre. It is an austere and touching introduction to a lifelong love affair with the severe, emotive rituals of military life.

The young Norman was bred to be a cadet. When he obtained 80 per cent in a school test, his father would say: 'That means you don't know 20 per cent of your subject.' Everything was geared to a successful army career: 'If I brought home one C, wham, that was grounds for restriction.' Incidentally, he was christened Herbert Norman, but when he was 18 he chopped it to H Norman. Just as well. Herbert Schwarzkopf . . . Stormin' Herbert? I don't think so.

In his introduction he flirts with the idea of basing his book on the two-volume Personal Memoirs of U S Grant, but then decides to narrate his life, not his war. Had he exposed all the details of the combat zone to his blustery, no-bullshit candour, the book would have been extraordinary. Instead, as an official account of the campaign, it feels trenchant but skimpy. Indeed, it surfs a little too easily (especially in its brisk handling of his mother's alcoholism) on the warm waves of high public esteem.

But it remains a remarkable description of a life inspired by an almost mystical faith in the sworn-in-blood honour code of military service. Schwarzkopf has an unhesitating belief in command structures, loyalty, eagerness, duty and honour. He learnt it all at West Point, and he believed every word of it. He wears the ring. Vietnam was a foul-up; the invasion of Grenada was ugly and botched. His vocation was to clear up the mess. He is tough on anyone - politicians, lazy officers - who fails to shape up, and presents himself as a kind of free-thinking authoritarian rebel.

Underlying everything is an affection for soldiers. They loved him, because he loved them. The fellowship of arms is to him not some sort of macho posture but a serious and exalted brotherhood - 'the camaraderie of those who have suffered great adversity'. The book is pock- marked with a sentimentality almost exclusive to military life, a sentimentality that does not flinch when it surveys the charred remnants of battle, but which bursts into tears when someone plays the national anthem at the Olympics. The cover shows him dewy-eyed and saluting.

It means that there aren't many ambiguities here. Everything is assimilated and explained by the manly laws of military ethics. The diplomatic shenanigans that pushed everyone into war . . . the horrendous casualties suffered by the other side . . . none of our goddam business. He hints, though, that the war could have been averted had the White House been less eager for a trial by fire.

Schwarzkopf is pleasantly rude about Washington's political know-nothings ('If we'd waited for the CIA, we'd still be in Saudi Arabia'). He shares chummy jokes with Colin Powell. 'Everybody in the Cabinet will feel obliged to talk,' Powell tells him, 'so you might hear some dumb things.' And he is casual about the contribution of other nations. The British armies are hardly mentioned, while the Arab forces are dealt with pretty much like naughty children who have to be kept in line.

But his book doesn't ask to be judged on geopolitical grounds. Instead it offers bracing and enlivening details. Returning by air from Vietnam, where he distinguished himself with various feats of impatient bravery and skill, Schwarzkopf is petrified until he realises he's flying too high. There's a terrific moment when someone hands him a piece of paper - a cheque for dollars 760m, a gift from Saudi Arabia. He is even willing to cut an amiable comic figure. 'As we walked out of the palace,' he writes of a sheikh in Riyadh, 'he was holding my hand - an Arab expression of friendship I was still trying to get used to.'

This whole-heartedness flourishes because it has been trained and polished by tight-fitting West Point vows. But sometimes these confine him to a grouchy matter-of-factness. In Kuwait, he slips into flowing Arab costume, and thinks of Lawrence of Arabia. But he says only: 'I put the robes on and stood in front of the mirror. They felt pretty good.'

In his skirmishes with superiors and subordinates alike, the General is always right. You can't help wishing for an alternative voice, for someone to cut in and say: that Schwarzkopf . . . a real pain in the butt, Jesus. Every now and then he confesses to being an 'ornery' son of a bitch or an 'old warhorse', but these, we sense, are rhetorical medals - witnesses to the no-nonsense nature of a man born to command. Schwarzkopf is plainly a superb warrior, but he seems to have rushed into the battle of words with slightly faulty ammo. It is hard, after all, to have all that much faith in a book largely written on his behalf, as part of a publishing dawn strike. The storm has hardly passed, the dust has hardly settled. How long did it take U S Grant to write his memoir, I wonder.