"The most difficult decisions are the ones that involve human life . . . I agonize over it. I wake up several times at night and my brain is just in turmoil over some of these difficult decisions that I have to make," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf admitted to several journalists in one of his frequent interviews.

"Every waking and sleeping moment, my nightmare is the fact that I will give an order that will cause countless numbers of human beings to lose their lives. I don't want my troops to die. I don't want my troops to be maimed. It's an intensely personal, emotional thing for me. Any decision that you have to make that involves the loss of human life is nothing you do lightly. I agonize over it."Aides, while accustomed to the candor displayed by their boss in talking with reporters, were dismayed by that particular interview, fearing that it might erode public confidence by leaving a false impression of mental anguish, hardly what the American people were looking for in their Persian Gulf commander. Evidently, Colin Powell thought so, too, for in a subsequent telephone conversation the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman suggested to Schwarzkopf that he try to avoid being so forthright about personal matters.

Schwarzkopf, for his part, saw talking with the media as an essential part of his role as commander-in-chief. After all, he had not forgotten Vietnam, when soldiers returning home, himself included, found a country that seemed either to detest the military or care nothing about its sacrifices.He also had memories of Grenada, where the uproar over the news blackout imposed by Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf had led eventually to the establishment of the Pentagon's media pool system. In the system, small groups of designated journalists from each medium - the wire services, newspapers, magazines, radio and television - are designated members of rotating pools. If the balloon goes up, those in the pool rotation are flown to the scene of the story. Their written reports, photographs, videotape and audiotape, after being cleared for security, are sent back via military channels to the Pentagon for distribution to the rest of the news media.

The pools' first major combat test had come during the "Persian Gulf Tanker War" in 1987-88. There it was moderately successful. But in Panama, a year later, it was a fiasco. The pools were flown in hours after the invasion began, but instead of being placed with units in the field the journalists were confined to a headquarters building where they, like everybody else, were forced to rely on independent television reports to find out what was going on.

Schwarzkopf, familiar with all this, determined from the start that Operation Desert Shield would not be another Grenada or Panama. He professed to feel strongly that the American people deserved to know the truth, and he scheduled interviews several times a week with journalists, either individually or in small groups. In one interview, on Sept. 13, he defined his views with typically Schwarzkopfian candor:

"Listen," he said, "I ain't no dummy when it comes to dealing with the press. And I fully understand that when you try to stonewall the press, and don't give them anything to do, then before long the press turns ugly, and I would just as soon not have an ugly press. I don't care if they report the truth, I just want them to be correct. Not everything is going to be right . . . every time there is something new for the press to look at, I want them to see it, I want them to be out there. I want to create opportunities for them so they are kept informed." The news media were only one of many questions - peripheral, yet crucial - to occupy Schwarzkopf's time amid the planning of the military operation.

As Operation Desert Shield entered its second month, Schwarzkopf's officers were grappling not with the enemy, but with the myriad details of providing troop facilities and comforts.

The mail system, for example, was far from perfect, but the sheer volume was overwhelming. At one point 40 tons of mail were backed up at Heathrow Airport outside London because there was not enough space on aircraft flying to the gulf to handle it all.

Dan Rather had seen the situation, and the CBS anchorman was convinced that it should be improved. In a radio commentary tacked on to the end of a "CBS Evening News" broadcast on Sept. 6, he commented:

"If the rest of this operation had been handled as poorly as the mail, Saddam Hussein would be in the Hamptons by now.

"Laundry facilities. Even rudimentary ones, are nonexistent non-existent to terrible. The U.S. Army general in charge of this theater, H. Norman `Stormin' Norman' Schwarzkopf, has been quoted as saying `this isn't important.' I hope he has been misquoted, because that is dead wrong and a dangerous thing for a general to think. Especially for infantrymen, who win and lose wars, laundry is important.

"Infantrymen, perhaps the general needs to be reminded, walk in filthy, sweat-permeated and salted fatigues that cut and chafe. The troops can't say it, but others can and perhaps should. `Stormin' Norman' needs to storm less, battle less, think and do more. Like, fix the darn mail and get infantrymen in forward positions a way to launder their own fatigues.

"And while Gen. `Stormin' Norman' is at it, he can check into foul-ups in hospital and medical supplies. There are a lot of them - most of them appear to be inexcusable - and he can work on getting our best tanks, not our next best, into Saudi Arabia. Dan Rather reporting, with the troops, in Saudi Arabia."

Needless to say, the Rather commentary was not well-received at Central Command. Some staff officers laughed at the idea of a TV anchorman lecturing a professional infantry commander - one who had won three Silver Stars and been wounded five times in Vietnam, each time while saving the lives of his men - on how to take care of his troops.

Schwarzkopf was considerably annoyed by the Rather report but rejected staff suggestions that he invite Rather for an interview to "set the record straight." Publicly, he fumed over the incident.

"I don't mind getting bad press when we deserve it, but when it's not a correct story, that absolutely drives me up the wall," he said. "Dan Rather's telling me how to do it? From the Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi, he's gonna let me know how to be an infantryman?"

Five months later, when Schwarzkopf flew to an airstrip in southern Iraq for a dramatic confrontation with defeated Iraqi commanders, both Rather and his NBC competitor, Tom Brokaw, happened to be at Dhahran. But only Brokaw made the trip to Safwan. CBS sources said Schwarzkopf had intervened personally - to make sure that the CBS correspondent and crew who regularly covered his headquarters in Riyadh were not part of the media pool going to cover the meeting in Iraq. Was there a connection? Schwarzkopf, as far as is known, never said, and his top aides merely shrugged when asked that question. But as one had said, in another context: "The CINC has a photographic memory. He never forgets anything you tell him - unfortunately."

From the book SCHWARZKOPF: THE MAN, THE MISSION AND THE TRIUMPH

Copyright 1991 Richard Pyle

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Penguin Books U.S.A. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate