Book Notes

Norty and Suzie Schwartz, Journey

I don’t normally read the autobiographies of recently retired generals.  For one reason, there are a lot of these books, and they all give the reader an authoritative view from the top, which can be a little wearing.  I’m not complaining; I know these men (and women) have important lessons they want to pass along, lessons they learned coming up through the ranks, and the longer they wait to publish their memoirs, the less relevant their lessons will be.  But generals don’t get to be generals without behaving and talking like generals.  Usually these books have more “lessons to be learned” than I am interested in reading about, especially as I am well past the age of applying any of these lessons to my immediate circumstances. 

However, for a number of reasons, I have been reading Journey, General Norton “Norty” Schwartz’ account of his Air Force career, which culminated with his assignment as Air Force Chief of Staff; he retired in 2012 (Journey: Memoirs of an Air Force Chief of Staff, by General (Retired) “Norty” Schwartz, published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2018).  I think that this book is one of the most unusual senior officer memoirs ever to appear in print.  Or maybe I should say that the book is unusual because Norty Schwartz was an unlikely candidate to become an Air Force Chief of Staff, for several reasons: 

He came from a family with little previous affiliation with the military services.

He was Jewish.

His wife was a non-conformist service wife, who insisted on following her career rather than (or at least as much as) his.

Although he was a rated pilot, he came from the airlift community, not the fighter-bomber community.  Specifically, he was a C-130 pilot.  Typically, AF Chiefs of Staff are selected from the fighter-bomber community. 

That last reason is the primary reason I decided to read the book.  (Because, if you are on this web site, you must know I was a C-130 pilot, too.) 

I have often thought that the “fighter pilot mentality” was a detriment, not an asset, for leadership at the top levels of the Air Force.  The fighter pilot mentality can create an outlook in an individual that places undue emphasis on the performance of the individual rather than the ability of the individual to rely on a team to marshal the necessary resources to solve a problem.  If a line C-130 pilot learns anything when flying, he or she realizes that a successful mission depends on the contributions of all members of the crew.  An AF Chief of Staff has to have that kind of mentality. 

The primary reason I read Journey was to discover what Norty’s C-130 flying experiences were.  He had a lot of C-130 experience, flying in Vietnam just as the roof fell in on the South Vietnam government in 1975, seven years after my last flight in Vietnam.  After he returned from Vietnam, he became involved in flying the C-130 in the Special Operations area.  He entered the Special Operations area at an opportune time, because the US military was then starting to rely more on smaller Special Operations actions than on mass maneuvers of troops.  For the most part, it still is.  His accounts of some of the Special Operations activities in which he was involved, first as a junior officer, and then as a more senior officer, are interesting and occasionally scary, as when someone came up with the hare-brained idea of tying really big rockets onto a C-130 in order to seriously reduce its take-off roll.  Officially this program was eliminated because of cost, but the minute I first read of this scheme, I shook my head in disbelief.  No way would that plan work! But desperate situations seemed to call for desperate steps.

The other unusual aspect of his book is the inclusion of the comments of his wife, Suzie; her comments are shown in italics and give a complementary and occasionally different view of their life together than he does.  At first her comments were distracting; and then I found them appealing.  What other senior officers have ever included the spouse as a part of their published conversation?  And that is what it is at times—a conversation between the two of them, sometimes heated, but in a good-natured way. 

Although Norty provides his share of military leadership comments, which any general officer memoir is obligated to provide, they do not seriously detract from the more interesting aspects of the book.  After all, Norty served in the Air Force for forty years.  Forty years in the Air Force!  My god, how is that possible?  (Actually, as he explains, he was about to retire when a leadership problem resulted in his selection as AF Chief of Staff.)   Lots of good reasons to read this book! 

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