FORT WORTH, Texas – The Army’s highest-ranking officer and the former leader of the secretive world of Special Operations offered his thoughts on the importance of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden during a luncheon here Friday.

They’re probably not what anyone expected.

“I don’t know whether we’ll find him,” said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff. “I don’t know that it’s all that important, frankly.”

Schoomaker, pulled out of retirement in 2003 to lead the Army, pointed to the capture of Saddam Hussein, the killings of his sons, Uday and Qusay, and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as evidence that bin Laden’s capture or death would have little effect on the threats to the United States.

“So we get him, and then what?” Schoomaker said. “There’s a temporary feeling of goodness, but in the long run, we may make him bigger than he is today. He’s hiding, and he knows we’re looking for him. We know he’s not particularly effective. I’m not sure there’s that great of a return” on capturing or killing bin Laden.

His comments would put him in rare company in this country, according to the chairman of the history department at the University of North Texas and a former Army infantry officer.

“I don’t think the vast majority of American people would agree with him,” said Adrian Lewis, the author of a new book, “The American Culture of War.” “They want that son of a bitch. For overall effect, General Schoomaker may be right. If we kill Osama, al-Qaida is not going to go away.

“But my own estimate is that there would be considerable psychological and morale benefits, not just for the American people but for our credibility around the world, if we captured Osama.”

Schoomaker, 61, addressed the Rotary Club of Fort Worth, introduced by his sister-in-law, Jane Schoomaker, who belongs to the organization. Earlier in the day, he greeted soldiers home on leave at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and he spoke Thursday night to the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth.

Schoomaker is due to be replaced as chief of staff in April, handing the reins to Gen. George Casey.

A former college football player who became a 34-year career soldier, Schoomaker said that his Army is in the middle of its “greatest transformation since World War II.”

The Army is reducing its top-down division structures for more quickly deploying brigades. It is trying to refit and repair thousands of vehicles worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is attempting to field new vehicles that are safer from roadside bombs.

The Army, which traditionally spends billions of dollars less than the Air Force and Navy, is also operating under extreme budget pressure and a recruiting problem that has forced it to accept young men and women it would have rejected just a few years ago.

It is doing all that, Schoomaker said, while deploying units over and over for the operations overseas. As it is, soldiers are barely getting one year between yearlong deployments.

“The demand on the force is so huge,” he said. “While we are building this new force, we are consuming forces at the same time. This puts an extraordinary amount of stress on the force.”

As a soldier trained in unconventional warfare, Schoomaker said the Army needs to develop leaders who are more than soldiers, officers he likened more to explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who can solve problems, be culturally sensitive and speak more than one language.

(c) 2007, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-23-07 1854EST

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