Reading Up on the New National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster (Updated)

The selection of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to be President Trump’s new National Security Advisor has received near universal praise. But understanding why McMaster is highly regarded is another matter altogether. Here’s list of illuminating articles on McMaster that helps explain why he’s one of the military’s leading lights.

If you can only read one thing about McMaster to quickly understand his views on national security in the present moment, I’d recommend his 2013 New York Times op-ed “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.” In the piece, McMaster argues that the American military has become over-reliant on technological advantages, and, perhaps most importantly, American leadership has lost sight of the fact that war ultimately has political ends:

In the years leading up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thinking about defense was driven by ideas that regarded successful military operations as ends in themselves, rather than just one instrument of power that must be coordinated with others to achieve, and sustain, political goals. Believers in the theory known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” misinterpreted the American-led coalition’s lopsided victory in the 1991 gulf war and predicted that further advances in military technology would deliver dominance over any opponent. Potential adversaries, they suggested, would not dare to threaten vital American interests.

The theory was hubristic. Yet it became orthodoxy and complicated our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where underdeveloped war plans encountered unanticipated political problems.

As to how McMaster earned his reputation as an innovative thinker, he was a pioneer in counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and was an oft-cited inspiration for the strategies Gen. David Petraeus would implement successfully in the Iraq war surge. In particular, the story of how McMaster wrested control of the city of Tal Afar from insurgents has literally become a textbook example of COIN strategy. In 2006, George Packer wrote a long account of the event and its significance for the New Yorker:

The lessons that McMaster and his soldiers applied in Tal Afar were learned during the first two years of an increasingly unpopular war. “When we came to Iraq, we didn’t understand the complexity—what it meant for a society to live under a brutal dictatorship, with ethnic and sectarian divisions,” he said, in his hoarse, energetic voice. “When we first got here, we made a lot of mistakes. We were like a blind man, trying to do the right thing but breaking a lot of things.” Later, he said, “You gotta come in with your ears open. You can’t come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people.”

Despite winning a Silver Star in the Gulf War and earning a reputation as one of the Army’s most successful and innovative commanders in the Iraq war, McMaster was, incredibly, twice passed over for promotion to general. The decision was so egregious that Small Wars Journal called it “a type of reverse Peter Principle where genuinely gifted and brilliant public servants … are kept far below the level to which they should ascend.” Fred Kaplan wrote a good piece at Slate explaining what happened, and why this was a travesty, after McMaster got finally his much deserved star:

Most of today’s Army generals rose through the ranks during the Cold War as armor, infantry, or artillery officers who were trained to fight large-scale, head-to-head battles against enemies of comparable strength—for instance, the Soviet army as its tanks plowed across the East-West German border.

The problem, as many junior officers have been writing over the last few years, is that this sort of training has little relevance for the wars of today and, likely, tomorrow—the “asymmetric wars” and counterinsurgency campaigns that the U.S. military has actually been fighting for the last 20 years in Bosnia, Panama, Haiti, and Somalia, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2006 and again in 2007, the Army’s promotion board passed over Col. H.R. McMaster, widely regarded as one of the most creative strategists of this “new” (though actually quite ancient) style of warfare. In Iraq, he was commander of the unit that brought order to Tal Afar, using the classic counterinsurgency methods—”clear, hold, and build”—that Petraeus later adopted as policy. When I was reporting a story last summer about growing tensions between the Army’s junior and senior officer corps, more than a dozen lieutenants and captains complained bitterly (with no prompting from me) about McMaster’s rejection, seeing it as a sign that the top brass had no interest in rewarding excellent performance. The more creative captains took it as a cue to contemplate leaving the Army.

This was why many Army officers were excited when Petraeus was appointed to chair this year’s promotion board. Rarely, if ever, had a combat commander been called back from an ongoing war to assume that role. It almost certainly meant that McMaster would get his due. (Some referred to the panel as “the McMaster promotion board.”)

By 2011, however, in a presentation by Gen. Martin Dempsey to the Senate Armed Services committee on the lessons of Iraq, it was pretty clear that McMaster’s reputation was cemented. Dempsey told the Senate that McMaster was “probably our best brigadier general.”

As for McMaster himself, he’s been described as a “scholar-warrior,” a description that suggests he and “warrior monk” James Mattis, the retired general and current Secretary of Defense, approach things similarly. This bodes well for at least one important working relationship on the National Security Council. As befits a scholar, McMaster has done a fair bit of writing on his own. There’s obviously his 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, on how the Vietnam war was mishandled and contains prescient lessons for Iraq war. In that book, he hones in on the fact the war was lost in part because military leadership didn’t stand up to the political leadership at the time. This should be encouraging for those concerned about Trump and/or Steve Bannon politicizing national security matters.

In the book, McMaster doesn’t sugarcoat any harsh judgments about Vietnam failures, which was kind of a risky thing to do for an ambitious officer at the time. Even more than 20 years later, there were still enough Vietnam-era leaders in the military that it threatened to open old wounds. Nonetheless, the book was well-received. Here’s a handful of positive reviews from the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. And here’s a talk that McMaster gave about the book that was broadcast on C-SPAN.

More recently, here’s a short essay by McMaster on “Studying War and Warfare,” and he builds on that essay a bit more in a blog post on “Thinking Clearly about War and the Future of Warfare” for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Finally, McMaster has put together his own “reading list for military professionals.” I don’t know if it’s terribly revealing about McMaster’s unique mindset, as it’s a pretty basic list covering everything from Thucydides to von Clausewitz. But it is a fantastic starting point if you’re trying to wrap your head around military history and strategy.

UPDATE: Since I started writing this yesterday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies has allowed access to four essays by McMaster that were behind their paywall. Read them while you have them—they’re only allowing free access through March:

‘On War: Lessons to Be Learned’, Survival, vol. 50, no. 1, February–March 2008, pp. 19–30.

Leaders should also abandon the belief that wars can be waged efficiently with a minimalist approach to the commitment of forces and other resources. The belief that progress toward achieving objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq could be achieved by doing just enough to establish security and help nascent governments and security forces assume responsibility for ongoing conflicts betrayed linear thinking, neglected the interaction with determined enemies, ignored other sources of instability, and was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of those conflicts. Consequences of linear thinking in Afghanistan and Iraq included overestimating indigenous forces’ capabilities, underestimating the enemy and the associated expectation that the coalition could soon reduce force levels and shift to an exclusively advisory effort. A short‐term approach to long‐term problems generated multiple short‐term plans that often confused activity with progress.

‘The Uncertainties of Strategy’, Review Essay, Survival, vol. 57, no. 1, February–March 2015, pp. 197–208.

It is in their inherent moral components that recent Western strategies may be deficient. What percentage of the populations in countries engaged in the 14-year effort in Afghanistan could even name the three main Taliban groups with whom their soldiers have been engaged? The professed war-weariness among populations who have sent only a small percentage of their sons and daughters to fight in recent wars may derive from a failure to communicate effectively what is at stake in those wars and explain why the efforts are worthy of the risks, resources and sacrifices necessary to sustain the strategy.

‘Photography at War’, Review Essay, Survival, vol. 56, no. 2, April–May 2014, pp. 187–98.

In her introduction, Tucker observes that photographs ‘have been essential in gaining public support for war efforts and in the loss of that support’ (p. 2). They will remain so, but it seems that editors’ ability to use the selection of photographs to influence public opinion will diminish as the means of distributing wartime photographs continue to proliferate. The public’s access to wartime photographs, and thoughtful presentations of wartime photographs as in War/Photography, might not only help resurrect the value that societies place on virtuous sacrifice in war, but also help bridge what many see as a growing gap between soldiers and their societies, especially as so many in the US and European armed forces return to civilian life after service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘Ancient Lessons for Today’s Soldiers’, Review Essay, Survival, vol. 50, no. 4, August–September 2008, pp. 177–90.

Beyond the utilitarian need to maintain ethical standards, if Western soldiers compromise their standards (and the standards of the societies they represent) when confronting terrorists, it may be argued they have already lost. Values education can ring hollow unless it is pursued in a way that provides context and demonstrates relevance. Robinson’s Military Honour and the Conduct of War, Sherman’s Stoic Warriors, and Coker’s The Warrior Ethos provide that context and demonstrate the relevance of ethics to war, warriors and the societies that warriors pledge to serve.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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