“4:18 p.m. — McMaster shoots T-72”

28 February 2017


In a 2014 piece by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the newly tapped National Security Advisor quotes Leon Trotsky, saying, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” As a strategist, philosopher and published author, McMaster’s past works provide key insight into the mind of the widely respected yet controversial three-button combat veteran.

A former tank commander credited with destroying over 80 tanks and vehicles during a single engagement in the first Iraq War (while commanding 9 M1A1 MBTs and suffering 0 losses), McMaster comprehends the realities of current and future conflict more than most. During the second Iraq War, McMaster pacified, at least for a time, the explosive Tal Afar with only a single cavalry regiment, and required all his officers to study Islamic culture and Afari ethnic politics. War, in McMaster’s mind, is not a competition of tanks and planes and budgets, rather a competition of people.

McMaster wrote the book on defying the President and his aides — literally. Originating from his doctorate thesis at Chapel Hill, McMaster published Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam in 1997, in which McMaster berated Vietnam-era decision making at the highest levels. “The war in Vietnam,” McMaster writes, “was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the pages of The New York Times or on the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.”

Just as the 28-year old Army Captain helped restore the Army’s warfighting reputation in a single engagement in the early days of the first Iraq War, today’s McMaster has arrived to the city where Vietnam was lost, and he is unlikely to allow history to repeat itself. McMaster credit’s Vietnam’s loss in part to the President surrounding himself with individuals afraid to disagree with him. Expect disagreements between President Trump and McMaster, who views the implementation of warfare at its fundamental level: human competition to achieve political aims. While formerly the executioner of others’ political aims, McMaster now has the ability to help dictate policy, and he is sure to do so with a pragmatic and realist worldview.

In his 2014 piece, McMaster rebuts “four fallacies about future war;

(1) the vampire fallacy, in which new tactics and technologies (read: RMA) promise quick and clean certainties, though “neglect war’s political and human dimensions;”

(2) the zero-dark-thirty fallacy, referencing the raid on UBL’s compound, in which the military’s raiding capability is elevated to a defense strategy, though is in actuality limited in purpose and ineffective at moving political and human elements toward a sustainable outcome;

(3) the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy, in which McMaster references Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler of the 1960’s-era television show. Perkins introduces an animal, though lets Fowler approach and interact with the dangerous animal. McMaster likens the dynamic to U.S. policy in which the U.S., Perkins, lets proxy forces, Fowler, engage on behalf of U.S. interests, though in reality are often unwilling or incapable and therefore ineffective;

(4) the RSVP fallacy, in which states and actors believe they will have the choice and ability to abstain from a future conflict.

According to McMaster, “Preparing effectively for war to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and if necessary win in armed conflict requires clear thinking. We might begin by rejecting fallacies that are inconsistent with the enduring nature of war…These fallacies persist, in large measure, because they define war as we might like it to be rather than as an uncertain and complex human competition usually to achieve a political outcome.”

In his book, McMaster himself writes “the professional code of the military officer prohibits him or her from engaging in political activity,” and according to friend and fellow author John Nagl, “McMaster is one of the best and boldest combat leaders of his generation of officers, and an intellectual who has trained as a historian and thinks like a strategist, always looking three moves ahead…He will pick and train a team on the National Security Council that is non-ideological and will run through brick walls for him.” This assumes the Administration will allow McMaster to choose his own team. Observers are predicting an inevitable clash between McMaster and President Trump, a self-described militarist, though if McMaster is able to remain apolitical his strategic advice may yet be heeded by the President.

In his breakdown of the Iraqi tank battle, McMaster lists a number of leadership lessons he will most certainly apply to his new position. The lessons include: Lead from the front, shoot first, fight through the fog of battle, follow your instincts and intuition, retain the initiative through speed of action, and, perhaps most importantly, “Take risk to win.”