A Very High Degree of Certainty in Future Military Operations

H.R. McMaster is one of the United States’ most astute theorists of modern warfare. Unlike so many other military thinkers, he understands that history is complex, contingent, and irrational, and that no amount of technological superiority could tame the real world’s unpredictable dynamism. So how could he have gotten it so wrong? Why, in spite of his sophistication, did his solutions to the American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately fail to produce even medium-term victory?

H.R. McMaster and the tragedy of American empire

Photograph by Gabriella Demczuk.

The February replacement of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn with Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster was greeted by the American journalistic and foreign policy establishment with barely restrained glee. In place of the erratic, unsavory Flynn, Donald Trump had chosen “a battle-tested veteran . . . considered one of the military’s most independent-minded officers,” in the words of one report in the New York Times. “McMaster,” wrote Fred Kaplan in Slate, “is widely viewed as the Army’s smartest officer”—someone who “has made a career of speaking truth to power.” McMaster was everything Flynn was not: calm, self-effacing, and, crucially, an intellectual. Here at long last was a true scholar-warrior, a man who rejected the bizarre conspiracy theories and apocalyptic obsessions that were guide and mantra for Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Trump’s other unsavory foreign policy mediocrities. McMaster’s many supporters in government, journalism, and the nonprofit sector hoped that the decorated veteran could, at last, rationalize Trump’s foreign policy. With McMaster calling the shots, the American Century—and the American empire that undergirded it—could continue well into the future.

Until earlier this week, it seemed that the advocates of US global dominance had good reason to be reassured. McMaster is a passionate champion of our foreign policy consensus: he believes that the American empire is a force for good in the world and appears ready to do whatever he can to defend its international standing. And he is a talented manager able to synthesize large amounts of information into easily digestible lessons—a useful skill in an administration led by a Twitter-addicted reality TV star.

But as the furor over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s complicity in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey has revealed, the regime, person, and policy “agenda” of Donald Trump have made it virtually impossible for even dedicated public servants to impose order on chaos. Instead of rationalizing the Trump Administration, people like Rosenstein and McMaster have been sucked into its morass. On Tuesday night, McMaster found himself standing outside the White House, visibly uncomfortable and reading carefully drafted legalese that would be contradicted by the President a few hours later. McMaster had been forced into a position he has been unwilling to occupy throughout his long career: political operative. He is not particularly good at this job.

That McMaster has been swallowed up by an administration that he was perhaps uniquely suited to reform is an extraordinary irony. Now derided by the very same people who praised his appointment, McMaster is beginning to lose the credibility that got him the job. Slate’s Kaplan recently published an article titled “The Tarnishing of H.R. McMaster”; in Politico, Jack Shafer has claimed that McMaster is now “diminished when measured by his own standards”; the journalist Tom Ricks told Shafer that McMaster might very well have lost the trust of the military, which “may never welcome him back in.” Short of a spectacular reversal of fortune, McMaster’s career, and perhaps even his place in history, has been irrevocably stained.

What does H.R. McMaster believe? I’ve spent the last couple of months reading everything he has published since 1991 that I could find; what emerges from these texts is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, McMaster has been willing throughout his career to critique fellow officers for placing too much faith in military technology. On the other hand, McMaster’s views about the United States’ role in the world are highly traditional: he believes the nation presently confronts existential challenges that, because they threaten the values of “civilized peoples,” must be annihilated. For all his supposed intellectual independence, McMaster clearly and unquestioningly embraces the premises that have supported the American empire since 1945. The fact that such a perspicacious officer could endorse such an outdated vision of the world suggests that not only the Trump Administration, but also the entire culture of the American national security establishment, is broken.

H.R. McMaster first rose to prominence during the Gulf War, when in February 1991 a small armored unit he commanded destroyed astonishing numbers of Republican Guard armored forces in the Battle of 73 Easting. Over the course of two days, McMaster’s unit demolished dozens of Iraqi vehicles, killed scores of enemy soldiers (and captured many more), and suffered no casualties. To many interested observers, the Battle of 73 Easting was a clear demonstration of the power of the post–Cold War American military, whose superior technology would enable the United States to do what it wanted in a unipolar world.

But McMaster learned a different lesson from the battle. For him it revealed that in addition to technology, one of the most critical combat resources was independence of mind. As his unit pressed the advance against disorganized Iraqi forces, McMaster refused to halt his attack at a previously agreed-upon location, which enabled his unit to annihilate the enemy. A number of his superiors bristled at his insubordination, but it didn’t matter: McMaster had discovered that unorthodox behavior could lead to battlefield success.

News of McMaster’s victory spread quickly throughout the military. As Alex Roland, a professor of military history at Duke University, put it, by the Gulf War’s end McMaster was seen as a “war hero, the brilliant and daring young captain [who] dominat[ed] the famous Battle of 73 Easting.” But instead of continuing in a command position—the traditional means through which officers rose through the ranks—McMaster chose to pursue the study of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Promotion boards,” in the words of one retired officer, “were not impressed with doctorates or teaching assignments,” and McMaster must have known that taking time away from troop duties could jeopardize his career. For him the risk was worth it.

McMaster’s dissertation analyzed the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s failure to speak out against President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s tendentious remarks to the public and Congress regarding the course of the Vietnam War and the military’s support for US strategy. As with the choice to attend graduate school in the first place, McMaster’s dissertation topic suggested that here was an unorthodox—perhaps even transgressive—officer. Within the Army, the JCS’s Vietnam-era mistakes were taboo subjects; one of McMaster’s PhD committee members even advised him not to focus on this topic for fear it would “rui[n] his career.” Nevertheless, McMaster believed that if the Army was to serve as a force for good in the world, it needed to learn from past mistakes—career goals be damned. 

Dereliction of Duty (1997), the book that emerged from McMaster’s dissertation, is the foundational text of his worldview. In it, McMaster laid out the argument he had intuited in the Iraqi desert: that technological might was not the key to military victory. This critique would animate him for the next twenty years.

Throughout Dereliction of Duty, McMaster took particular aim at McNamara’s strategy of “graduated pressure,” which was premised upon the assumption “that [the North Vietnamese] would respond ‘rationally’ to precisely controlled military stimuli.” McNamara believed that the United States could “communicate” with the North Vietnamese by methodically increasing military pressure. But this strategy, McMaster argued, reflected the dangerous fantasies of “economists, managers, and systems analysts,” whose lack of empathy prevented them from appreciating “that Hanoi’s commitment to revolutionary war made losses that seemed unconscionable to American white-collar professionals” acceptable. Though the US military was able to employ weaponry far superior to the North Vietnamese, it could not win the war at a tolerable cost. McMaster went so far as to claim that McNamara’s love of technology perverted his thinking by encouraging him to confuse tactical with strategic success—that is, to confuse success in battle with success in war. McMaster’s conclusion was that war was to some degree an intellectual problem, in which bad ideas resulted in bad strategy.1

After teaching history at West Point from 1994 to 1996, McMaster returned to troop duties. His next major work, Crack in the Foundation (2003), which was released by the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership eight months after the United States invaded Iraq, applied Dereliction of Duty’s lessons to the modern American military. The paper’s message was simple:

The intellectual foundation for building tomorrow’s military force rests on the unfounded assumption that technologies emerging from the “information revolution” will lift the fog of war and permit US forces to achieve a very high degree of certainty in future military operations.

McMaster disparaged the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) that after the Gulf War had captured the hearts and minds of many military officers and defense thinkers. According to RMA advocates, “American technological superiority . . . made possible a new way of waging war” that was predictable, efficient, humane, and cheap. McMaster rejected this argument as naive, insisting that as long as war remained human—as long as it was informed by culture, politics, will, psychology, and emotion—no one would be able to forecast its course or confidently limit its destruction. War, McMaster affirmed, was not “an engineering or business management problem that will succumb to systems analysis, reasoned judgment, and the application of superior technology.” This was the misapprehension that had doomed the US effort in Vietnam and, due to the advocacy of RMA’s champions (such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is not named in the report), now threatened to doom US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Soon after Crack in the Foundation’s publication, McMaster was provided with the opportunity to put his argument into practice. In 2004, he assumed command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which in 2005 was charged with carrying out counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the small city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. By this point in the war, anti-western forces had coalesced into an insurgency, and Tal Afar was a critical node in the insurgency’s strategic network. By the time McMaster left the city in 2006, however, he had established an exceptional degree of control over it—a testament to his tactical brilliance.

McMaster’s theory of counterinsurgency was premised upon the notion that ordinary people desired security, respect, and municipal services above all else. If a foreign military force was able to provide these, it would be possible to reduce sectarian tensions by helping previously warring groups achieve political accommodation with one another. Eventually, US–trained indigenous police and government officials could assume responsibility for a pacified city or region, at which point the US military could withdraw.

McMaster wrote in a 2008 article titled “Learning from Contemporary Conflicts to Prepare for Future War” that before the innovations he introduced in Tal Afar, COIN had been grounded in the short-term strategy of “defeat[ing] networked enemy organizations through attacking leadership and reducing critical capabilities.” But post-McMaster, COIN had become a long-term strategy. Tal Afar had succeeded because soldiers took the time to develop relationships with ordinary Iraqis, learn the local political landscape, and establish the institutional capacity for self-government. For this reason, McMaster avowed that “until civilian departments within the US government expand deployable capabilities in order to establish local governance and rule of law, develop police forces, improve basic services, build institutional capacity, and set conditions for economic growth and development,” the military would have to be prepared to assume these political responsibilities abroad.

Yet this approach, while an intellectual advance over RMA and the blind technologism that had dominated the US military since the fall of the Soviet Union, proved hopelessly naïve in the contemporary American context. McMaster’s version of COIN explicitly relied upon a large and years-long commitment to a given region—an enormous financial, materiel, and human burden unlikely to be supported in a political climate increasingly hostile to prolonged foreign entanglements. But COIN wasn’t simply a hard sell for a fatigued public at home: for it to work, the American national security establishment would have to reconceive its priorities and significantly increase funding for the State Department. Like other empires throughout history, the US has made diplomacy less central to its foreign relations than it might otherwise be. McMaster’s desire to militarize diplomacy—or civilianize war—was a clever response to budget realities, but a doomed one: soldiers are not diplomats, and the military does not have the capacity, knowledge, or experience to establish lasting political solutions without civilian aid. For all the success he and his regiment had in Tal Afar in 2005 and 2006, it didn’t and couldn’t last: in 2014, the city was seized by ISIS.

H.R. McMaster is one of the United States’ most astute theorists of modern warfare. Unlike so many other military thinkers, he understands that history is complex, contingent, and irrational, and that no amount of technological superiority could tame the real world’s unpredictable dynamism. He also rightly feels an ethical responsibility to the people who live in countries the United States invaded. So how could he have gotten it so wrong? Why, in spite of his sophistication, did his solutions to the American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately fail to produce even medium-term victory?

McMaster’s intellectual reputation rests on the quality he displayed on the battlefield in 1991, in Dereliction of Duty in 1997, and in Crack in the Foundation in 2003: his commitment to thinking that goes against the grain and troubles colleagues and superiors. The cheers that greeted his appointment in February were predicated on exactly this notion: that McMaster was a tenured radical, an establishmentarian committed to discarding whatever elements of the establishment that needed discarding. Yet McMaster remains a prisoner of ideas formed over half a century ago. He has never once doubted the underlying premises that have guided American foreign policy since World War II. He is unwavering in his belief that the US must continue to serve as the world’s policeman and retain its permanent military mobilization. He has never considered whether the imperial projects undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan were illegitimate from the start and destined to fail. He has never questioned how Americans’ obsession with security might affect democracy at home. McMaster would have been an adequate, perhaps even excellent, leader if American imperialism had proven to be an unalloyed good. Recent history, though, has demonstrated that ours is a moment that requires a new, post-imperialist understanding of the US’s role in the world. This is something that McMaster is unlikely to provide.

Like so many of his less perceptive peers, McMaster has embraced the flawed assumptions that have been used to justify any number of unwise recent American entanglements. To McMaster, ISIS, Iran, and other Islamic enemies of the United States are equivalent to the Nazis and Soviets, and he insists that the contemporary geopolitical environment is defined— as it was during World War II and the Cold War—by an existential struggle between good and evil. As he said in a 2010 speech,

We are engaged, as previous generations were engaged, against enemies that pose a great threat to all civilized peoples. As those generations defeated Nazi fascism, Japanese imperialism, and communist totalitarianism, we will defeat these enemies that cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and violence.

At the end of this speech, McMaster approvingly quoted President Barack Obama for affirming that “‘evil does exist in the world.’” “The righteous use of violence,” McMaster wrote in a 2014 book review, was a critical means to defeat barbaric enemies like ISIS and Iran.

McMaster spent a large portion of the last twelve years deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he often witnessed the brutality of ISIS and the Taliban firsthand. These experiences no doubt led him to see in these enemies echoes of previous groups that committed horrific crimes against humanity. But McMaster’s experiences have distorted his analysis of the real threat these organizations pose to US national security. Unlike the Nazis or Soviets, neither ISIS nor the Taliban (nor associated states like Iran) have the institutional or materiel capacity to overwhelm any western power, let alone the United States. Even if these groups are able to carry out the occasional terrorist attack in the United States or Europe, they are simply not existential threats to the west. In an era in which the United States confronts state and nonstate actors who express allegiance to ideologies that will not be eradicated any time soon, McMaster’s logic of absolute war, in which an enemy is not considered defeated until he is annihilated, is in reality a logic of permanent war.2

The logic of absolute war has proven disastrous since its inception. Dwight Eisenhower, so often invoked in the contemporary foreign policy context as a sage and sane leader, was convinced that the Soviet Union could not be negotiated with, only defeated. This belief may have prevented the Cold War from ending decades earlier than it did: when Eisenhower participated in the 1955 Geneva Summit, he refused to negotiate with the Soviet Union in good faith, forestalling any chance of an early US-Soviet détente. When McMaster publicly paints Iran or Syria as evil in only slightly more shaded terms than David Frum, who wrote George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” speech, he too forestalls any hope of diplomatic engagement with key rivals. Whatever one might think of Iran, it is not Nazi Germany; it is rather a nation with which the United States must deal in the coming years.

The human cost of the logic of absolute war has of course been more disastrous than the diplomatic one. The overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile; the bombing of Laos and Cambodia; the support for brutal dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; the deployment of drones that have killed scores of innocents; and the dropping of the mother-of-all-bombs on Afghanistan—all of these have been undertaken in service of fighting a Manichean war between good and evil. The “righteous” struggle against “enemies that pose a great threat to all civilized peoples” has unquestionably increased human suffering and done a great deal to engender anti-American fervor throughout the world.

In all his writings, McMaster has never considered why, exactly, our adversaries might detest us. America’s opponents, he has written, “hate us not for anything we have done, but for who we are.” He has repeatedly insisted that soldiers must study history, like he did, yet he has evaded the well-documented story of how generations of western colonialists seized raw materials from the Middle East and installed or supported leaders who oppressed their populations. McMaster has been most interested in the past for the instrumental purpose of improving America’s war fighting capabilities, which has led him to ignore major historical questions seemingly unrelated to this subject. His history is a circumscribed one, rooted in the belief that US hegemony necessarily makes the world a better place.3 This was untrue in the past, and it is manifestly untrue today. In the Middle East alone, US interventions have engendered a humanitarian disaster in Iraq; the rise of ISIS; military dictatorship in Egypt; and civil war in Syria. The time has come for leaders like McMaster to rethink the United States’ world role.

Some critics might argue that, though regrettable, the United States cannot be held responsible for brutally engaging in what the political scientist Hans Morgenthau referred to as the eternal struggle for power and prestige. Yet there is more at stake than geopolitics; the logic of absolute war harms American democracy. Americans’ fears of terrorism, which were engendered and sustained by the logic of absolute war, have encouraged warrantless wiretapping, illegal detention and torture, and increased government secrecy, all of which surrender the very values for which we are supposedly fighting. Moreover, the enormous cost of America’s national defense effort—which according to the Congressional Budget Office consumes approximately one-sixth of all federal spending—has diverted resources from social programs that might restore Americans’ lost sense of community. If Americans persist in believing that everything must be done to defeat ISIS, Iran, and similar groups, there is little doubt that our democracy will continue to suffer.

Though he may have begun his career as an institutional critic, the constraints of America’s bipartisan imperial vision left McMaster with little space for truly independent thought. One of the starkest examples of McMaster’s limited perspective was displayed in a 2013 essay, in which he and two co-authors commended the US Army for “provid[ing] advice and assistance to the Saudi Arabian National Guard’s military schools, brigades, and headquarters for the past 39 years.” McMaster’s praise of US assistance to Saudi Arabia—a vicious dictatorship responsible for reprehensible human rights abuses—is as stark an example of willful moral blindness (and intellectual incoherence) as is possible. When someone lauds Saudi Arabia, it is hard to take his or her claims about US moral superiority vis-à-vis ISIS or Iran seriously. In fact, the only people who seem to get away with such contradictions are members of the American foreign policy elite.

After the United States bombed a Syrian airfield in April, McMaster gave an interview to Fox News in which he offered a series of muddled remarks concerning American strategy in the Middle East. When asked whether the United States intended to defeat ISIS or focus on ousting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, McMaster responded “that there has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of ISIS first.” McMaster’s inarticulateness reflected the strategic confusion of American policy in the Middle East, which has been compounded by the strategic confusion of an administration led by a doddering 70-year old ill-suited for the position in which he finds himself.

For his part, McMaster remains fixated on ISIS. In a 2016 book review, he described the group’s “control over territory, resources and populations [as] not only a present-day international security problem, but also a multi-generational threat to all civilized peoples.” He also insisted that Americans must understand

ISIS not as the disease itself, but as a symptom of a disease [whose eradication] will require not only military operations, but also a long-term, multinational effort combining political, social, diplomatic, intelligence, communications, law-enforcement and economic projects aimed at both denying ISIS its safe haven and support base, and at healing and strengthening fragmented societies so that ISIS or its next manifestation is unable to regenerate.

It seems McMaster hopes the United States will, finally, fully commit itself to a Middle Eastern occupation. But one wonders why he would consider this a realistic possibility. The Trump era has not seen an increased appetite on the part of American voters for another war in the greater Middle East, and it has always been difficult to imagine how McMaster could have convinced the President to again invade a sovereign nation, or persuaded the American people to occupy Iraq or Syria as they once occupied Germany and Japan. This is even more true after McMaster’s embarrassing public performance this week.

Any perceptive observer of the Trump Administration could have predicted that H.R. McMaster’s impact as National Security Adviser would have been limited—not only because of the competing power centers in the White House or the pervasive influence of Steve Bannon, but also because the overarching quality of the Trump regime is chaos. Even the most careful manager would have been unable to execute serious, long-term plans in an administration dominated by stops, starts, and profound uncertainty.

One of the most depressing aspects of the Trump Administration is that, despite Trump’s repeated critiques of recent American military interventions, the project of American empire will likely remain unchallenged and undiminished. During the presidential campaign, a number of critics on the left and right argued that Trump’s isolationist rhetoric should be taken seriously—that his disinterest in foreign adventurism and nation-building were genuine. This was probably always a fantasy, but after the bombing of Syria it became provably false. The President’s world tour is unlikely to mitigate the fact that under Trump, US foreign policy is more of the same, only amateurishly executed.

Even if McMaster is pushed out (and reports in various news outlets suggest that Bannon wants him gone, and that Trump himself is unhappy with his performance—apparently the lieutenant general talks too much in meetings), the core of his worldview will still dominate US foreign policy thinking: ISIS and Iran will continue to be viewed as evil, the United States will continue to dedicate itself to never-ending war, and decision makers will continue to feel that they have the right to do most of what they want on the world stage. We cannot know if a bit more independence of thought might have pushed McMaster to contest United States foreign policy or the very notion of American empire. What we do know is that for all of his iconoclasm and perspicacity, McMaster was never a true reformer, but rather an extraordinarily accomplished product of a corroded system.

  1. Though the historiography of the Vietnam War remains outside the scope of this essay, a number of prominent scholars disagree with several of McMaster’s claims. In particular, Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall argues in his Choosing War (1999) that, contra McMaster, McNamara was not at all blinded by a hubristic faith in the power of technology, and was in fact privately rather skeptical about the United States’ ability to eventually win the war, even as he championed escalation. According to Logevall, McNamara understood all too well the obstacles in the way of victory, as did, for that matter, President Johnson. 

  2. For absolute war, see Hans Speier, “The Social Types of War,” American Journal of Sociology 46, no. 4 (January 1941), 445-454. 

  3. A defender might note that before becoming National Security Advisor, constitutionally McMaster had no right to interrogate civilian policy. He could not critique colonialism and empire, because to do so would have been to question the basic premises of US foreign relations. Whatever one thinks of these claims, they are highly problematic in practice. The reason a President should be reticent to appoint a military officer NSA (or secretary of defense, a position now held by former general James Mattis) is that the position requires that its holder be able to criticize US grand strategy and the assumptions that sustain it. For all of McMaster’s military insight, his previous career has not prepared him for his present responsibilities. 

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