Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, is a celebrated warrior — in one famous Gulf War battle, the unit he commanded destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks without suffering a single casualty. He’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a celebrated scholar, too. He received a PhD from the University of North Carolina and, in 1997, turned his dissertation into a well-reviewed book on the US military’s failure to stand up to the president during the Vietnam War.
His subsequent scholarly pursuits included a role as a contributing editor of Survival, an academic international relations journal. Survival made four essays McMaster had written for them freely available to the public this week — a little window into the way the national security adviser sees the world. So I decided to read them.
On the surface, these articles — written in the late 2000s and early 2010s — seem oddly dated and overly preoccupied with a 1990s-era debate over the role of technology in US military strategy.
But don’t be fooled: The essays are actually thinly veiled shots at a US military that McMaster thinks is too hidebound and wedded to defense contractors to understand how war needs to be fought in the 21st century. He did this while still active duty, once attacking a high-ranking Air Force general in a way that made it very easy to identify the target of his ire.
That an active duty military officer would write this is surprising enough. But it also shows that McMaster has a worldview that challenges some of the Trump White House’s most unsettling instincts when it comes to international affairs — and that the new national security adviser won't be afraid to speak his mind when he thinks the president is heading down the wrong path.
What McMaster’s essays tell us about his view of waging war
In all four of his Survival essays, McMaster takes aim at against something called the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” This idea, RMA for short, is a post-Gulf War doctrine that suggested large ground deployments were outdated — that small numbers of troops, supplemented by technologically advanced surveillance and precision-guided airstrikes, were the military of the future.
McMaster argues that RMA theory was proven wrong, decisively, by America’s need for major ground deployments against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Countermeasures to Western technological capabilities and the intermingling of enemy combatants with civilian populations have limited the effect of new capabilities and meant that combat on the ground has continued to predominate in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he wrote in 2008’s “Ancient Lessons for Today's Soldiers.”
This might seem like beating a dead horse — except, according to McMaster, RMA-like ideas still hold sway in the US military. “Even the US Army, despite having fought for six years under conditions that run counter to the body of ideas that drove defense transformation, is finding it difficult to cut completely loose from years of wrongheaded theory,” he writes in “On War: Lessons to be Learned.”
The key assumption that has yet to be overturned, according to McMaster, is the notion that wars can be fought quickly, cheaply, and without much loss of American life.
The RMA was premised on the idea that the US’s technological advantage would allow it to use fancy tools like cruise missiles, drones, and satellites to avoid putting its own personnel in harm’s way. War, as he evocatively puts it, gets reduced to “a targeting exercise.”
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, by contrast, show that war cannot be won with airpower and fancy technology alone. “[This idea] threatens to undermine defense strategy with renewed promises that technology will, in the next war, permit advanced Western militaries to operate at stand-off range and escape the complications associated with the realities of politics, geography and the human dimension,” he writes in 2015’s “The Uncertainties of Strategy.”
The first thing to note about these essays is that, despite being written as long as nine years ago, they show McMaster to be very much at odds with his new boss on the use of force. Recall Trump promising to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” or his comment that “I love war, in a certain way?” Both of those reflect an easy faith in the power of force, particularly bombs, to solve problems — anathema to McMaster’s view of war as a bloody, complicated, and necessarily difficult endeavor.
“[There’s a] dangerous illusion that wars might be waged bloodlessly or with surgical precision,” McMaster writes in 2014’s “Photography at War.”
The second important thing about McMaster’s argument here is the context. Recall that while he’s penning these essays, McMaster is an active-duty officer. He’s publicly, if obliquely, attacking his colleagues’ thinking in the pages of a journal (a British journal, no less)!
In “On War,” he accuses the military of being too influenced by defense contractors whose “interests can easily corrupt their judgment.” More boldly, he singles out a particular Air Force general whose thinking he thinks is emblematic of the problems in US doctrine:
A US Air Force major‐general argued recently that the difficulties in Iraq are not indicative of the true nature of conflict, but rather that the Iraq War is an aberration ‐ an ill‐advised ‘hearts‐and‐minds campaign’...He argued that as for the problem of future war, ‘air strikes to demolish enemy capabilities complemented by short‐term, air assisted raids and high‐tech Air Force surveillance’ is the answer ‐ not ‘colossal, boots on the ground efforts’. He asserted that this approach to future war was more ‘culturally compatible’ because air power and long‐range bombing are America's asymmetrical advantage. He essentially advocated a return to US defence transformation thinking of the 1990s.
These are fairly specific comments, whose author I identified with just a single Google search. McMaster is publicly questioning the judgement of a fellow high-ranking officer.
Moreover, McMaster’s comments could easily be read as an attack on the Obama administration’s reliance on drones and special forces in counterterrorism campaigns and the intervention in Libya — a kind of limited risk, “surgical” warfare. So not only was he explicitly criticizing his colleagues, but he was implicitly challenging the president’s views of war.
This kind of willingness to say whatever he thinks explains why, despite a stellar service record, he was passed over for promotion more than once — why, retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno recalls watching ”senior Army generals argue over ways to end his career.” Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ultimately took the unusual step of summoning Gen. David Petraeus, then in charge of the Iraq War, back from Baghdad to personally lead the Army promotion board that ultimately gave McMaster his first star and set the stage for his continued ascent up the military hierarchy.
This suggests, in short, that McMaster will have no problem speaking his mind when he thinks Trump or one of Trump’s other advisers has a bad idea — even if it puts his career at risk.
McMaster’s essays don’t just criticize the RMA approach to war. They also outline his own, one that runs very much counter to what you might expect from someone handpicked by Trump himself.
McMaster’s core theme, in the essays, is that war is a political activity. This vision is most associated with the 19th century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who coined the phrase “war is the continuation of politics with other means.” By this, Clausewitz means that the purpose of war is to accomplish a political objective — gaining new territory, for example — so war cannot be treated separately from politics. Military strategy needs to be crafted to operate both with a mind to these political objectives and within the broader political context that shapes the war in the first place.
McMaster uses a Clausewitzian lens to critique America’s performance. In “On War,” an essay that shares a title with Clausewitz’s famous book, he argues that obsession with keeping US involvement limited overwhelmed attention to political realities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Basically, Americans thought a lot about what they wanted to do, but not enough about what they wanted to accomplish and what it would need to accomplish that:
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.
In “The Uncertainties of Strategy,” he argues that this kind of failure is actually fairly common. Militaries often do not pay attention to the nitty-gritty political context they’re operating in: “The neglect of the political nature or context of war is a common cause of strategic failures – as well as a common flaw in theories that often contribute to those failures.”
These are the ideas behind McMaster’s approach in Iraq — moving them from big and remote bases to smaller ones in individual neighborhoods, ordering them to be as respectful to civilians as possible, and the like. Politically speaking, the insurgency thrived because of civilian resentment with the American occupiers and the lack of an effective local government. McMaster figured that if his soldiers treated the civilians well, and built trust with them, it might help shift the social context in which they operated — leading to cooperation with the Americans and the formation of a more legitimate indigenous government.
In short, then, McMaster’s approach to conflict centers on understanding the political context in its nitty-gritty details — and then defining an overall approach that’s tailored to this specific, contextual analysis. This is not what you hear from Trump himself, who knows little about the details of foreign countries. And it’s the precise opposite of what you hear from some members of the Trump administration — most notably, senior strategist Steve Bannon.
Bannon sees the United States as locked in a civilizational conflict, not with Muslims but Islam. Details like the nature of the Iraqi state are, to him, unimportant; the key issue is the ideological-civilizational conflict.
“We’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism,” he said in a 2014 speech reported by BuzzFeed.
McMaster’s predecessor as NSA, Michael Flynn, shared that view — once tweeting that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” McMaster, by contrast, will be a check on that impulse in National Security Council meetings, since Bannon has been given a permanent seat on the NSC. His worldview, focusing on an attention to political reality in all its complexity, is the precise opposite of this clarifying, simplifying ideological approach.
McMaster’s way of thinking lines up closely with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is already emerging as a major check on Trump’s more dangerous instincts, like the president's public embrace of torture. Putting McMaster in charge of Trump’s NSC means the administration’s internal civil war over how to interact with the world will continue, but with a major new player.