An interview with LTG H. R. McMaster

Just prior to departing Ft. Benning, H.R.  McMaster gave an interview with the local newspaper, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. A lot of it is geared to the local community, but quite a bit of it is applicable across the board, and worth a few minutes.

Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster is a combination of warrior, intellectual and leader. He was recently recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

McMaster earned a reputation for his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which questioned political and military leadership during Vietnam.

Dave Barno, a retired lieutenant general, described McMaster this way: “I watched senior Army generals argue over ways to end his career. But he dodged those bullets and will soon take over command of the Army’s ‘futures’ center. After years as an outspoken critic, McMaster soon will be in the right place to help build the right Army for the nation.”

McMaster has spent two years as commander of Fort Benning. He has been selected for promotion to lieutenant general, and has been reassigned to Fort Monroe, Va., where he will serve as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command. He has been in charge of the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning for two years. McMaster recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams.


One of the key strengths of our Army is what we call the “philosophy of mission command,” which is basically decentralized operations based on mission orders. It means, “Hey, I’m going to ask you to accomplish a mission, but I’m not going to tell you how to do it. You can figure it out.” That’s the strength of the American Army. It’s that kind of initiative and the ability to apply your imagination to solve problems. What I’ve found here at Fort Benning and across my career is if you give people the freedom to take initiative and help give them the resources they need to accomplish the mission, they’re always going to exceed your expectations.

When you’re a company commander or platoon leader at a remote Combat Outpost in Afghanistan, it’s hard for your commander to micromanage. There are some that are sure to try, but sheer distance has imposed Mission Command philosophy to some extent. Harking back to the WaPo piece on the challenges the Army will face in peacetime, one thing I suspect we’ll see quite a bit of is junior officers, used to operated well away from their chain of command, will increasingly chafe under the daily stress of the battalion commander being right across the street, and the multitude of taskings his staff generates that, to our hard charging officer, have no correlation to success in combat. These officers, who are just as capable of being successful as entrepreneurs as they were combat leaders, will walk out the door. The ones left behind, by and large, will be the ones that need more supervision. And the higher echelons of the unit will give it to them in ever increasing doses.  This “brightsizing” happens to every army in the transition to peacetime. And frankly, I don’t know how to mitigate it. And the worst part is, eventually those micromanaged leaders become senior leaders who, while fully capable of mouthing the philosophy of Mission Command, have internalized the lessons of oversupervision and micromanagement. Let’s hope enough of the cream of the crop can tolerate the avian excrement long enough to rise to senior leadership.


In the comments on a recent post, Byron asked about McMaster being passed over for Lieutenant General the first time.

While then COL McMaster was passed over for promotion to Brigadier General by the first promotion board, there is no promotion board for Lieutenant General. LTG is a nominative rank, and a rank of office. That is, only those positions authorized and required to be filled by a three star general, all of which require the advise and consent of the Senate. If you aren’t serving in one of those positions, you don’t get the three stars.

H. R. McMaster and AirSeaBattle

DrewM over at the mothership pointed out that MG H.R. McMaster has penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

FORT BENNING, Ga. — “A GREAT deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” the novelist Saul Bellow once wrote. We should keep that in mind when we consider the lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — lessons of supreme importance as we plan the military of the future.

Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past.

We engaged in such thinking in the years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; many accepted the conceit that lightning victories could be achieved by small numbers of technologically sophisticated American forces capable of launching precision strikes against enemy targets from safe distances.

These defense theories, associated with the belief that new technology had ushered in a whole new era of war, were then applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; in both, they clouded our understanding of the conflicts and delayed the development of effective strategies.

Today, budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies — or geopolitical shifts — have ushered in a new era of warfare. Some defense theorists dismiss the difficulties we ran into in Afghanistan and Iraq as aberrations. But they were not aberrations. The best way to guard against a new version of wishful thinking is to understand three age-old truths about war and how our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq validated their importance.

A little background on MG McMaster-

He first rose to prominence for his brilliant performance as a Captain leading a cavalry troop at the Battle of 73 Easting in Desert Storm. His performance there was a textbook example of AirLand Battle doctrine executed at the small unit level.

And he has risen through the ranks serving as a sucessful combat commander of a cavalry regiment during the Iraq War. And today, he serves as the commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence- the result of merging the Infantry Center & School with the Armor Center & School. In a nutshell, he’s the Army’s head instructor for land warfare.

But McMaster is also one of the Army’s leading intellectuals. Which, normally, is in direct conflict with rising to higher rank. The numbers of intellectuals in the Army who saw their careers stall at Colonel is large. Indeed, McMaster almost befell the same fate. He was passed over for Brigadier General his first time before the selection board.  Fortunately, he was later selected and promoted again to Major General.

The Op-Ed isn’t an official Army statement. Theoretically, it’s just McMaster’s own musings. But let’s face it, H.R. isn’t exactly going off the reservation here.  I’d be rather stunned if the 4-star leadership of the Army didn’t get a heads up that the article was coming.

And Brian McGrath at ID, no slouch in the brains department himself, sees the article primarily as a shot at AirSea Battle, the joint Air Force-Navy effort to address anti-access efforts by our potential enemies.

Major General H.R. McMaster is one of the smartest men in our military, the epitome of a warrior-scholar.  He has been famous since he was a Major and he is one of the few serving officers who can confidently have his work placed in the New York Times, which he did yesterday.  He is the most eloquent advocate for land power on the scene today, and he will invariably provide much of the Army’s intellectual heft in the coming QDR and concomitant budget battles.  Read closely in his NYT piece and you see the Army’s argument clearly.  That is, without even mentioning AirSea Battle, he has lumped it in with the Revolution in Military Affairs, Net Centricity, and Rumsfeld’s reorganization ideas as fashionable passing fancies we must not follow again.  Instead, we must keep in high readiness a large powerful Army capable of combined arms maneuver AND the ability to occupy large portions of the earth’s surface.
If you think that I’m wrong, and that he’s not arguing against AirSea Battle, then it is not worth your time to read on.  If you think he is or might be, then consider moving forward.

I think McGrath is right. McMaster is taking a shot across AirSea Battle’s bow.

Furthermore, I think McMaster is right. I’ve always been a strong proponent of a strong Navy, and robust airpower. But the Army (and to a lesser extent, the Marines) see ASB not so much as a tool for future warfare, but  a truce in the looming defense budget battles, in which the Navy and Air Force will set aside their long animosity and attempt to bolster their budget out of the Army’s hide.

Maybe that is paranoia, but then again, maybe not.

And as a practical matter, simply wishing away the need for large numbers of ground troop in future warfare is simply that- wishing.  Not once since the end of World War II has the nation engaged in a significant war or military intervention and decided it had more than enough ground troops. Instead, we’ve repeatedly found ourselves scrambling to increase the numbers of formations available, at great cost in money, time, and sadly, often in lives.

I’d be far, far more receptive to the Navy’s arguments for a larger slice of the budget pie if recent history hadn’t shown just how bad the Navy can be at using what it has.  The utter trainwreck that is the LCS program leads front and center. The goldplated LPD-17 class is a close second.  Building amphibious warfare ships without a well-deck for the LHA-6 class chimes in as well.  And now we’re hearing rumbles that the replacement for the LSD-41 class might be a stretched LPD-17 (as opposed to a much cheaper modernized LSD-41 hull).

Don’t even get me started on the JSF tri-service fighter boondoggle.

I’ll grant you that Army procurement hasn’t been much better, but at least the Army has had the good sense to cancel monstrosities rather than pushing on to production.

This will hardly be the only shot fired in a newspaper Op-Ed page. We can, in the next few years, expect to see more from all sides.