The Insurgent in the White House: Lt Gen HR McMaster

In picking H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser, President Trump hired a maverick military intellectual who won’t put up with any nonsense.


Originally published by POLITICO Magazine, February 21, 2017

When John Nagl ran into his old friend Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster at a conference recently, he needled the three-star general about his ill-fitting civilian suit. The two men have a long history. Both West Pointers, they served as armor officers in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and went on to write well-received books about the nature of war. After 9/11, they both fought in Iraq and became early proponents of the population-centric counterinsurgency tactics that finally turned the tide in that conflict, earning the sobriquet from friend and foe alike of “COINistas.”

So it was with good-natured ribbing that Nagl “complimented” McMaster—a bull of a man who is built like the tanks he once commanded—about the cut of his suit. Well, McMaster replied, I paid a tailor in Afghanistan $80 to make it.

“H.R., you were robbed,” Nagl told him with a smile.

Whether or not he retires from the military, McMaster figures to get a lot of wear out of that ill-fitting civilian suit in the months ahead. In one of the most unusual predicaments in a storied career, on Monday McMaster found himself sitting next to Donald Trump in the sumptuous Mar-a-Lago resort, accepting the president’s surprise offer to become national security adviser.

The pairing of the infamous real estate developer and reality TV star and the Army’s preeminent warrior-intellectual makes for an odd couple, even given the president’s proclivity for surrounding himself with generals. Trump is ahistorical and reportedly uninterested in books, while McMaster is not only a student of history but a historian himself, comfortable quoting Aristotle, George Washington, Immanuel Kant and G.K. Chesterton in a single recent speech. Trump is proudly unpredictable and impulsive, while McMaster is famously disciplined, having turned his doctoral dissertation into the well-received book on Vietnam Dereliction of Duty, all while teaching military history at West Point. Trump puts a premium on loyalty in his subordinates, yet he has hired as his national security alter ego someone who has made a career out of independent thought and speaking truth to power.

That independence has fostered fierce loyalty among McMaster’s many admirers within the broader military intelligentsia, who see the blunt-speaking former tank commander as a welcome addition to a White House they’ve otherwise viewed with concern, even alarm.

“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,” said Nagl, author of Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice. “He will pick and train a team on the National Security Council that is non-ideological and will run through brick walls for him. He is also someone of unquestioned integrity who will bring a clear moral compass to the role of national security adviser. So I think it speaks well of this White House and president that they chose someone like McMaster.”

Of course McMaster will also inherit a National Security Council in deep disarray. His predecessor retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was forced to resign after less than a month in the job after he reportedly mischaracterized a conversation with the Russian ambassador to Vice President Mike Pence. Trump’s first choice as his replacement, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, turned down the job, reportedly over concerns that he would not be allowed to pick his own team. Senior NSC official Craig Deare was recently fired and frog-marched from the Executive Office Building for daring to criticize Trump in off-the-record remarks at a think tank, and many of his colleagues on the NSC staff are looking over their shoulders, fearful of being monitored.

McMaster will also enter a White House with competing power players who have sharp elbows and closer ties to the president, his chief constituent. Most notably they include chief political strategist Steve Bannon, the populist provocateur and former head of Breitbart News, who in an unprecedented move was made a formal member of the NSC’s “principals committee” of Cabinet officials and senior military leaders. Along with fellow Breitbart alum Sebastian Gorka, Bannon has formed a “Strategic Initiatives Group” inside the White House that some have described as a “shadow” NSC. Other major players in the national security realm include Pence, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior policy adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller.

Those who have studied McMaster’s career say he won’t be intimidated.

“There’s no question that the current White House team will be a tough group to break into, but if they expect H.R. McMaster to pull his punches as national security adviser, or sit in the background passively amidst the infighting, they have hired the wrong guy,” said Joseph Collins, director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. McMaster likes the battle of ideas, he notes, and is good at distilling complex concepts and seeing the big picture. “Throughout his career, McMaster has also always been about achieving victory,” he said. “He’s always thinking in terms of doing whatever is necessary to win.”

A Warrior Historian

The legend of H.R. McMaster begins with a feat of near insubordination. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, then-Captain McMaster was in charge of the lead element of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The job of his troop of nine Abrams tanks was to scout out Iraqi Republican Guard positions and then hold their fire until the full division could be positioned for a decisive engagement. Cresting a dip in the terrain in the lead tank, McMaster encountered a major element of the Republican Guard’s Tawakalna Division spread out in the desert. At that point, his orders were to disengage and await reinforcements.

Only McMaster sensed an opportunity to catch the Republican Guard commander by surprise. Exhibiting the wide streak of independence for which cavalry officers are notorious, he ordered his tanks into formation and pressed the attack against a much larger armored unit. The battle that ensued—dubbed the “Battle of 73 Easting” for its map coordinate—would become famous in Army lore, featured prominently in several books about Desert Storm and in U.S. Army training exercises. During the battle, McMaster’s outnumbered troop destroyed more than 80 Republican Guard tanks and armored vehicles, without losing a single U.S. tank. For his initiative and leadership, McMaster was later awarded a Silver Star for valor.

“I first heard about McMaster from a friend of mine in his unit, who told me about this badass commander who took out an entire Iraqi tank battalion in a matter of minutes,” said Nagl, who also fought in Desert Storm as an armor officer.

The historian in McMaster was already evident. On his return from covering the Persian Gulf War, for instance, UPI war correspondent and author Joseph Galloway found a large envelope in his pile of mail. In it was a handwritten description of the Battle of 73 Easting that ran more than 30 pages long.

“I could just picture H.R. sitting on the tailgate of his command vehicle in the rain while scribbling this detailed description, which he then sent to his mother, who forwarded it to me,” said Galloway. Years later, Galloway heard again from McMaster, who wanted advice on possibly turning into a book his doctoral dissertation on the decision-making that led to defeat in Vietnam. In the manuscript, McMaster excoriated both civilian and military leaders for failing to develop and execute a winning strategy for the war.

After reading an early manuscript of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, Galloway worried that a young Major H.R. McMaster was about to sabotage his Army career. Senior general and flag officers who held his future in their hands were not known for accepting constructive criticism even of their predecessors, at least not from uppity young majors.

“Of course I worried,” said Galloway, whose own co-authored book about Vietnam, We Were Soldiers Once … And Young, was made into a movie. McMaster was undeterred by the warnings. “So he writes the book while teaching a full load at West Point, staying up until 2 a.m. every night writing, and the book turned out perfect.”


When McMaster, by then a full colonel, led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment into the hardscrabble Iraqi city of Tel Afar in 2005, he encountered an insurgency and simmering civil war that, in many ways, was similar to the dynamic that stymied the U.S. military in Vietnam. Insurgents and jihadists gripped the city in a campaign of murder and intimidation. In an early preview of the counterinsurgency tactics that General David Petraeus would soon use to bring Iraq back from the abyss of all-out civil war, McMaster deployed his troops in bases throughout Tel Afar, and focused on protecting the population. By the time his tour was finished, violence in the city was greatly reduced and cooperative relationships had been established with Iraqi military and civilian leaders. His efforts earned the notice of President George W. Bush, who held up Tel Afar as a shining example of U.S. military success at a time when he was desperate to show progress in Iraq.

Even before deploying to Iraq, McMaster had flirted with insubordination again, writing a 2003 monograph for the Army War College questioning the underlying assumption of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s vaunted Revolution in Military Affairs. In it, he argues that the RMA’s focus on new high-tech weapons ignored the continuity of war as an unpredictable human endeavor. In Iraq, he confronted that arrogance and ignorance about the local human terrain personally, and wasn’t shy about saying so.

“When we first got here, we made a lot of mistakes,” McMaster told a reporter for The New Yorker at the time. “We were like a blind man, trying to do the right thing but breaking a lot of things. … You gotta come in with your ears open. You can’t come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people.”

Not everyone in the Army was enamored, however, with this outspoken and independent-minded field officer who attracted and even courted publicity. To some, McMaster seemed to be too much of a self-promoter, a cardinal sin in the tight-knit fraternity of Army officers. He was also part of a bruising debate within the service that pitted traditionalists against the brash “COIN-istas” who embraced the ambiguities and nation-building inherent in counterinsurgency warfare. Twice McMaster was denied promotion to one-star brigadier general. When a third promotion board passed him over—representing a death knell to an Army career—its recommendations were not accepted by the secretary of the Army. Petraeus was called back to Washington from Iraq to lead a new promotion board. McMaster was awarded his first star.

Somewhat ironically, Petraeus was also mentioned as a top candidate to become Trump’s national security adviser. He reportedly took his name out of the running over concerns that he would not have authority to pick his own team. When reached, Petraeus was unequivocal in his support for the choice of McMaster.

“H.R. McMaster is exceptionally well-qualified,” Petraeus wrote in an email. “He has the experience, intellect and organizational and team-building skills to do an exceptional job in this key position.”

Others who’ve worked with him liken McMaster’s management task now to the kinds of complex challenges he faced abroad.

As the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a retired three-star general who commanded U.S. troops there, Karl Eikenberry witnessed McMaster’s skills firsthand when he was put in charge of an anti-corruption campaign in Kabul. “McMaster showed a wonderful ability to build consensus among very disparate actors, civilian and military alike, from many different countries,” said Eikenberry. “I think that skill will put him in good stead as national security adviser with an NSC staff that is clearly demoralized and in a state of disarray. McMaster is also totally committed to the success of whatever mission he is given.”

Indeed, given the odd-couple dynamic in the relationship between the president and his new national security adviser, McMaster’s fiery determination to “win” may be what most attracted Trump. In a recent speech at the Virginia Military Academy, for instance, McMaster was passionate in rejecting the assumption that “war will end if we just disengage from it,” and telegraphing a lack of national will by putting artificial deadlines on troop withdrawals. It wasn’t hard to perceive criticism of Obama administration policies in those remarks, which were vintage McMaster: an encyclopedic tour of military-intellectual history shot through with the code of a warrior.

“Because war is a competition involving life and death, and in which national security and vital interests are at stake, establishing an objective other than winning is not only counterproductive, but also irresponsible and wasteful,” said McMaster. “In some circumstances it is also unethical.”

James Kitfield is senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and author of the recent book “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War.”  He is a former senior correspondent for National Journal and has written about defense, national security and foreign policy issues from Washington, D.C., for more than two decades.

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