From Fort Eustis to the West Wing: McMaster is seen as a soldier-scholar
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: February 26, 2017
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Three years ago, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster moved to Fort Eustis and became the Army's point man on shaping its future.
Just before accepting that assignment, TIME magazine named him among the 100 Most Influential People in the World, along with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
McMaster just might be the "Army's pre-eminent warrior-thinker," TIME said then.
As outspoken as he is smart, McMaster will now tackle a different type of battle as national security adviser to President Donald Trump.
He arrives on the heels of controversy: Former NSA head Michael Flynn resigned after only 24 days, done in by disclosures that he discussed sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama on Russia with a Russian official before Trump took office.
The new job seems a long way from Fort Eustis, the headquarters of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. TRADOC oversees 32 Army schools and develops doctrine to guide the Army's future. Under TRADOC is an organization called the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC).
ARCIC has been described as the Army's think-tank, and that's what McMaster led for three years before accepting his White House assignment.
Maj. Gen. Robert "Bo" Dyess served as deputy director under McMaster and is now the group's acting director. McMaster's leadership was invaluable, he said.
"He's a great team builder," Dyess said Friday. "He is a voracious reader. He is a clear thinker. He is very articulate, and he has a pretty good sense of humor, too."
McMaster brought the perspective of both a warrior and a thinker to the job. As an Army captain, he played a pivotal role in a 1991 Gulf War tank duel known as the Battle of 73 Easting, named for a line on a coordinate grid in the featureless Iraqi desert.
It wasn't much of a duel. Tanks from the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment overwhelmed two Iraqi brigades — a clash that is closely studied by historians. McMaster later wrote a 35-page account of the battle, sections of which read like a suspense thriller.
"He is a war hero," said Dyess, "but he talked about those things in private."
Yet those real-world conflicts contributed to his time at ARCIC, where thinkers look into the years ahead with the help of war games and tabletop exercises.
"Those times where he led soldiers in combat were always on the back of his mind when he was thinking of making the Army better," Dyess said.
In envisioning the future, McMaster also draws lessons from history.
In 2010, then-Brig. Gen. McMaster toured the Civil War battlefield of Cold Harbor outside Richmond with other TRADOC leaders. It was more than a tourist trip. They wanted to learn lessons from 1864, both military and political, that could apply to present-day conflicts.
As covered by the Daily Press at the time, McMaster ticked off several parallels between Cold Harbor and present day. The effectiveness of combat units at Cold Harbor suffered because of losses, attrition and soldiers rotating out. It speaks to the value of keeping units together.
But he also cited the single-minded focus of Union Gen. Ulysses Grant, who wasn't content to "manage" the conflict, but obsessively pursued the Confederate troops.
Even then, a victory on the battlefield isn't total victory.
"You're not going to drive into Richmond, capture the Capitol, accept the surrender of the army and the war's over," McMaster said, adding that the onset of Reconstruction meant the war wasn't really over anyway.
"If victory is the object, you have to think hard about that and define it," he said, and then explain it to the soldiers who are taking the risk.
If President Trump is looking for an adviser who isn't afraid to rattle cages, McMaster fits that description.
In 1997, McMaster published a searing indictment of U.S. leadership during the Vietnam War that took aim at civilian and military leaders at the highest level.
Titled "Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam," he concluded that the war "was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of The New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C."
The book is based on McMaster's thesis he wrote while pursuing a Ph.d in history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Lawrence Wilkerson, a 31-year Army veteran and now a distinguished adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary, vividly recalled McMaster presenting his findings at National Defense University.
McMaster was a major at the time. He was addressing superior officers about a failure of leadership during a crucial chapter of American history. Talk about awkward.
Wilkerson recalled sitting next to a three-star general who appeared enraged at McMaster's criticisms. When it came time for questions, the general shot to his feet and wondered how McMaster could point fingers at military leaders like Maxwell Taylor, for example..
"H.R. just proceeded to devastate him," Wilkerson recalled. "The (general) visibly shrank beside me."
Because of McMaster's outspoken nature, "it's been tough for him," said Wilkerson, whose served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-05.
But Wilkerson said the general's intellect has earned respect from today's more junior officers who see potential in new technology such as 3-D printing and greater use of unmanned systems. McMaster's view of an "imperialist America" that needs to protect its overseas interests runs counter to Trump's more limited view, and it remains to be seen how that will shake out.
Even though he's landed at the White House, McMaster's willingness to call out military mistakes didn't help his career.
Consider the observations of Dave Barno, a retired lieutenant general who commanded U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He wrote TIME's tribute to McMaster in 2014.
Barno said "the outspoken McMaster was passed over twice for selection of his first star. I watched senior Army officials argue over ways to end his career. But he dodged those bullets and will soon take over command of the Army's 'futures' center."
That futures center is at Fort Eustis. Now McMaster can apply those lessons he learned to the West Wing.
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