H.R. McMaster on War

Last Thursday evening I had the privilege of attending Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s keynote address to the ISSS/ISAC conference. General McMaster is the author of Dereliction of Duty and currently serves as the director of the US Army’s Manuever Center for Excellence. His speech touched on numerous interested topics, illustrated the breadth and depth of his understanding of warfare. Here I include paraphrases and summaries of his answers to several audience questions.

How do assumptions about the nature of warfare affect strategy?

One of the major assumptions that strategists–and instructors–have to make is whether war is a fundamentally certain or uncertain process. If war is uncertain, you will employ fire-and-maneuver tactics. Commanders will lead from the front. Planners will leave room for error in the plan, remaining flexible in light of changing events rather than sticking with a predetermined course of action. If you think the enterprise of war is certain, you will use precision fire strategy. Commands will come from the rear. Plans will be exact and inflexible, requiring unwavering commitment rather than flexibility and adaptation.

What do you think of network-centric warfare?

Reshaping an organization is not the same as achieving a political goal. At the same time, we need greater integration of law enforcement personnel like the US Treasury Department and the FBI to combat threats like transnational terrorism and organized crime.

What are the causes of war?

This goes right back to Thucydides–fear, honor, and interests:

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterward came in. (Book One, 432/3)

When we see the fatigue or breakdown of combat forces (e.g. in Vietnam), what are the causes and how can practitioners address it?

One potential explanation is ignorance. This could be ignorance of military standards of conduct, or of the local situation. The answer to ignorance is understanding. In this case, it would be an understanding of applied ethics, or of gaining sympathy for the local population.

Another cause is uncertainty. As I said before, I believe war is a fundamentally uncertain enterprise. But operating in an uncertain environment can be draining. It also leads to the fourth reason, which is fear. Aristotle understood this:

[I]f they are to feel the anguish of uncertainty, there must be some faint expectation of escape. This appears from the fact that fear sets us thinking what can be done, which of course nobody does when things are hopeless. (Rhetoric, Book II, Chapter 5, 1383a)

The fourth and final cause is combat trauma. Rage or individual prowess are unacceptable motivations for combat. Losing friends can encourage this. So can coming in to the military after a lifetime of watching movies and playing video games. In real life, the only acceptable motivators are the mission and the protection of your fellow soldiers.

N.B.: Although these are paraphrases and summaries, I have stayed as close to Gen. McMaster’s original comments as possible. As you can see, he reads widely and thinks deeply.