McMaster: "In the army, because the stakes are so high, you can't just be a yes man."
Editor’s note: This interview with U.S. Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, published in July 2014. It is being recirculated as President Donald Trump picked McMaster as his new top security advisor, a position that became vacant last week with the ouster of Michael Flynn, a retired Army general.
Here is the original interview:
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 on July 2014 with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
Q: Talk a little bit about your tenure at Fort Benning. You were the first general to get the Maneuver Center as a whole. How has that gone?
A: Well, I really was quite fortunate to inherit the tremendous work from those who had gone before me, so, my predecessors at the Maneuver Center had brought together Infantry and Armor. And at first, there were some skeptics about it.
Some people thought the world might end when that happened on both sides. But what happened is the leaders who went before me built a tremendous team here — a team that built trust between each other, and then saw the possibilities of Infantry and Armor working together in a sustained manner, and to develop this combined arms perspective. You know, in the U.S. Army we don’t want a fair fight, and the way you make sure it’s not a fair fight is you combine capabilities -- Infantry with Armor, mobile protective fire power, connecting effective reconnaissance operations, integrating fires and engineers and joint capabilities.
So, if you take on the U.S. Army, you’re going to have a lot of problems on your hands from the perspective of the enemy.
Q: Is the Army a better Army because of the merging of Armor and Infantry?
A: It is — and we’re not merging. Bringing together, co-locating ... Some of the concerns had been that bringing together Infantry-Armor would in some way jeopardize branch culture, which is important and this culture exists for a reason in our branches...
But what has happened actually, I think, in many ways has strengthened those cultures... but also allowed us to develop this combined arms perspective.
Combined arms is basically a game of rock, paper, scissors. If you show up to combat with a rock, the enemy may have paper, but then you have scissors ready to go. And you combine these capabilities in a way that allows you to seize and retain the initiative over the enemy. The enemy is reacting to you -- the enemy is not thinking about what they can accomplish. They’re thinking about saving themselves, because you are an effective, combined arms team.
Q: So, it’s made for a better Army. Has it made for a better Fort Benning?
A: It has made for a better Fort Benning. What we’ve done is we’ve built on the legacy of excellence that we’ve inherited from Fort Benning’s long history. So, when Fort Benning was founded, it was founded at a time when there was a lot of change. There had been a huge experience that Americans had never really anticipated in World War I -- the deployment and bringing into the Army millions of soldiers and deploying millions of soldiers to France. We are in the 100th year anniversary now of World War I. And that war was horrible. The war was horrible because of the stalemated nature of the compound on the Western front and trench warfare. And in the period of World War I, tremendous invasions, technological breakthroughs happened — the airplane, the tank — and then soon after the war, the radio.
So, leaders who founded Fort Benning were grappling with all of this: What does this mean? What is America’s role in the world now that we’ve deployed and fought in a continental war on Europe? And what are the implications for an Army with these new technologies? So, these officers and noncommissioned officers established really, I think, Fort Benning as the heart of our Army, because it is here where they thought about future war, learned the lessons from the previous war and applied them to the future, and they built the next American Army, under a period of tremendous constraints obviously and during the Depression.
But you had officers like George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, all who came here to really develop combined arms capabilities.
So, a lot of people saw Infantry and Armor coming together here as a big change. But of course it wasn’t unprecedented for Fort Benning to be the center of that kind of intellectual activity and building combined arms capabilities.
Q: Talk about Fort Benning in relationship with the city of Columbus. ... From your perspective, what is the relationship between Fort Benning and Columbus?
A: The relationship between Fort Benning and Columbus and the whole Chattahoochee Valley area is the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in the Army.
I’m not saying that just because I’m here now, but I’m saying it because it is really true. Everybody told me before I came here, “You’re going to see the best relationship with a local community than anywhere in the Army.” And it became apparent to me that was the case right from the beginning.
I think that has a lot to do with obviously our friends in the community and how they’ve reached out to Fort Benning and our soldiers and families. You know our soldiers and families are citizens of the Chattahoochee River Valley. We’re completely integrated into the economy, in the communities all across the area, and I think the people in Columbus understand the importance of our Army to their security and the security of our nation.
One of the things that we have benefited tremendously from is the outpouring of support for our soldiers who have now been at war for 13 years. And what I think is really important for our Army — today, probably now more than ever when less than one-half of the market serve — it’s important for us to stay connected with people in whose name we fight. We can’t become separated from our society and democracy.
Q: Is that a role Columbus, Phenix City and the Valley play with this military and this post?
A: Yes. I think the community here — the leaders in the community, the citizens here — do a tremendous job of helping us stay connected to them. And I think if I could encourage them, come to Fort Benning. Some people still think you can’t get into the gate. Of course you can come into the gate at Fort Benning.
If you are looking for something extraordinary to do on a Thursday and a Friday, go to the National Infantry Museum in the mornings and go to one of the graduations where you see these young American citizens transformed into soldiers, and their families are there to celebrate with them.
These are just extraordinary young soldiers who are coming into our Army. It’s a great show with our band. It’s a great parade, and then you get to see this awesome National Infantry Museum as well. That’s one of the many activities you can engage in at Fort Benning, but I would ask anyone in the local area, please come visit us.
Q: As the Army is changing — it’s clearly changing, and it’s becoming a smaller, different kind of army — as Columbus fights to protect its piece of Fort Benning, is that relationship an advantage as Columbus tries to keep or expand parts of Fort Benning?
A: I think so. I think that is a factor to consider and certainly the support of local communities are important to any Army post, and it’s so darn good here.
I think that Fort Benning, whatever size the Army is, will continue to play a central role within our Army because of the activities that are here that are really essential to our Army at whatever size. Those activities are in four key areas:
Leader development and education — we train all of our maneuver leaders here from corporal to captain, and of course, that’s our most important activity because soldiers will follow a good leader anywhere under any conditions in battle. Each year we train about 90,000 soldiers here. And we are training here in ways that are very innovative and critical to our Army’s current and future capabilities. We’ve adapted to the demands of 13 years of war — the way that we just train basic rifle marksmanship now with advanced rifle marksmanship, and the way we immerse soldiers into very complex environments where they are fighting enemies that are intermingled with civilian populations, the combined arms training we can do now. It’s really been sort of a revolution in how we train.
Our third key activity here is doctrine, describing how we’re going to fight in the future.
We have to adapt; we have to make sure we’re ready for the next conflict.
And then combat development... Combat development teams are the guys to make sure we don’t have a fair fight in the future. If we show up somewhere with U.S. Army on our chest, in large numbers, there’s not going to be a fair fight.
Q: That’s by design, right?
A: That’s by design. There are some people who say, “Why would you want to invest in this capability? Wouldn’t it be cheaper, easier to do this way?” But you know, in war the stakes are high because they involve life and death. So, one of the key things we work on here is we give our best advice on how to develop our future capabilities -- taking logical capabilities, taking weapon capabilities, also how we train, how we think about future war and fight in future war -- all of those aspects to prepare for the future. We want to do that with an eye toward being able to defeat our enemies soundly.
In 1991, you found yourself in Iraq as a young Cavalry commander and you weren’t in a fair fight at that point either. You were outnumbered and you had, what, eight or nine tanks?
We had nine tanks and 12 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 136 Cavalry troopers.
Q: What did the enemy have?
A: The enemy had a brigade-size enemy defensive position.
Q: What did you learn from that part of your military experience?
A: I learned a lot from it — confirmed a lot of what we thought about central elements of combat readiness, being ready for a fight.
So, we had been given this gift from a generation of officers who led through the 1950s into the 1960s through the Vietnam War — really, the destructive effect that the Vietnam War had on the Army — (then) transitioned our Army into a volunteer force ... As we went to combat in 1991, we went to combat with the best peacetime Army I think in the history of the world.
It was because of a very sound doctrine -- we understood how we were going to fight. We had very strong training. We trained under really tough realistic conditions that replicated combat very closely. I mean, the National Training Center, when you went there it was hard. So, as a result of that training —and the result of leader development and education —we were at such a high level of readiness, and that readiness built into us confidence. So, we were so confident in our individual abilities as leaders and soldiers, we were confident in our weapons systems, we had great equipment —our Abrams tanks and our Bradley Fighting Vehicles. But then we really were confident in our ability to fight together as a team, and we were a very cohesive, confident team. Stonewall Jackson — since I’m here in Georgia I should quote Jackson -- Jackson said, “In war there’s a power greater than mere numbers.” And we were so powerful as a Cavalry troop, as a Cavalry squad and regiment and as an Army because of that confidence that we had and how we developed that cohesive well-trained team.
Q: You didn’t lose a single person off your team that day, right?
A: No, we did not, thank God.
Q: Did that set the tone for your career or change your career?
A: Well, what it did is, I think it helped me understand some of those central elements of combat readiness, but when you’re thinking about war and combat, the first thing you need is a big dose of humility.
I think one of the reasons we had this lopsided outcome in the Battle of 73 Easting of Desert Storm had a lot to do with our confidence, but also had a lot to do with the enemy.
There are two ways to fight the U.S. Army -- asymmetrically, which means you try to avoid our strengths, or stupid. And the Iraqis in 1991 chose stupid. They tried to meet us on our own terms so we could bring to bear all of our tremendous advantages. Now, what we have seen in the very difficult fights and long fights in Afghanistan and Iraq is that we are continuously interacting with an adaptive, determined — and in these cases, a brutal — enemy that is going to try and do everything they can to evade our strengths and attack what they perceive is our weaknesses.
So, that means we have to adapt faster. We have to innovate faster. We really have to understand these complex situations and understand how we operate to get to that sustainable outcome consistent with our interest and consistent with the risk our soldiers take, and worthy of the sacrifices the soldiers make.
So, in many ways the Gulf War was certainly easy compared with what we have encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan for a number of reasons. First of all, as I mentioned, the enemy met us on our own terms, but also we had a very narrow circumscribed political objective — give Kuwait back to the Kuwaitis, and then we went into a long-term of detainment of Saddam. Obviously, the demands of the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan were much different and much more difficult, and we had to face an enemy that had adapted to us over time — multiple enemies, actually.
Q: Our enemies are no longer stupid, correct?
A: Right. I think, obviously, they are continually attempting to adapt against us. One of the key things is, we don’t talk about our enemies enough, and I would just ask the question -- how many Americans could name the three main Taliban groups who we’re fighting in Afghanistan? Now, these people are the enemy of all civilized people.
If you look at what the Pakistanis are encountering in North Waziristan — where these brutal, murderous criminals have had control since about 2004 —they are fighting a people who have just been brutalized, repressed, abused in the worst ways you can imagine. And this is their vision. And this is their vision that people who have similar ideology are trying to impose in Iraq now.
So, I think it’s important for Americans to pay attention to who is the Quetta Shura Taliban, who is the Haqqani network, who is Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin? What are their ties to al-Qaida, what do they stand for? Because if you listen to them, just as if we were to listen to the Nazi Party in Germany in the late 1930s, they tell us what they’re going to do if they’re able to gain power.
And they show it to us through their brutality. So, I think talking more about the enemy and what is at stake would help Americans understand better why we need our soldiers engaged in these conflicts -- to protect our own vital interest and really the interest of all civilized people.
Q: One thing I’m curious about. You came out of the first Gulf War and you pursued your master’s from the University of North Carolina, Why did you choose the thesis topic you wrote about, examining and questioning the Vietnam leadership?
A: Well, I’ve always been drawn to the study of history, and I think for military professionals it is really important to understand the past because there are a lot of things in war that change — new technologies, different types of combat and operations we’re seeing now, a dramatic difference obviously between the Gulf War and these protracted counterinsurgency and security campaigns that we’re conducting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But I think it’s important in particular to understand your most recent experiences as an army, because a lot of times people say, “Gosh, the military, they’re always ready to fight the last war.” But actually the opposite is the case: The problems you have in the next war are oftentimes because you studied your last war only superficially -- didn’t study it enough really to learn the lessons.
Remember after Vietnam, we’re not going to do counterinsurgency anymore, we’re not going to deal with these complex environments in which we’re contending with enemies that operate on multiple battlegrounds -- physical battleground, a battleground of political subversion, a battleground of perception, a battleground of, really, criminality and transnational organized crime. But, heck, we did have to fight wars that posed those problems. So, I wanted to learn from the Vietnam conflict. I had a great deal of respect for Vietnam veterans, especially after the Gulf War. In the Gulf War, we had a very short war, a war in which we were able to defeat the enemy and eject the enemy out of Kuwait.
Q: Achieve the objective?
A: Achieve the objective, and then go home in relatively a short period of time. But not all wars are like that. And in Vietnam — where you had a protracted conflict, during which it was very difficult for leaders to explain to their soldiers how the risks they were taking and the sacrifices they were making were contributing again to that outcome that the accomplishment of those missions were worthy of the risks and sacrifices — I wondered why was there so much ambiguity in terms of how what we’re doing militarily was connected to the overall war-end. So, I went into the research asking that question. And then it really became an effort to understand how and why Vietnam became an American war, and how and why decisions were made that led to that kind of ambiguity.
When you were doing your research, and it eventually morph into a book, “Dereliction of Duty,” did any of your peers or colleagues say, “You’re committing career suicide?”
Some people jokingly were saying that was going to happen, but I never felt anything like that. I didn’t think the book or the research in any way was going to jeopardize my career.
Some people have a misunderstanding about the Army. Some people think, hey, you’re in the military and everything is super-hierarchical and you’re in an environment that is intolerable of criticism and people don’t want frank assessments. I think the opposite is the case. In the Army, because the stakes are so high — right? — you can’t just be a yes-man and say, “Great idea, boss!” if you don’t believe it — right? — because lives are at stake. And the commanders that I’ve worked for, they want frank assessments, they want criticism and feedback. So, if you offer it in a way that it is grounded in good analysis, and it’s respectful, and if you’re giving recommendations that are clearly aimed at advancing your mission, I think the Army and the military probably are very tolerant, even more tolerant than maybe other organizations.
So, I didn’t encounter any of that. I think there is a couple of reasons, though, that helped. One is the time. It was 30 years later. The emotional wounds weren’t as open, and had begun to heal. And another reason is that time allowed a lot of evidence to come to light. Before, when you wrote about Vietnam, you had to fill in the gaps with some opinion and conjecture... What was available to me was a broad range of documents that were not available previously — documents from the most private meetings of the president and his advisers. Whereas before, only the more public meetings — the big Security Council meetings —were available.
Q: So, you got the behind-the-scene stuff?
A: Right. Tapes of telephone conversations and so forth. So that really allowed me to ground the analysis of the book in evidence, and still there were a lot of leaders I could talk to — and combining the documentary evidence with oral histories and interviews was a tremendous opportunity.
You recently were named to the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world. What is your reaction to that?
Well, I think it may represent a misunderstanding of where influence comes from in the Army, because in the Army influence doesn’t come from any individual. Influence comes from teams, right? And you work on everything as a team. Obviously, it’s an honor to be selected on a list like that, but also I think, as you know how collective that list is, I don’t personally put any credence in my selection. I would hope the selection is more along the lines of selecting a soldier to represent the Army as a team, because obviously our Army is influential and land forces as part of our joint team are not just influential, but they are vital to our security.
Q: Gen. (Dave) Barno in his write-up called you a very rare soldier in that you have challenged authority — I may be using that word wrong — and still advance. ... What is your reaction to Gen. Barno saying that you are a rare breed in this Army?
A: Well, I tell you when I look at the talent of the officers and the noncommissioned officers in the Army, I’m humbled by it. For example, the officer that is about to replace me here, I would gladly serve as his deputy anywhere at any time. Gen. Scott Miller is going to be great for Fort Benning and great for the community.
So, I don’t think there’s anything about my career or capabilities that warrants any kind of special recognition or anything. I am privileged everyday to work with the leaders and soldiers I work with. Generals aren’t heroes, but we’ve got a great job because you get to work with heroes every day. If you think about influence, what you basically can do to influence your organization is to give people the freedom to take initiative because they will always exceed your expectations.
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.
Q: As I understand it, part of your next assignment is you will be helping direct the future of the U.S. Army. That sounds like an incredible responsibility. What do you see as the future of the United States Army?
A: I think the future of the United States Army is to be able to fight, win and accomplish the mission as part of joint teams — which means along with our Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — but also interdepartmental teams and multi-national teams. The problems we’re facing today, our problems involve multiple nations and really the enemies we’re seeing in the greater Middle East and in Afghanistan are enemies of all civilized people. So, how do we work together as part of a border team to defeat our enemies and accomplish the mission and get into those kind of sustainable outcomes that protect our security and our vital interest?
The key thing for us to consider, I think, as we think about the future, is first of all to work collaboratively. We’ve got to work across the whole Army, because the future course of the Army is what 51 percent or more of the Army believes it is every day. So, you can’t work in a vacuum -- you’ve got to work with everybody on it. But the key things we have to consider, I think, are four key areas. The first is missions. What missions are we going to be conducting in the future. Of course, we have a say in that, but our enemies have a say in it.
Q: When you say missions, you mean where we’re fighting?
A: It’s where we fight but it’s also the types of missions we’re going to conduct. I think you can determine your missions through the defense planning guides which say, “Hey, what our forces have to do is to avoid conflict, because we know in the Army and military, better than anybody, what the costs are of war, the human cost of war.” So, we want to prevent conflict by being ready. George Washington said, “You know the best way you can make sure you have peace is to prepare for war.” And he was right. So we’re to make sure we’re prepared for war so people know that if you pose a threat to the United States, it’s not going to be to your interest, because you are going to be defeated.
Secondly, preventing war, shaping security environments, working with our partners. And then to win -- be prepared to win when our security is threatened. I think we see periods of increased threats to our nation. What we have seen now is how easily technology can be transferred, not just to other nations, but also to these transnational terrorist organizations who have access to more and more destructive weapons. You can see a threat from long range ballistic missiles that can be hidden and fired against us.
So, what this means for us is we have to have land forces prepared as part of joint teams to deploy quickly, to transition into offensive operations to defeat enemies, and then to establish security conditions so we can accomplish the mission overall.
And we also have to be able to do that in context with fighting with other nations’ forces with us, and then to be able to fight enemies that are intermingled with civilian populations, increasing urban areas.
As we think about the problem of future war, the key thing is to define really what are the missions we’re going to have to conduct, what are the threats that we’re going to have to deal with -- the enemies, the adversary in that environment -- and to understand technology, how technology is changing for us and for the enemy. But then also to think hard about what have we learned, what are the historical insights and lessons.
Q: How real a threat is cyber-terrorism to our national security?
A: I think cyber-terrorism — espionage as we are learning —is a significant threat. The fact is the cyber-domain is a contested space every day already. The key question is, how does this fit into the overall problems of future war?
I think the key thing for us is really going to be how we develop systems that are resilient, that are able to allow us to operate and communicate freely during operations. And then we have to learn how we disrupt enemy capabilities to affect us. I think we have some really great people working on this right now, but of course this is a relatively new area that we have to cope with.
Here at the Maneuver Center, we have stressed the importance of developing systems that are resilient, that can operate degraded, because we have to recognize that we have to be able to absorb attacks of many kinds — cyber, physical attacks — and then come back with a pretty strong counterpunch. So, we want to make sure our systems are fragile and that we can operate degraded if necessary.
Q: What does your post-Army career for you look like?
A: As of right now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m kind of in the bonus round now. I have had the privilege of serving for 30 years and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue serving in the next position. I’m sad to leave Fort Benning, though, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue serving. I know at some stage everybody retires and leaves the Army, and that day will come, but I haven’t really given it any thought so far.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t in the U.S. Army?
A: It’s so hard for me to imagine. I always wanted to serve in the Army from my earliest memory -- I think maybe 3 or 4 years old. I always wanted to serve in the Army. And then when I graduated from West Point, I thought that I probably would just serve five years and transition into something else. But when I began to think about that, and bought a suit for interviews and everything else, I talked to the great sergeants I had served with and I was convinced to stay in the Army.
From that point, I kind of didn’t look back. I had such a tremendous, rewarding experience, and this is one of the things I would like to communicate to young Americans. If you’re looking for a challenging, rewarding experience — where you can be part of something bigger than yourself, where you can be part of a team where the man or woman next to you is going to give everything, including their own lives for you — you can’t replicate anywhere else, join the Army.
It is a tremendously rewarding experience. If you serve for a little bit of time, you’re going to gain tremendous leadership experience, maturity and knowledge that you can apply to any profession. And if you choose to serve across your career, you are going to find it tremendously rewarding.
What you see a lot of times as you look at military service is the challenges and the cost associated with it. Those are obvious ones. There’s nothing tougher than seeing fellow soldiers killed in action or severely wounded, but there’s also other challenges associated with long times away from home, and deployments to tough environments.
But the rewards of service are less tangible — they’re harder to see. And that’s being part of an important mission and being part of a cohesive team that’s bound together by trust, respect and becomes like a family —an Army unit becomes like a family.
And I don’t think that’s replicated in any other profession.
For the full Sunday Interview video, see below:
Job: Lieutenant General, U.S. Army officer. Former commander of Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence. Current: assignment: Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Education: Valley Forge Military Academy, 1980; U.S. Military Academy, 1984; University of North Carolina, master’s and doctorate in American History.
Family: Wife, Kathleen Trotter McMaster.