One of the Army’s best is about to face his greatest challenge

In 1996, I got a call from a friend who was (and is) a historian in North Carolina, Dick Kohn. Prof. Kohn suggested that I might be able to help a young Army officer who was completing his Ph.D. studies at the University of North Carolina. Kohn was concerned that Maj. H.R. McMaster might soon be in big trouble with the senior leadership in the United States Army.

 

McMaster was about to publish a critical book about the Vietnam War. Prof. Kohn remembered the trouble I encountered with my first book (the top Air Force lawyer came after me).

I contacted McMaster and told him my story. After reading his manuscript, I recommended that he get his book cleared for publication and that he tone the criticism down a bit. I reminded him of the three super-smart Air Force officers – Cols. John Boyd, John Warden and Moody Suter – who got knocked down for being very candid and outspoken. These officers made major contributions to Air Force tactical training, strategic planning and decision analysis. Sadly, none of them were promoted to general.

 

In our telephone discussions, Maj. McMaster was very polite, but he did not follow my suggestions about toning down his criticism. In my interactions with McMaster it was clear that he was extremely smart, very well-read, a fine researcher and a man of strong convictions. Later I predicted his career would suffer. I was wrong.

His book – Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam – was published in 1997. It quickly became a best-seller and became required reading for the top officers in the military. The book has been reviewed more than 200 times on Amazon.com. Here is a review that, in my judgment, captures the essence of McMaster’s tale:

“I used this book in a course on the Vietnam War I taught at a University. The book is a no-holds-barred look at how the JCS and DOD messed up the Vietnam war. The author says that the war was not lost on the battlefield, or on the campuses or streets, or in the press but right in Washington. He backs his claim with solid evidence. A courageous book written by a career army officer. As a retired officer and Vietnam vet I admire the author’s honesty.”

Since the announcement that McMaster would replace Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as the national security adviser, Dereliction of Duty has shot up to No. 1 on the Amazon.com best-seller list. Frankly, I do not recommend the book. It is very long and detailed, and only takes the reader up to 1965. Also, having lost so many close friends in Vietnam, I found reading it to be a very painful experience.

Those wishing to learn more about the thinking of this truly remarkable man, I suggest you read Gen. McMaster’s address on Nov. 11, 2014, at Georgetown University. The transcript of his speech can be found on the website cfr.org. Also of interest: his Feb. 4, 2014, interview on The Charlie Rose Show. It is easy to find on charlierose.com.

 

Here are a few more insights on H.R. McMaster:

He is a graduate of the Valley Forge Military Academy and of West Point. Notable graduates from Valley Forge include J.D. Salinger and H. Norman Schwarzkopf. At West Point, McMaster played on the rugby team. Upon graduation in 1984, he chose the Armor Branch. Soon he would become an expert in tank tactics.

Six-and-a-half years after graduation from West Point, Capt. McMaster was involved in intense combat during Operation Desert Storm. In the last great tank battle of the 20th century, Capt. McMaster was in command of nine Abrams tanks. In less than an hour his unit destroyed more than 80 Iraqi armored vehicles. None of McMaster’s tanks were destroyed. McMaster earned the Silver Star on Feb. 26, 1991, in the battle at 73 Easting (covered on Wikipedia).

His greatest contribution as a unit commander took place in the Tal Afar region of Iraq in 2005. McMaster created and implemented probably the best counterinsurgency strategy in the 21st century.

After promotion to brigadier general, McMaster attended the Capstone Course at the National Defense University. His classmates gave him the nickname “Moses.” He just could not ask a simple question. They joked that each of his questions had at least 10 parts.

 

How will McMaster do in his new job? I cannot think of a better or stronger person to hold that vital position. No one will intimidate McMaster; he will speak up strongly if a tentative decision is unethical or unwise.

The Army’s top soldier/scholar/strategist soon will face his greatest challenge. We should wish him well.

 

(The writer, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, serves on the board of the Augusta Museum of History. His website is genpsmith.com.)

 

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