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A Conversation with Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster

December 4, 2014


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good afternoon, welcome. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council. I want to wish a warm welcome to all of you, and to our guest Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster.

General McMaster is a distinguished scholar and soldier. You all have a copy of his impressive biography, including a list of his publications, his combat experience, and his senior commands in the United States Army. General McMaster comes to us today in his capacity as head of ARCIC [Army Capabilities Integration Center], the Army's futures think tank.

One of our recent secretaries of defense once said famously, "You go to war with the Army that you have." Well, the Army we have in 2025 will be shaped in large part by the work of General McMaster and his staff as they make recommendations to our political leaders. The choices are freighted with ethical significance. We appreciate his coming here today to share some of his thoughts with us.

I'm pleased that our moderator today is our good friend Martin Cook. Martin has one of the great titles in professional military education: He is the Admiral James Bond Stockdale Chair of Professional Military Ethics at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. And those of you who know anything about Admiral Stockdale and the Naval War College understand just how prestigious this is. Martin is an accomplished scholar and teacher, and I think it speaks volumes for our armed services that he has been recognized with this position.

As General Dempsey reminded us when he was here last month, "Our military is charged with the task of managing violence on behalf of the state." It's a tremendous responsibility, and that's why it's so important to have people like Professor Cook and General McMaster to help us to think straight about it.

So, Martin, General, thank you both for coming. I'm going to turn it over now to Martin Cook, who will direct the conversation. Thank you.

MARTIN COOK: Dr. Rosenthal, distinguished guests, it's a pleasure and an honor to be given this opportunity to interview Lieutenant General McMaster. I first encountered him, like many others I suppose, when I read his remarkable book based on his doctoral dissertation, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. That's a book which if you haven't read, you really should. It's a profound study of the relationship at the highest levels of our military and our civilian leaders.

He was then a major and I heard him speak about the book in 1998 at the Army War College where I had just joined the faculty. We've all followed his remarkable career in the intervening years as he worked out the counterinsurgency approach to Iraq when he commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry regiment in Tal-Afar, long before the more noticed work on the counterinsurgency manual led by General Petraeus. Long one of the deep thinkers of the U.S. Army, he's now in the perfect position to help the Army through one of those major resets of the force, such as that happened after Vietnam, which is chronicled in another excellent book, James Kitfield's book Prodigal Soldiers.


MARTIN COOK: General McMaster, it seems to me that the kind of combat the U.S. Army has experienced in the past 12-plus years is of an especially morally corrosive sort. There is no behind-the-lines respite for many of our troops. In many cases, they carry high levels of unrelieved stress for long deployments of 10 or 12 months. And many, as you know, have had two, three, four of these deployments into Iraq and Afghanistan. They often operate in small units with little direct supervision of senior officers.

Given that complexity of that environment, how can we best train, educate, and prepare them to maintain ethical and legal standards in that environment? And how do the well-publicized major ethical lapses we've seen in the Army, in civil-military relations, affect that and the mission?

H. R. MCMASTER: Well, thanks so much. Thanks, Martin, and thanks to Dr. Rosenthal and to the Carnegie Council for the opportunity to be here with you.

I think that's a tremendous question because it really alludes to the kinds of wars we've been in over the last 13 to 14 years. And we've learned quite a bit and we've re-learned quite a bit as we fought really brutal, murderous and, in many ways, unscrupulous enemies.

If you see, for example, what ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is doing today, if you understand, really, the various Taliban groups that we're fighting in Afghanistan, and what they want to achieve, which is the denial of human rights imposition on people of this medieval, really irreligious idea of the kind of state that they would like to impose; the brutality that they direct toward women, toward children, and what they've done to perpetuate conflict through the mass murder of innocencts; you would think, "Okay, how do you deal with an enemy like this, an enemy that operates in this way, and then is intermingled with civilian populations?" Maybe to defeat this kind of enemy you have to be equally brutal. Maybe you have to lower your standards, but I would say that exactly the opposite is the case.

What we must do is we must defeat these enemies, who are enemies of all civilized people, along with our partners and allies in the region, the people who are suffering the most, who are in these regions in Afghanistan and Iraq and so forth. We have to defeat them in a way that's consistent with our values that reflect our society and what's expected of our military, for our Army forces, and of course what's been expected since at least the time of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, taking it back even further.

So what does that mean? It means that we have to fight them applying the principles of just war theory, which means distinction. We distinguish between our enemies and civilian populations. What our Army has done, and what our Marine Corps, in particular, has done over this period of 14 years, I think, is astounding in terms of what our soldiers have done in close contact with the enemy.

Every day in Afghanistan today, every day across the wars in Iraq, our soldiers and Marines place themselves at a higher level of risk to protect innocents. I think that's something that's very important to understand about these kind of conflicts. Our soldiers are warriors, but our soldiers are also humanitarians. And so while we don't want a fair fight—American people don't want Americans to be in a fair fight with the enemy because a fair fight in a war means barely winning, and barely winning at war is an ugly proposition. What that means is we have to develop our forces so that we're able to overwhelm our enemies in close combat. But we have to be able to do that in a way that we apply firepower with discipline and discrimination.

So this is what we train our forces to do now. There's been a large number of shifts in emphasis and innovations and training and leader development and education to be able to cope with what you describe as a very complex, chaotic, uncertain environment in these encounters with brutal, adaptive, and, oftentimes, very capable enemies.

So what have we learned? We've taken a look at where there have been breakdowns. Where have there been breakdowns in the moral character of units? And why does that happen? It happens because these are tough environments, environments of uncertainty, complexity, and persistent danger. But I think it happens for really four fundamental reasons.

One of those is ignorance. If soldiers are ignorant of our values and what's expected of them, that's a problem; and if soldiers are ignorant of the environment they're going into. So we, in our Army, emphasize applied ethics education. And the internalization of the war ethos, where we see ourselves as warriors and as humanitarians and where we incolcate the values of loyalty, duty and, I would highlight, in particular, respect for others in a Kantian sort of way, to treat man as an ends, not as a means.

Now, we don't talk to soldiers typically about Kant, but we make clear what our expectations are. Maybe John Stuart Mill is a little bit better, in terms of utilitarianism. We make it clear to soldiers, if you treat civilian populations with anything but respect, you're working for your enemy. So it's really important that soldiers understand how we use violence and what justifies violence. And it's particularly important to have this kind of education because, contrast that with what justifies violence in our society today, at least in popular media, in video games and movies. Typically it's the demonstration of individual prowess, or the advancement of individual interest.

So for our military, what justifies violence? Well, it's a lawful mission, and it's fighting for each other. So we have to make it clear what justifies violence. It's fundamentally different from, oftentimes, what young citizen volunteers come into the Army thinking. Applied ethics education is important.

The collective dimension of that is important too. So what gives us our ethos is expectations of us from our society. But it's also our expectations of each other. So as a leader, we tell our leaders, "Ask yourself, 'What do soldiers expect of each other, in terms of treatment of each other, treatment of civilian populations, treatment of the enemy, treatment of prisoners?' Then you understand the kind of culture that you need to foster in your unit, and what more you need to do in applied ethics education."

Ignorance, though, can also be about the people among whom these wars are fought. And so it's important for us to train soldiers for combat against enemies, but also to understand the populations, the micro-history of these areas, the social, and the religious dynamics. So what we want to do in this education of soldiers is develop empathy, have them develop empathy for the people among whom these wars are fought. Ignorance is one of the first causes of breakdown, and these are some of the things that we do to address that.

The other is uncertainty. These are environments of uncertainty. Essentially there are two ways to fight the U.S. military: asymmetrically and stupid. Our enemies are going to avoid being detected. They're going to operate in and amongst the populations. They're going to try to make contact with us, and initiate actions on their own terms. So what we have to do is try to mitigate that by making war less uncertain by effective recognizance, by describing to soldiers the mission they're going on so they understand the broad purpose of what they're doing so they can connect with the risks that they take,and the sacrifices they make with the achievements of aims that are worthy of those—there are sacrifices. These are all important things to deal with.

The other thing is to train under conditions of uncertainty. Make those training conditions like they are in combat. Build change, casualties, bad information into the training; build the complexity of that environment into the training. So you deal with uncertainty as a potential source of breakdown.

The third, I think, is fear. Of course this is sort of a Kierkegaard-type insight into human nature—the fear drives everything—but fear in combat is bad. It's bad because fear leads to inaction; inaction in Army units and any military unit can create opportunities for the enemy. So you don't want soldiers to experience fear. It can lead to bad decisions. If people are fearful, what if they're jumpy? They could seem out of control, they could fire weapons in ways that place people at unnecessary risk.

How do you build a bulwark against fear in units? Really, it's fundamentally confidence. Its confidence in their own training, confidence in their weapons, confidence in each other, and confidence in their leaders; understanding that they're going to be in dangerous situations, but understanding that they are with the right team that can cope with that. And so addressing fear as a cause of breakdown—and that's how we deal with that as well.

And then finally it's combat trauma. The most difficult things in combat are to see the results of brutal enemy attacks on civilian populations, but even the results and encounters with the enemy. The most difficult thing to psychologically cope with is the loss of one of your soldiers, or Marines, or sailors, or airmen in your unit. It's a very tough business and a tough experience because in a military unit, it really grows together over time, through shared hardships, through common commitments to each other. Army platoons and companies and cavalry troops and artillery batteries, they become like a family. So when you lose a fellow soldier you lose a family member, really.

The key thing is to prepare soldiers and leaders, especially, to be able to deal with combat trauma. That has to do with grief work and understanding what are going to be the responses. In particular, you have to guard against rage becoming a combat motivator. So what you have to do is explain to your soldiers, "There are only two motivations for combat and that's the mission and your fellow soldiers. Rage is not an appropriate motivator in combat." So helping soldiers grieve and then looking for warning signs—everybody has a breaking point. All of us in this room have a breaking point. All of us in the Army come to military service with different backgrounds and different strengths and frailties. Combat tends to magnify both, your strengths and virtues, and your frailties.

Leaders have to be part psychiatrist and psychologist. They have to be part social worker, they have to be attuned to their soldiers and look for those warning signs. Of course, a big part of that, which we've learned in these wars, is that we have to destigmatize seeking of help. Your mental state is just like your physical state. We emphasize physical readiness in the Army. We also have to recognize mental and psychological readiness. So just like getting a physical checkup, you get a mental checkup. And your leaders are attuned to that.

We've had some tremendous innovations in the way that we train and prepare soldiers in units. Our resiliency training in our Army, I think, is first rate. It's something we have to institutionalize and continue. Then we also have trained other skills that help in these complex environments, advanced cognition techniques and so forth, and built that into our training.

I think one of the key things is to recognize that war is profoundly human and that the battles that we've had in Afghanistan, in Iraq have more in common with them than there are differences between battles here in New York during the Revolutionary War.

As the historian John Keegan said, "What battles have in common is human. And it's the struggle of men and women"—he wrote men at the time, but—"men and women struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation with the achievement of some aim over which other men are trying to kill them." So understanding that psychological dynamic and how it applies to these complex wars is important.

I believe that American soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors are warriors, and they are also humanitarians. While there have been egregious breakdowns and we have studied them, and want to continue to learn from them, I think what you don't see is every day what our servicemen and -women are doing to protect innocents from, again, these people who, I believe, are enemies of all civilized people.

MARTIN COOK: Just one quick follow-on: I believe when you commanded the 3rd ACR [armored cavalry unit] you had a standing order, something like, "Every time you offend an Iraqi, we're losing," or something like that. Is that a way of trying to make that concrete for the lowest and listed ranks? Is that correct?

H. R. MCMASTER: We did. We call it "the Brave Rifles standing orders" and you can probably Google them now, I'd imagine. These kind of things are important because in big military organizations you have to send a simple clear message almost continuously to your unit. And there are some basic standards in combat, or in operations in the Army, that are important and they ought to be written down and everybody ought to know them.

So this goes back to Rogers' standing orders, which we draw a lot of our Ranger heritage from. So we just modified Rogers' standing orders and they had to do with how we conducted operations, that we conducted a review of every operation, and we get better every day. We overwhelm the enemy in every tactical engagement, but we apply firepower with discipline and discrimination. We treat the enemy and enemy prisoners of war with respect. We don't tolerate abusive behavior.

So these were the things that soldiers either had to memorize or have it on their person and be able to refer to it.

MARTIN COOK: In the 1990s, there was a lot of talk in the U.S. military, as it looked at the remarkable performance of the force in the first Gulf War. People were arguing that we were now experiencing what was commonly called a "revolution in military affairs," [RMA] that our forces would be so technologically superior, that we could look forward for the indefinite future to, what we were calling, "full spectrum dominance" against any foreseeable adversary.

What in that promise was right, and where did it go wrong?

H. R. MCMASTER: I think that what was right was these are tremendous capabilities. We want to have a technological differential advantage in technology over our adversaries. But what was wrong with it is that it neglected continuities in the nature of war and it took a technological approach to the very complex human and political problem of war. It didn't recognize it was a contest of wills. It didn't give much agency to the enemy.

So this idea that the conceit of the revolution in military affairs was that we could win future wars quickly, cheaply, and efficiently, mainly through the application of advanced technologies, and, in particular, communications and information technologies combined with precision strike capabilities . . . There are all these analogies made between Moore's law and the exponential increase in computing power—well, that's going to change warfare dramatically. But what that neglected was, again, the nature of war.

What Sir Michael Howard has pointed out is that wars resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity. So you always have to be suspicious about analogies that were made to war. So these concepts, it was hard to be against them. The names were "rapid decisive operations" and if you're not for that, what are you for? Are you for "ponderous indecisive operations?" These things tended to brief well, they looked good on PowerPoint, so these myths, or fallacies, about future war were dangerous. In fact, in many ways, I think they were a setup for some of the difficulties we encountered both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The continuities of war that were neglected was that war is an extension of politics. These concepts of the revolution in military affairs, full spectrum dominance, and dominant battle space knowledge, rapid decisive operations, and so forth really looked at war as a big targeting exercise. And essentially we could win wars by the applications of firepower onto land from the air and maritime domains. This approach to war, I would call it the George Costanza approach to war: You leave on a high note. The war starts, you do a bunch of things, and then you go, "Yeah that was great." Of course, the war still goes on because it's fundamentally a political competition, typically for power, resources, and survival among human beings who happen to live on land.

Your enemies are targets on land. If they're targets, well, they're all trying to avoid being classified as such. They're employing traditional countermeasures of concealment and dispersion, and intermingling in civilian populations, and so forth.

These were hubristic ideas because they didn't give much agency to the enemy. They neglected war as political. They neglected the human dimension of war—why people fight. People fight, I think, fundamentally for the same reasons that Thucydides identified 2,500 years ago: fear, honor, and interest. So if you don't understand the causes of violence, if you're not acting really to affect what is driving the violence, you're just treating symptoms.

Also, they didn't really fully consider that war is uncertain. War's uncertain because of its political and human dimensions, but it's also uncertain because of that continuous interaction with adaptive, and, sometimes, very capable enemies. So you can't decide at the outset of a war exactly what you'd like to do and assume that it's going to be linear progress to the outcome because the future course of events in war depends on enemy initiatives, and reactions that are impossible to predict from the beginning.

So while these wars promised to leave on a high note, decisive, everything was in and out—well, the enemy has a say in that. And I think because of the simplistic definition of war, that we didn't fully consider what was necessary to consolidate military gains in the wake of the very successful military operations in Afghanistan between September and December of 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. We weren't prepared for what came after.

I think the revolution in military affairs is dangerous, this idea, this thinking. But it's back. It's like a vampire. You can't kill it. It keeps coming back. Today there's sort of a new permutation of this and it's couched in different terms and so forth, but it's still based on the assumption that you can solve the complex problem of future armed conflict just by the application of advanced technologies and in so doing you'll be able to succeed very quickly.

Now this kind of thinking is a vampire. It's a vampire that's older than the '90s. It goes back, at least, in its first manifestation into the 1920s, and every time it reappears, it's a new version of strategic bombing theory and it appears in a new guise every so often.

The RMA really highlights the danger of this kind of hubristic thinking about America, or any Western nations, being able to achieve a differential advantage over all potential adversaries solely through technological advantages. Now it doesn't mean you don't want technological advantages. You don't want a fair fight. A fair fight in war is an ugly proposition. So these are important capabilities, but what happens is people become so enamored with these capabilities that they begin to masquerade as strategies and the answers to complex problem of future armed conflict.

MARTIN COOK: This is about your current job, about thinking about the future of the Army. When General Shinseki was chief of staff of the Army from '99 to 2003, he argued that the Army really needed to transform itself, long before Rumsfeld talked about transformation. And in particular he thought that the force had to mostly be based in the United States, and be rapidly deployable and therefore it had to be light. It had to be small enough to go into a C130 Aircraft, which would mean we would create these new striker brigades with small, wheeled, armored vehicles, maybe replacing entirely the Abram's Tank. There was a futuristic vision of a future combat system that was going to be light and modular and so forth.

What about that vision 10 ten years ago do you think will inform your thinking about the future Army?

H. R. MCMASTER: Well I think what General Shinseki put in place here, this medium-weight force, is still quite relevant.

So just for those that aren't tracking, really, how our Army's organized, we have very light formations in troop brigade combat teams. Those also include our airborne formations. We have special operations forces, which are also light, and provide tremendous capabilities in terms of foreign internal defense, helping other countries organize their own defense combat advisories missions, advanced special operations. We also have special operations forces that are forces that have, right now, predominately counterterrorist missions and are extremely capable.

And you have the medium-weight force that Martin is mentioning, which are the striker brigade combat teams. These are essentially motorized infantry. The strength of these formations is they can move over great operational distances on roads, and deploy large numbers of tough, well-trained, very capable soldiers to conduct fire and maneuver, or to conduct military operations dismounted. The formation's designed for dismounted operations.

Then you have armored brigade combat teams, which include tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. There are formations that can operate and can fire maneuver both mounted and dismounted.

Each of these formations have their relative strengths and weaknesses. The light formations, obviously you can get there very fast. They have a very low logistics demand. They can operate in severely restrictive terrain; the  mountains of Eastern Afghanistan are an example of that. But they have weaknesses too. Light forces don't come with a lot of punch, they don't have much mobility, they're largely immobilized unless you can augment them once they get there. They don't have the kind of firepower you want to overwhelm the enemy. Again, remember, no fair fights is what we really want to go after.

The striker units, I mentioned some of their advantages, being able to move over great distances—again, not really the firepower to close with the enemy mounted and dismounted. And the armored forces have a tremendous overmatch capability, but are the hardest to get there, and they have a tremendous logistics demand, in terms of fuel and so forth, maintenance once they get there.

But you need the full range of those because you have to commit the right kind of force based on what the mission calls for, the kind of enemy, the kind of terrain you're in, what are the civilian and political considerations. So what we do in our Army is we deploy combinations, what we call rapidly task organized, or tailorable, and then scalable, that can go up and down forces based on what the contingency is. And those range of capabilities, from light to armored, gives us that capability.

Now some people, a lot of times, get enamored again with technology. They'll say, "Well what we need is we just need these really light and nimble forces." Well, Richard Simmons is "light and nimble" but we do not want a Richard Simmons to go defeat an enemy, you know what I'm saying? No offense to Richard, but we have to think about what the forces are for.

So what we have is a tremendous opportunity these days to, I think, follow up on General Shinseki's vision by the application of new technologies. I'm not a Luddite. I believe in the application of technology in military capabilities. These are power and energy technologies that will help us reduce logistics demand. And that will allow us to deploy force. It's not that the tank's heavy. It's that everything has to support the tank, and then the size of the formation.

Anywhere you want to go in the world with an armed brigade combat team, it's two boats for a brigade combat team. No matter how heavy the vehicles are, it's two boats. And you think, "A tank, yeah, it's really heavy," but it's really all about ground pressure and mobility. So those tanks can go places where a Humvee or a wheeled vehicle can't go. So it's important to really understand what you're trying to achieve.

What we want to do is reduce logistics demand and the weight and size of the formations to do what? What we want to be able to do is conduct, what we call in our new Army operating concept—and you can look it up online, it's a real page-turner, perfect for holiday reading—we say that we need to conduct joint combined arms operations. That's the deployment of task-organized, tailorable, scalable forces with combined arms capabilities, combined arms for us. What does that mean? That means infantry, mobile-protected firepower, counting the tanks and armored vehicles, engineers, aviation, fires, and joint capabilities.

Because that kind of joint combined operation allows you to gain that differential advantage over the enemy. There's not one thing that gives you an advantage to combat. It's how you combine things. Combat is "rock-paper-scissors." That's really what it is. That's what combiners' operations is. So you show up with a rock, the enemy has paper, but your scissors are already right there, and they're ready to go. And you're then seizing, retaining, exploiting the initiative over that enemy.

That's the kind of range of capabilities we want across all of our formations. Now the problem is it's pretty diminished resources. Some people are saying, "Okay, what we need to do now is innovate, just sprinkle some innovation on the Army and it'll be fine." Well, actually, we do need that. We do need to become more agile and innovative, but we also need resources to be able to maintain that differential advantage.

So what are we innovating for in our Army today? In our part of the Army, where we develop future force capabilities, we're innovating for a purpose and that's to deliver the maximum combat capability, ability to accomplish the mission to the force in the shortest amount of time, with the resources available. We do need to become more agile as an institution to do that. General Shinseki, his effort with strikers, were a big part of that. General Odierno, today, is really leading an effort to transform how our Army does things, how our Army learns and thinks about future war. I think this could be really a big change for the better for our nation and for our Army.

The key about thinking about future war is to understand the questions you're asking. So this Army operating concept, which I would love for you to read, and comment on, and to consider—that's sort of just the basic conceptual foundation for our Army modernization.

Sir Michael Howard said, "No matter how hard you think about future war, you're not going to be exactly right." The key is to not be so far off the mark that you can't adjust once the real demands of the conflict reveal themselves to you. So one of the ways to make sure you're not too far off the mark is just make sure you're asking the right questions. So what we've identified are 20 first order questions, the answers to which would improve current and future combat effectiveness. These are things that armies have always had to do, and we'll have to do it in the future.

How do we develop and sustain a high degree of situational understanding in complex environments and against adaptive enemies? That's going to be a problem for a long time. But we can work on that, and figure out how we can do that better.

How do we develop resilient soldiers and cohesive teams who are capable of conducting operations consistent with our professional ethic in environments of complexity, uncertainty, and persistent danger? That's one of our questions.

So we're working on these questions and we have a campaign of learning called Force 2025 Maneuvers because you need a catchy phrase for everything. So Force 2025 Maneuvers is our campaign of learning. It's seminars, it's engagement with academia, it's experimentation, it's war gaming, it's our operations we're on today, it's what we're learning from other armies, and what's happening around the world. That's our campaign of learning. Then we take what we learn and apply that to future force development, right?

Innovation comes from being a learning organization, we think. So this is how we're thinking about future war, and taking the vision that you're talking about, having that right combination of strategic mobility, and the ability to do what you need once you get there, how we maintain that advantage, that range of capabilities.

You don't want the Army to do one thing. You want the Army to do whatever you want the Army to do. So we need an Army that's capable of providing multiple options to the president, to our secretary of defense. So that's the kind of Army we're developing.

MARTIN COOK: There have been some pretty glaring historical examples of people in your position who got it spectacularly wrong. The French general staff thought that the best defense dollar for them between the wars was the Maginot Line. And the Germans just drove around it, right? The quote that Joel cited from Rumsfeld, "You go to war with the Army you've got," not with the Army you might wish to have, might be, in theory, relevant to the environment where you find yourself, this challenge. You've got to have a reasonably good crystal ball and that all depends on what you think the next 15 or 20 years of major uses of military force will be around the world.

So what is your vision of that?

H. R. MCMASTER: The key thing to understand, as you're saying, is we've never been right. So I think the first thing is humility. Just recognize you're not going to have it right.

Who would've predicted, really, what Putin and what Russia's doing to reassert its power on the Eurasian land mass? Nobody really predicted that that was going to happen. Who, several years ago, saw this tremendous catastrophe in the greater Middle East, and the descent of Syria and the chaos that bleeds over into Iraq, what threatens to be a regional sectarian fitna or civil war to be a disaster for all the people in the region? You might see glimpses of these things, but you can't really see it clearly.

So how do you deal with that? I think you have to try to make your grounded projection into the future. The Greeks said, "The way to consider the future is to walk backward into it." Look at the past, look at what's going on today, and make that grounded projection. I think when we got in trouble is when we would think about leap-ahead capabilities. In fact, some of the most hubristic language in the 1990s was that we were going to develop such tremendous capability, technological overmatch against the enemy, that we will lock out our enemies out of the market of future war. It wouldn't even be a possibility.

The problem with that is it ignores, again, that the enemy has a say in it. You interact with enemies in wars to be able to adapt to these unforeseen challenges. You also interact with potential adversaries in between wars. And so if you bank on a certain suite of capabilities, and say, "That's what I'm going to do to offset what you see as your gaps and capabilities for something, and I'm going to do that well into the future," you're just about guaranteeing that whatever you're investing in is going to only have a limited payoff because your enemies would be able to adopt, again, countermeasures.

When you think about threats and enemies, you have to think about them doing four things. They try to evade your capabilities, which we talked about—dispersion, concealment, intermingling with civilian populations—you're trying to avoid being classified as a target. The second thing is they'll try to disrupt your capabilities. These are these countermeasures: submarines, sonar, bomber, radar, machine gun, tank, anti-tank missile—this is interaction. And there will be a countermeasure of some kind. They'll try to emulate your capabilities.

As we know, China has been engaged in the largest theft of intellectual property in history. There's a reason why the new Chinese fighter looks like an F22. So I think you could argue that technology is the most transferrable advantage that we have in defense to our adversaries. So what we're saying is, "Well it's not just about technology; it's about really how we combine technologies." The Army's different. The Army operates on land. Land warfare is different. You can't wage war in air, or space, or at sea without a vehicle, unless you can really swim super far.

So on land you're able to wage war with a club. That's where people live. And so the penetration of technology into land warfare is not as great as it is in the more fluid media of maritime, aerospace, and cyber domains, as well. And so I think we have to recognize the environments we're in, and the limitations of technology. And that enemies will be able to emulate these capabilities.

And finally, what we see as our enemies expand. They expand on other battlegrounds and contested spaces, what some analysts would call the space between military operations, and peace, and stability. These are battlegrounds of information and perception. ISIL's very good at this, the Russians are really good at this. Just watch RT [Russia Today]. Have you ever seen RT on cable? It's very sophisticated Russian propaganda aimed at our society and Western society. They're going to unveil a new network here soon—I think it's called the Global News Network.

If you look at the Iranians and their Arabic media is very slick, very sophisticated. Look at what ISIL's doing on social media.

Those are contested spaces, right? Sometimes when we view those other contested spaces—political subversion, the battlegrounds of criminality and organized crime—we tend to look at these and think, "Well we ought to be maybe just be neutral on that contested space." But no, we have to compete effectively across all these battlegrounds.

So we can't leap ahead, I don't think. I think leap-ahead capabilities in defense are a pipe dream. I think we have to think way ahead, we have to try to anticipate these differential advantages that we can achieve with investment, like global positioning system technology. We've had some tremendous breakthroughs—stealth technologies. We don't want to not do that research development. It's very important. We have to recognize that we ought to evolve and modernize our force based on a grounded projection into the future.

MARTIN COOK: Your book Dereliction of Duty is commonly read in the military. In it, you say that professional military advice should be very assertive in ensuring that civilian leaders are given firm and honest advice and that the joint chiefs failed miserably in that, in your diagnosis, during the Vietnam War.

In the last 12 years, we've witnessed failure to plan realistically for the occupation of Iraq, an invasion based on claims for weapons of mass destuction [WMD] that proved to be untrue. You yourself have criticized the—

H. R. MCMASTER: Except now, of course, all the chemical weapons that were uncovered in Iraq and we're discovering, but okay.

MARTIN COOK: You have criticized the way most of the Army operated in Iraq for the first five years as reverting to its preferred, overwhelming force, National Training Center style, training and not realizing the nature of the war that we were in, to quote Clausewitz, as a counterinsurgency. When you look back on all that, would you share the view that I've seen some people say in writing, "We're ready for the second edition of Dereliction of Duty as we look at the track record there"?

H. R. MCMASTER: Well, thanks for that question. Should I take these off now? [points to medals] [Laughter] No, I think you're bringing up some really important points.

First of all, I think I was very fortunate to be able to research how and why Vietnam became an American war at the time I did. The documents were becoming declassified, tapes of telephone conversations were newly available, and I could still interview people and really get those perspectives.

And so the book is oftentimes, I think, misread and in a way that you've mentioned. The way it's interpreted oftentimes is the military should've been more assertive.

Really, what I learned from that research is that the military failed to give—the joint chiefs in particular—failed to give their best military advice. And that's what you owe. You owe your best military advice to civilian authorities, that's the secretary of defense and the president, for our most senior officers. Also you have to give your best advice to the Congress because the Congress has oversight of the military as well.

Now why did that situation happen? I think that's an important question to ask, and I think it happened in large measure because there was not a good relationship of mutual trust and respect between America's top military and civilian officials. And okay, why was that? There were a number of reasons.

I think, as a historian, I believe that these things happened because of the unique combinations of people and circumstances and relationships between people. So I don't think that there's any broad theoretical construct you can draw from it, but I think what happened in Vietnam is really a dynamic that was dangerous and unfortunate because of this poor relationship. Essentially in this period of time, as Vietnam became an American war, as President Johnson was thrust into the presidency after the assassination of President Kennedy, November of 1963, the president was motivated mainly by two things: one, to become elected in his own right in 1964, and then to pass the Great Society legislation in 1965.

He viewed Vietnam, principally, as a danger to those domestic, political goals. So what he wanted was advice from the military that would allow him to make decisions on Vietnam that did not place those goals in jeopardy. So even though it was clear to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many others that it was time for a decision, a clear decision between an American war and disengagement from Vietnam, that sort of discussion really didn't even take place.

What happened is the president's advisors and the secretary of defense, in particular, developed a strategy to meet the president's concerns. That was the strategy of so-called "graduated pressure." It was based on a fundamentally flawed assumption that limited military actions, covert actions, against North Vietnam under OPlan 34A, beginning in January '64, and then limited bombing strikes against North Vietnam would convince Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership to desist from its support for the Vietnamese communists in the south.

Now there are all sorts of problems with this thinking. One of the problems was mirror imaging the enemy and, in fact, applying, in this case, the rational man theory of English common law to Ho Chi Minh. In fact, there were memos written in this period of time that they would establish a common law pattern of attacks to convince Ho to do the rational thing. So, of course, this misunderstands, again, the nature of war. The fourth continuity in the nature of war is it didn't mention war is a contest of wills. And war and acts of war unleash a psychological dynamic that really don't allow you to have any kind of rational prediction of what the future or course of events are going to be.

The other thing, and we see this even today when we think about the application of standoff, long-range capabilities to war, is that really when you take standoff actions against an enemy, you are leaving decisions in the hands of that enemy, what they're going to do next. So the only way you can really compel an outcome is to have the military force able to compel the outcome. This is consistent with Thomas Schelling's writings about coercive forces. It's that brute force option that makes those actions short of that brute force option more effective in the area of dissuasion, or coercive diplomacy.

Really, from that point on, the Vietnamese communists and Ho had the initiative, and responded in ways that I think were actually eerily predictable. There were war games run in 1964—the Sigma war games—that were eerily prophetic in predicting the future course of events in the war. What happened, though, is that the president and the secretary of defense did not want the best military advice from the chiefs. In fact, in a phone call to Lyndon Johnson during when all these decisions were being made, he says to the president, "Hey I'm taking a divide and conquer approach with the chiefs and it's coming along pretty well." Essentially telling him, "Hey, you're not going to get really effective advice from them."

So what he was trying to do was keep them divided so that they wouldn't give him advice that could be used against his policy. He wanted to prevent any kind of a policy debate and he was deceiving the American people about the nature of America's commitment. It was not only counterproductive because it really removed what could've been an important corrective to what was, at least in retrospect, an unwise policy. But it was undemocratic. It delivered circumvention of the Constitution of the United States.

I think the criticism the chiefs said that at the time—and there were criticisms of each other later—was that they were a party to that because instead of drawing out the long-term cost and consequences of the war in a way that would help the president make that decision, they instead took a foot-in-the-door approach. Go along with this graduated pressure, get the first bombing runs off, and get the first troops committed under the idea that they would be able to argue over time for a more resolute application of force and the sources necessary to achieve the outcome.

This manifested itself during several meetings. One of them is, I think, quite revealing in which the chief says it's going to take at least 100,000 troops to make a difference—this is in the summer of 1965—and the president says, "I can't give you 100,000 troops." Then goes the next chief, "What do you think, 100,000 troops?" And he goes, "I can't give you 100,000 troops. Mothers would come out of their kitchens and take their aprons off," he said. And he turned to Robert McNamara who was sitting next to him and he said, "Let me tell you a story." He said "Imagine that you're in a small town and you have a business and you need to keep your business afloat. You need to go to the bank for your loan and it's Mr. McNamara's bank. You say, 'Hey I need $100,000 to keep my business going.' And Mr. McNamara tells you, 'I can't give you $100,000, but I can give you $5,000.' What do you do? Take the $5,000 and do the best you can, or just let your business go under?"

This is how we went to war without a strategy. This is how we confused activity with progress in the Vietnam War and didn't consider long term costs and consequences.


QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

General, in your book you brought up a lot of the discussion that was going on among the generals and they tried to respond to the president's wishes. But in your discussion today, you talked a little bit about trying to prepare the troops for the action that they're going to be facing. When the troops went into Vietnam, they had a mission, and they were not able to go through it properly because of the strategy that was determined by the people on high. That puts a lot of pressure on the people who are making those decisions on the part of the military.

You have a similar situation today. You're preparing troops to go into battle against enemies that we really don't know how to define. What kind of pressure does it put on you, as a general, to try to motivate them at the same time as you're trying to prepare them to psychologically deal with an enemy that they don't really understand?

H. R. MCMASTER: Okay, great question. Some points to clarify—first of all, generals and the military, they don't make policy. Nobody elects generals to make policy. The key thing is there really is an inherently ambiguous line between advice and advocacy. And I think what senior officers have to do is to give their best advice, but not cross the line between advice and advocacy of certain policies because to do so would be dangerous to our democracy and civil control. I think that's one important aspect of giving your best advice.

But that said, once you're committing soldiers to a mission, I think that it's your duty to try to win. And I think it's your duty to try to win because just war theory is instructive in this case, in trying to achieve a just end as a critical element of the decision to go to war to begin with.

Now what do you mean by winning? I think winning is a sustainable, usually political outcome consistent with our vital interests. Now there can be all sorts of military operations conducted that are raids. Raids are operations of limited purpose, short duration, and planned withdrawal. They're oftentimes punitive or they just disrupt enemy organizations, like terrorist organizations. But if you're going to commit military forces, and the joint force, in particular, to a mission, I think you ought to try to get to that sustainable outcome, consistent with what brought you there to begin with.

And so what is the military's role in that connection? I think the first thing is we have to try to generate a higher degree of situational understanding so that we can better inform policy decisions. I think that that's what our military's doing now, for example, helping with, along with other government organizations and agencies, to try to understand better the nature of the problem. What you do there, I think, is push that understanding up, and then try to evaluate the degree to which what you're doing militarily is contributing to the policy objective.

The most important thing, in this planning at the outset, I think is developing an objective. George Marshall, I think, once said, "If you get the objectives right, the lieutenant can write the strategy."

So what is it that we want to achieve? That begins with a discussion of vital interests, which vital interests are at stake. Then you frame the problem. What is the nature of this conflict, what is driving the violence? Ask these first order of questions, get your arms around this problem. Understand the situation in relation to your vital interests, and then you have the ability to begin crafting objectives.

Once you have the objectives, you think about how do you get the current state to that objective state. What are the obstacles to progress that are preventing you from getting there? What are the opportunities that might help you get there? And then you begin to understand the problem on its own terms, and you can do the real kind of civil/military planning that has to happen for effective, not just military operations, but inter-organizational, civil/military multinational operations.

All these problems are very complicated, with internal and external dynamics. Diplomacy is a huge part of that. Problem framing is very important and military officers have to play a role in this because we are expected, and we should be expected as military professionals, to study war and warfare across our careers. So if we don't think that there are considerations being brought up that have to do with the nature of war, we ought to be a voice for that, respectfully, and to try and bring that into the conversation. But ultimately it's our job to execute what we're ordered to do. But we have to do that in a way that we try to connect it to what our goals and objectives are.

What you mentioned in terms of explaining to soldiers, how the risks are taken—the sacrifices they're making are contributing to an outcome worthy of those risks and sacrifices. That is an important element in that.

I believe that if you're fighting ISIL, that's pretty easy for me to get motivated to do. I mean, I'll pack my stuff tonight and go. These are, as I mentioned, the enemies of all civilized people. The brutality that we've seen with the beheadings of hostages—this is routine. These are people who engage in child abuse on an industrial scale. They sexually abuse and brutalize children. They systematically dehumanize them. They make young adolescents members of beheading cells. This is an irreligious ideology in which you have these so-called imans who have third and fourth grade educations. They're thugs and criminals. They're misogynistic. They are wanting to impose on a huge population and territory an order that is medieval and rejects humanity, I think.

I think that it's easy to get motivated to fight them. I think that it's important—it's our duty, though—to do our best as senior leaders, to make sure that as we commit our soldiers, we're ensuring that we're taking the actions that we can to connect what they're doing to those sustainable outcomes and again recognizing that those conditions change.

As General Perkins, who is our training commander, says, "War is a series of temporary conditions." So how do we adapt and maintain the initiative? I think we're taking a long view here, in terms of the problem in the greater Middle East. I think there will be a continued dialogue and I think we have absolutely the right leadership with General Dempsey and the chiefs, and our combatant commanders—General Austin in our central command—and so forth. Maybe you don't hear about General Terry, who's out in Iraq now, General Paul Funk, Tony Thomas—these are great guys who are great leaders, who are working to understand that problem set better.

I think what we understand now more than we did in the '90s in particular, is that we have to develop situational understanding through action a lot of times, and in close contact with civilian populations and with these enemies.

It's very difficult to develop the kind of fidelity you need on this situation from standoff range. It has a lot to do with relationships and with the people who are most affected by it, the Iraqi and Kurdish leaders and so forth.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

First of all, on behalf of the entire Carnegie Council audience, I'd like to thank you for your service and the other members of the military here. We are really appreciative of everything you do to defend us.

I'd like to ask you a question or two I posed to General Dempsey just about four weeks ago. First question, would you consider the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] conduct of the recent war and prior wars as a template for the ethical conduct of war?

Number two, cyber security is in the headlines every day. You mentioned it peripherally. Does the Army have an autonomous, independent cyber operation apart from the other arms services?

Lastly, a credible force behind a policy—where would you put sanctions in that line-up? Should we be sending forces to the Polish borders, etc?

H. R. MCMASTER: Okay. So quickly on that, in terms of the IDF actions and how to evaluate them, I think you could evaluate them based on jus ad bellum sort of criteria of proportionality and distinction and so forth. I'm not the best judge of it. I've been following it in the media. I can't really tell. I do know that they're responding to attacks.

What you're asking is, was the response proportional? Now, there's different kinds of proportionality. There's proportionality in war, and then there's a broader sort of humanitarian standard that I think, at times, doesn't apply as a complete transfer over to wartime situations. So that's kind of a non-answer, sorry, to your first question.

On cyber, cyber is a new domain that we've called a domain now in our joint terminology. And we do have, obviously, cyber implications for Army forces. Essentially from a military perspective, what you really want to do is protect your ability to move information around and communicate and have access to the cyber capabilities and disrupt your enemy's ability to do that.We tend to think of it now as converging domains, as a cyber-electromagnetic sort of area to operate in.

Nothing in the military is autonomous. We don't do anything autonomously. We're under civilian control. U.S. cyber command is a joint organization under civilian control and there's an Army component for that, that actually helps us think about what capabilities we need in our Army forces and how we develop those competency skills and abilities that we need to operate today and in the future, in that increasingly contested domain.

Your third question on sanctions, there's obviously a broad literature on this and I'm not an expert on it. I do think you have to really consider second and third order effects of sanctions. I think we can do a lot with sanctions against enemy organizations as we maybe gain better visibility of them broadly. A lot of the enemies we're facing, as I mentioned, they cross over into transnational organized crime networks. They're oftentimes connected to licit institutions and businesses. So I think there is a tremendous opportunity to apply targeted economic sanctions, and other sanctions—travel bans, visa denials, and so forth.

There's a great book by Juan Zarate called Treasury's War that I think is extremely well-done and he's been really at the front lines of this. Our Treasury Department does a great job in this, as well. They just don't have the capacity to do everything they maybe need to do.

There have been some examples of this where it's been effective, especially these kind of targeted sanctions and going after these illicit networks connected to insurgent and terrorist organizations. The Illicit Activities Initiative for North Korea is an example of that recently, and the Lebanese Canadian Bank actions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran.

So I think that this is a new battleground and I think this is one of those areas where we have a tremendous opportunity to deal some very strong blows to these organizations.

QUESTION: Reed Bonadonna, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

I don't know if you agree with me—I would say that history indicates that when the profession of arms has been at its best, there have been great soldiers and they've been more than that too. They've served their civilizations on a broad front. You mentioned George C. Marshall, maybe the poster child as an individual for that—Roman legions, Washington's Army. I wonder if the discussion in the Army at TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command] about the armed forces, and dare I might call it their "broader societal role"—you mentioned on a sort of tactical level, being humanitarians on the battlefield. But maybe also in the operational or strategic level, is the Army addressing—and I think it's going to be a real challenge, because the armed forces are shrinking and are demographically and geographically isolated. A number of things like that have to be overcome for us to have that kind of function.

H. R. MCMASTER: If you think about it, the size of the Army in World War II was 8 million, out of a population of 110 million. So every family was vested in it. Everybody had somebody in the Army or the military, broadly. Now in a country of 330 million we have an Army that's going down to just below 1 million for the active and reserve force, but in the active Army down to 490,000, and maybe even lower, which I think we'll have to see how far it goes based on budget issues.

So I think the point you're raising is the importance of the military staying connected to the people in whose name we fight. We can't allow our all-volunteer force to become disconnected from our society. I think we all have a role in that. In our Army, we have a tremendous asset, which is our National Guard, our citizen soldiers, who exhibit a special form of patriotism. These are men and women who have full-time civilian jobs, they give up the little time they would have with families and drill and prepare and train and prepare for contigencies. Of course, we've drawn very heavily on the National Guard over the last 14 years of conflict.

So I think the Guard plays a special role, but I think every American should play a role in helping us stay connected to the people in whose name we fight. I think that there ought to be maybe a special effort these days to study war, but also to study warriors. If you think about what popular culture does to our warrior ethos, I think it cheapens it sometimes, and coarsens it.

You see, oftentimes, veterans are portrayed as fragile, traumatized human beings instead of servants who have given up themselves in service of our nation, who oftentimes in combat have demonstrated tremendous courage and combat prowess and ought to be celebrated for that, as well. So I think that, really, academia and, obviously, the Council just plays a tremendous role here, and it has. I really appreciate the great work that happens here.

But I think that you just raised a very important point. I think all of us, all Americans, have a role in keeping us connected to each other. I think the study of war and warriors and understanding them more fully than the next Hollywood movie that presents a caricature of military service [is important].

QUESTION: My name is Larry Bridwell and I teach international business at Pace University.

Last month I heard General Abizaid, who is fluent in Arabic and was a commanding general in Iraq—he has spent a lot of time in the Middle East recently, and he says people are very nervous in the Middle East about what's going to happen with ISIL. I'm trying to reconcile whatever's going to happen with this concept of the future of war. At this point, our engagement is really limited to air power. And the other element that General Abizaid stressed is the people in the Middle East have to come to grips with this problem.

So in terms of the future of war, what does it mean if the American military is going to be only partially engaged in this conflict with, perhaps, only air power?

H. R. MCMASTER: Well, okay. Jeez. So the problem with the greater Middle East—that's a big one. First of all I defer to what General Abizaid said. I had the great privilege of serving with him from 2003 to 2004. I learned so much from him.

But I think there are obviously local dynamics associated with each of these conflicts across the greater Middle East. I think, in particular, if you just focus in on Syria and Iraq right now and the problem with ISIL, you have to understand the local dynamics that are occurring, which are essentially competitions between various communities inside of Syria for power, resources, and survival. And because of the nature of those competitions, external parties, ISIL, and these people with this Takfiri/Salafi ideology and the Iranians have been able to gain control and influence because they portray themselves as patrons and protectors of some of those parties that are in conflict.

There is a regional power in the greater Middle East who understands a vision for what they want to achieve and who are using proxies and agents throughout the greater Middle East to achieve that aim, and that's Iran. You also have the United States as a tremendous influence, and partnerships there as well. We have great allies there, but it's unclear whether or not the United States and our allies there have that same kind of unified vision and are able to contend with what I think is a problem that Iran had a huge hand in helping to create and is perpetuating.

So what is the greatest danger? I think this is what we maybe ought to ask. And how do we prevent that? How do we begin to work on this problem from maybe the outside in and to understand those local dynamics, but understand they're a broader regional global dynamics at work? Of course, there are other regional actors, like the Russians, who are playing a spoiler here, and would be very content to see us preoccupied with some of these conflicts, I think, so they can maybe pursue their objectives elsewhere.

So I think the way to work on it, maybe, is outside in—I think that's what some scholars have said about this problem set—and then to support those who want to get to that sustainable outcome that respects the rights of people within these contested territories, regardless of their religious beliefs.

The greatest danger, as I began to say, is that this will become a sectarian regional civil war inside of Islam, between Sunni and Shia. This is what ISIL would like, I think. But there are other complicated sub-currents—elements of Muslim Brotherhood and their relationship with Iranians, for example. Nothing in the Middle East is simple. None of these groups even are monolithic in and of themselves. But fundamentally I think we want to prevent that religious war from happening.

So what we have to do is see this as a war between, really, civilization and barbarism, I think. These are modern-day barbarians. And the battlegrounds in these countries, as well as I think on the frontier of Afghanistan/Pakistan, are the modern-day frontiers between civilization and barbarism.

Now I know many of the people of Iraq—and I have great affection for them—and I know the vast majority of the Iraqi people reject extremists on both sides, either the Shia Islamist militias and their actions, or these groups associated with now ISIL, the latest manifestation of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But they're powerless.

So how do we help them regain power and to end this trauma? And we need to end this trauma because we now have on our hands, I think, a multi-generational problem. So what has happened is, when this violence happens, people become brutalized. They become innured to that kind of violence and brutality. Education stops. Communities are polarized and pitted against each other. So you have large numbers of under-educated, often illiterate young people, the males in particular, who are very susceptible to the demagoguery of the extremists.

What you have, I believe, is fundamentally a cycle of violence that begins with ignorance. I believe ultimately what these groups associated with ISIL want to do is they want to perpetuate ignorance because they use that ignorance to foment hatred. And they use that hatred, then, to justify violence against innocent people. So to break that cycle, ultimately I think you have to address the ignorance. I think the long term multi-generational battleground is a battleground of education.

QUESTION: Sir, Major Ian Fishback. Currently an instructor at West Point.

My views are obviously my own, not those of the Army. And I'm going to push you. I agree with much of what you say. I have deep respect for you, and for our profession. But I'm going to push you on a claim that's made in your paper, and please take it constructively. It's not meant to be disrespectful.

H. R. MCMASTER: We'll see. [Laughter]

QUESTION: Fair enough. Page nine of your paper says, "The lack of intellectual preparation, limited military effectiveness—it made it harder for our leaders and forces to adapt to the reality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But our military is a learning institution, and we adapted to the demands of the conflict after the removal of the Taliban and Hussein regimes."

I'm going to challenge the latter portion. I don't think we adapted. The reason I don't think we adapted is somewhat limited to my perspective, and it's somewhat anecdotal. But it also relies on a lot of people I know throughout the military.

My first example is the commanding general of Baghdad at the height of the surge—this is long after the initial invasion—when I advised him that we had an Iraq unit that was more than capable of handling missions and it was under-utilized, and it was clearly so—you could see it on UAV [unammed aerial vehicle] coverage, etc.—he responded that, "We have the A team, the Americans. We're not going to use the Iraqis."

A brigade commander, also in Baghdad at the same time, when he came in, I briefed him on the capabilities of the Iraq unit. I explained that they were ready to go, and under-utilized. He said, "We'll use them now, but eventually we want our units to be able to take those missions because we realize you guys are good, but we want to get to that point too," which, as you know, is counterinsurgency in reverse.

A friend of mine served as the J2 [intelligence] of Afghanistan. One of the brigade commanders in one of the most important provinces in Afghanistan forced his S2 staff to do the intelligence preparation of the battlefield template according to a World War I template. I can't make this up.

These types of things continue to occur through the military, and this morning at six o' clock over coffee, I'm discussing this with a fellow major—

H. R. MCMASTER: Is there a question here?

QUESTION: There will be a question.

And the bottom line is, we agree with everything in this paper. But we're both deeply skeptical that the military as an institution is capable of implementing this, at the general and brigade commander rank, let alone what we call the strategic corporal rank.

So my question is, how do you get there, given the challenges that keep recurring throughout the institution?

H. R. MCMASTER: Well, I'm just relieved that you've now defined me as part of the problem. [Laughter] I think it's much easier to be part of the problem than have to deal with all these solutions.

So I think that everybody has anecdotes of leaders who are less than effective, who are unimaginative, who centralized decision-making, who didn't trust subordinates. But I can give you scores of examples where that wasn't the case, going even back to 2003 when I first arrived in Iraq.

Again, I saw it was uneven. It was uneven between certain brigades, and it was based on the commanders—how well those commanders were prepared, how well they understood the complexity of that situation and led their units through it. And then you would think, though, that by the time that you're mentioning the surge, 2007 period of time, you wouldn't have that kind of misunderstanding at senior levels. But of course this occurred because oftentimes some of the senior officers who arrived did not have previous experiences in the wars, and may have come from backgrounds or assignments where maybe they didn't take it seriously to learn about it and adjust.

But I have seen many, many examples that run counter to what you're pointing out. I think what the ultimate question is, how do we ensure that the Army is a learning institution so the best practices are shared, so the learning isn't in these extended campaigns in particular. It's not a learning event for a year, and then you leave, and then the next unit comes in and starts to relearn what you learned.

The transfer of knowledge is a big part of it. I think leader development and education is a big part of it. I think that what we have done in our Army to institutionalize these lessons is very significant.

I'll give you some examples. Our training scenarios typically would really be like what you recognize as a World War I template. You would see yourself in relation to the enemy and the terrain. And once you saw that—in fact in the 1990s it was see yourself, see the enemy, see the terrain—"Hey, I'm done. I'm good. I know what I need to do." But it's not that. You have to understand your force as a context in civilian population, political dynamics, and so forth.

So we developed our Army, and we would call it the Decisive Action Training Environment, DATE, because you needed a good acronym. But that is the database and the description of very complex environments that we draw on for all of our training, from platoon level, to division and core at JTF [Joint Task Force] level.

The other things that we have done is we have changed training conditions in all of our training centers and in our schoolhouses. So if you're going to conduct a raid, a military operation, you're dealing with civilian populations as well, a very complex operation, and you have to make decisions. You have to make decisions under complex environments.

We train advanced cognition with advanced situational awareness training, and we have changed the way we're educating officers so that we are bringing in more critical, creative thinking and analysis, a lot more writing and thinking about complex environments, conflicts are ongoing in the world—the Maneuver Captain Careers Course at Fort Benning, for example. You write three very rigorous, analytical papers that look at these complex environments. All of that is happening to institutionalize the lessons and adaptations of 14 years of war.

Is there more to be done? Yes. One of the things that we've done is established this framework for learning. There is a military Wiki site that you can get on and your colleagues can get on. You can go to the war fighting challenge—that's relevant to this—and you can contribute to it in terms of your assessment, to update our assessment of how well we can do what we say we need to do. And then what is the interim solution? How can we get better at doing this through changes and doctrine organization? Training, leader development, maybe a material solution, or a policy decision.

If you're at West Point, you're aware of the advanced educational opportunities to go to some of the best graduate schools and to teach. Then the range of broadening experiences we have abroad and with seminars, and shorter duration of things that are going to, I think, sustain this in our force.

But ultimately why I'm optimistic is because officers like you have seen this at the ground level. Those who are continuing to serve, they're not going to forget that. Some people say, "Are we going to go back? Are we going to do what we did after Vietnam?" Conrad Crane, who's down at the Army War College—we're going to create little pamphlets available for free online called Avoiding Vietnam. I don't think we're going to do it. I really believe that our senior leadership is committed to institutionalizing these lessons. I don't see anybody who are deniers about it.

QUESTION: I'm Tyler Beebe. Thanks again, as all of us feel, for a very enlightening talk.

I've got actually four questions, but I know I would be very unpopular if I tried to ask the last three. It's hard to choose the question, but I'll choose the one that seems to raise emotional ire, at least with me. How could we have spent the alleged $2 billion to $3 billion in Iraq, so-called training Iraqi troops, who performed so apparently miserably in Mosul and that general area against ISIS?

H. R. MCMASTER: Okay, well here's the problem: It's important when you look at security force assistance and building security forces that we understand the political dimension of that problem. We have to put the politics at the center of that, even. Oftentimes what we'll do is we'll look at building security forces as a program. "Hey, we need to build their capacity. We need to organize, train, and equip them." But what we really need to do is to make sure that they're on a proper leadership—that their leadership is representative to the degree that they are legitimate in the eyes of their population and that they have the degree of motivation and so forth to be able to accomplish the missions they'll be asked to accomplish.

I think in both Afghanistan and in Iraq we didn't pay enough attention to the political dynamic. For example, in Afghanistan—and we're trying to overcome all of this now in Afghanistan—but in Afghanistan if you think about the way the military campaign was waged, it was waged really mainly through proxy forces through militias, mujahideen-era militias mainly, and we empowered them with money, with intelligence advisors, and with special forces.

And then we collapsed the Taliban regime, but once we did that, the way that we conducted that war set conditions for state capture of state institutions and functions by these militias. The militias really morphed into criminalized patronage networks that were motivated by a desire to consolidate power in advance of a post-U.S. Afghanistan. And so, actually, many of these criminal networks became stakeholders in state weakness because it's the weakness of these institutions that gave them impunity, freedom of action, and so forth.

It's critical to put the politics at the center.

What happened in Iraq is that the security forces were increasingly captured by Shia Islamist militias, some of them associated with Iran. These institutions, we look at them, we mirror-image them sometimes. "Hey, they're an army. They must be like us." A neutral state institution, right? But, of course, they're not. It's a battleground for influencing and control of those instruments of power—very important to these groups.

In Iraq, if you think about what happened shortly after the military left in Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki took a number of actions, placing the vice president under arrest, all sorts of things. But within the military, what was happening in the army, and in the Ministry of Interior Forces was really an elimination of Sunni Arab, Sunni Turkmen leaders. They became increasingly Shia-led organizations.

When that happened, of course the Sunni Arab population says, "Well they don't represent me. They're not going to protect me. Who's going to protect me?" And then you begin to look for militias and others who can protect you, and this is how ISIL gets their foot back in the door, is to portray themselves as patrons and protectors of populations that now see the instruments of state power as aggressors against them. And, of course, once ISIL controls territory, then what they can do is they can intimidate and coerce people, such that you can't recruit out of those areas any more. "If your son joins the army, I'm going to kill your whole family."

This is the same thing that happened between 2004 and 2006 in Iraq, what's happening with ISIL again. Now we reversed that through the surge, but it wasn't just the surge. It was a political strategy that aimed to move Iraq's communities toward political accommodation, a political accommodation that would remove support for extremists. There are subordinate efforts to that political strategy. There was an external diplomatic strategy, there was a strategy to develop security forces to get rid of the most maligned and sectarian actors within those institutions, to make those institutions more representative, to reprofessionalize them. There were other elements to this, but of course none of these efforts were irreversible, as we've seen. And if you look at ISIL's campaign, it was al-Qaeda in Iraq's campaign from 2004 to 2006 on fast forward.

And so it's critical, I think what you learn is you have to put the politics at the center. There's a great security force development—there's a security sector reform expert named Andrew Rathmell, who's written about this extensively, putting politics at the center of these efforts.

I think we have to recognize that these are contested spaces. We've learned this in other places too. We were developing Malian armed forces as a bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and we know large numbers of them defected and fought for the Tuaregs and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

We've had problems. This is what political scientists called principle agent-problems. We've seen it in Yemen, we've seen it working with certain partners in certain areas as well. So I think what you need is you need strong political leadership that's representative and determined.

You want a positive example? I think you look at the Philippines. You look at Colombia as a great example. What was the prognosis for Colombia In the late '90s? Look what happens under strong leadership with U.S. support.

I think Korea's a positive example. It didn't look good in 1953, though. You had a country that was ravaged by decades of war, you had a country with no infrastructure, with an illiterate population, and a corrupt government. It didn't look good. But with sustained commitment over time, development of civil society, development of political reforms, U.S. commitment over time, you have success.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thank you for your time. Michael John Williams. I'm a professor of international relations at NYU.

I share your analysis that the United States substituted technology for strategy in 2001, 2003. I'd go further to say that actually there hasn't been a revolution in military affairs. And the analogue to this being the First World War, where there had been technological advancement, and the military leadership failed to compile that in such a way as to overcome a stalemated conflict. It wasn't until the '30s, and the German general staff, not the French, as the chairman pointed out, actually managed to come to grips with these technological advancements and social change, which goes back to the 19th century and the Levée en masse (mass mobilization), and the addition of mass and technology that results in the First World War stalemate.

So I wanted to have some of your reflections on the social aspects of the challenges that you face in a modern American and Western society where you have an increasing gap between the military and society, between civilian leadership and military leadership, the idea of sacrifice for the nation, and the idea of war without warriors, as Christopher Coker has coined the phrase.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir. Good afternoon, general. I'm Mitchum [inaudible] first class U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Sir, one of the open and contested platforms you discussed was social media. I think in light of the events that have happened, even in the past week, we have seen that not just as a government, the military being an agency within there, that we are, at the very least, at a huge disadvantage with those forces that we would actively try to stop.

How do we refocus as a government, and perhaps even just as a military, to gain ground that we have perhaps lost in the social media with it being much harder than to just shell them?

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir. Good afternoon, general. My name is Ryan Torres. I'm a plebe at the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

You talk a lot about being humanitarians being warriors and also, I would think, being scholars. What advice could you give myself and other young aspiring officers, even young soldiers enlisted, about how they can prepare themselves for the future?

And also, what area of the world—now we're talking about the Middle East and a lot of people put a lot of study into that—what area of the world in the future should you think young people should study?

H. R. MCMASTER: Well, gosh, great questions.

On the social aspects of transformation and periods of change in miilitaries—you make a really great point. I know it's not representative maybe of all society, but I'm super-optimistic. I commanded at Fort Benning until last year, and I saw these young citizen volunteers who were so motivated, who were so talented. The soldiers that are coming into our Army are so talented, and motivated, and capable. We ought to be so darn proud of them.

Now can we keep that going and sustain it? I think we should. I think the way to do it is an appeal of service. And we think about all the hardships associated with military service: long periods of separation, the risks that you take. But there are tremendous rewards associated with service, being part of something bigger than yourself; in our Army, being part of a team in which the man or woman next to you is willing to give everything, including their own life for you—I think that intangible rewards of service are tremendous. And I think we ought to try to communicate that more effectively to the American public. And I think that there's so many people who want to serve. I think there's a lot of untapped, sort of desire to serve.

So I'm not as concerned as maybe others are, but it's not scientific. I'm going from my gut feeling from being able to interact with these awesome young soldiers and leaders.

On social media, I think that the key thing is, social media for what? For what purpose for us? And I think we have to do maybe four things on social media.

The first thing we have to do is clarify our own intentions. We ought to be able to communicate—social media, and I would say media broadly, and the Internet, and so forth—clarify our intentions. And part of that is countering enemy disinformation and propaganda. These are people who commit mass murder and then blame people other than themselves for their own murderous acts.

So I think the third thing we have to do is trace people's grievances back to these people and expose their brutality. They're criminals. We ought to make sure we criminalize their behavior. What religious standard justifies this? No religious standard. These are irreligious people. I think that's important. Then also we have to bolster legitimacy of partners and they have to take a leading voice in a lot of this. But I think a lot of times we think about social media amorphously, but I think we have to engage media with those kind of purposes in mind.

In terms of for young aspiring soldiers, and officers and non-commissioned officers and leaders, I think the key thing I would say to you is study your profession. Expert knowledge is the pillar of our profession. Study your profession. I would say, not just because I'm here at the Carnegie Council, but study the professional military ethic in ethics. The way to do that is to read and think about our profession.

I'd put in a plug for the Fort Benning self-study program. If you go to the Fort Benning website, you hit "leader development," you go to that website, there are 20 topics of importance to military professionals, and then a description of how to study those topics.

So read, think, discuss your profession, study your profession, as Sir Michael Howard suggested, in width, across time, so you can see changes over time, in depth, so you look at specific campaigns, and battles—he says, "Tidy outlines of war dissolve when you see the complexity and the human dynamics and the horror of battle and combat"—and then in context, in context of society, in context of civil/military relations, in context of strategy and so forth. So that would be my advice.

And be excited about it. If you're reading a book and it's boring, put it down and find another one. There's a lot of great books out there for you to read.

Just be excited about your profession. If you're coming into the military, you're going to have a great time. You will be part of the team, a family, really, and it's a critical time for our nation—I think, for all civilized people.

So thanks for your service, for the cadets who are here, and thanks for your willingness to serve in time of war.

MARTIN COOK: All right, well we are dismissed. Thank you very much for coming.

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