Absolute War

From Daniel Bessner:

H.R. MCMASTER FIRST ROSE TO PROMINENCE during the Gulf War, when in February 1991 a small armored unit he commanded destroyed astonishing numbers of Republican Guard armored forces in the Battle of 73 Easting. Over the course of two days, McMaster’s unit demolished dozens of Iraqi vehicles, killed scores of enemy soldiers (and captured many more), and suffered no casualties…

As Alex Roland, a professor of military history at Duke University, put it, by the Gulf War’s end McMaster was seen as a “war hero, the brilliant and daring young captain [who] dominat[ed] the famous Battle of 73 Easting.” But instead of continuing in a command position—the traditional means through which officers rose through the ranks—McMaster chose to pursue the study of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill…

DERELICTION OF DUTY (1997), the book that emerged from McMaster’s dissertation, is the foundational text of his worldview. In it, McMaster laid out the argument he had intuited in the Iraqi desert: that technological might was not the key to military victory. This critique would animate him for the next twenty years…

After teaching history at West Point from 1994 to 1996, McMaster returned to troop duties. His next major work, Crack in the Foundation (2003), which was released by the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership eight months after the United States invaded Iraq, applied Dereliction of Duty’s lessons to the modern American military. The paper’s message was simple:

The intellectual foundation for building tomorrow’s military force rests on the unfounded assumption that technologies emerging from the “information revolution” will lift the fog of war and permit US forces to achieve a very high degree of certainty in future military operations…

In 2004, he assumed command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which in 2005 was charged with carrying out counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the small city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq…

McMaster’s theory of counterinsurgency was premised upon the notion that ordinary people desired security, respect, and municipal services above all else. If a foreign military force was able to provide these, it would be possible to reduce sectarian tensions by helping previously warring groups achieve political accommodation with one another…

McMaster’s version of COIN explicitly relied upon a large and years-long commitment to a given region—an enormous financial, materiel, and human burden unlikely to be supported in a political climate increasingly hostile to prolonged foreign entanglements…

McMaster would have been an adequate, perhaps even excellent, leader if American imperialism had proven to be an unalloyed good. Recent history, though, has demonstrated that ours is a moment that requires a new, post-imperialist understanding of the US’s role in the world…

Unlike the Nazis or Soviets, neither ISIS nor the Taliban (nor associated states like Iran) have the institutional or materiel capacity to overwhelm any western power, let alone the United States. Even if these groups are able to carry out the occasional terrorist attack in the United States or Europe, they are simply not existential threats to the west. In an era in which the United States confronts state and nonstate actors who express allegiance to ideologies that will not be eradicated any time soon, McMaster’s logic of absolute war, in which an enemy is not considered defeated until he is annihilated, is in reality a logic of permanent war…

His history is a circumscribed one, rooted in the belief that US hegemony necessarily makes the world a better place…

One of the starkest examples of McMaster’s limited perspective was displayed in a 2013 essay, in which he and two co-authors commended the US Army for “provid[ing] advice and assistance to the Saudi Arabian National Guard’s military schools, brigades, and headquarters for the past 39 years.”

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