Free Media Learning Opportunity: MG H.R. McMaster at CSIS

[Note: see video link here.]

It was a privilege to listen to someone I worked for (albeit very low on that totem pole) – Major General H.R. McMaster – speak to CSIS on 20 March 2013 about his thoughts on the future of American ground forces.  The selection you see that follows is typed out from a section around 28 minutes into the talk.  MG McMaster responded to a question about what lessons we ought to learn (or unlearn) from the past twelve years of conflict.

At a high level of generality, it was not really new – we have relearned some things. And I think what we’ve done is rediscovered some continuities in war and warfare. If you go back and read some of the literature associated with the concepts like Rapid Decisive Operations and Shock and Awe, for example, and Dominant Battlespace Knowledge, and so forth in the 1990s, I think we became enamored with what we saw as changes with technology and that technology’s application to war and warfare and forgot to consider the continuities.

And the continuities are, I think, in really four key areas and this is one that I think we continue to neglect as we look toward the future sometimes as well…

War is an extension of politics. And, you know, the problems that we face, the security problems that we face are land based because people live there and they are politics based because they involve – often times competition for power, resources, survival…

The second big continuity is that war is human, and I think we have to understand the psychological, cultural, dimension of conflict and be able to operate effectively based on our understanding of the human dimension of war.

War is uncertain. You can’t predict with a high degree of uncertainty the future course of events in war.  And that’s in-between wars; in the course of a war. And that’s because of the continuous interaction with the enemy and the unpredictable nature of what enemies will do…often [our American tendency] is to decide what we would like to do maybe because of fiscal constraints or what seems attractive to do, and then assume that that’s going to be relevant to the problem of armed conflict. And so we make these projections into the future that are unrealistic and as a result we create vulnerabilities that our enemies exploit…

War is still a contest of wills. It has become fashionable…some people are reluctant to talk about winning in war. The contests we’ve been in, obviously you can’t track progress in a war on a map toward the capture of an enemy’s capital city or the defeat of a fielded armed force. But I think we can do better at defining, again, sustainable political outcomes consistent with our vital interests and then communicate our willingness to see it through… 

[On landpower]…one of the things that is amusing to me sometimes is that we talk about sea control, which is an important concept; but we never talk about land control, and land is where people live and land is where these problems emanate from…

What our Army should bring to the joint force is an ability to set security conditions for sustainable political outcomes consistent with our vital [national] interests.  Can you do that from the aerospace and maritime domains? I would say no.  I don’t think we can operate effectively on land without adequate capability in our Air Force and our Navy so this can’t be a zero sum game discussion…

We have to be able to achieve sustainable political outcomes consistent with our vital interests, otherwise we’re just stirring up the pot and leaving.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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