TAMPA — Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who spends his days trying to figure out the future of conflict and has gained wide respect for speaking his mind, told an audience at the University of South Florida on Wednesday that the United States needs to do a better job of learning lessons and adapting because of its “narcissistic approach to war.”
And, echoing outgoing President Dwight David Eisenhower’s farewell to the nation in 1961, McMaster urged renewed caution about the military-industrial complex and its influence on how America wages war.
“The future course of war doesn’t depend on what you like to do,” said McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. “It depends on enemy initiatives and enemy reactions.”
McMaster commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, served at U.S, Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, earned a doctorate in military history and a Silver Star Medal for battlefield heroics during the first Gulf War. He said the inability of the United States to adapt led to numerous problems, including the creation of the Islamic State.
Before he was killed in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, constantly updated his strategy, eventually taking a page out of previous conflicts in Afghanistan to create havoc in Iraq, McMaster said. That havoc, he said, is still playing out.
Initially, Zarqawi tried to chase the United States out by direct attacks, following up on a tactic started by Saddam Hussein, who passed out copies of the movie Black Hawk Down as proof that violence would chase off Americans, McMaster said.
That didn’t work.
Then the U.S. began to train an Iraqi security force able to stand up on its own against Zarqawi.
“So Zarqawi said, ‘We need to change the strategy,’” said McMaster, explaining that the AQI leader urged attacks on “the nascent security forces ... before they can stand on their own.”
But that didn’t meet Zarqawi’s objectives, either, McMaster said.
By December of 2003, nine months after the invasion, Zarqawi said, ‘What we really need to do is jump start a civil war,’” said McMaster. “And he calls it the Afghan model, harkening back to the Afghan civil war of 1992 to 1996.”
Zarqawi, a Sunni, had plans, said McMaster, “to pit Iraqi communities against each other and create a chaotic, violent environment to take advantage of that chaos, establish controlled territory populations, solidify your control, conduct other attacks and ... keep that cycle of violence going.”
“Sound familiar?” he asked. “It’s going on in Iraq again right now,” where the Sunni population, angered by the Shia central government and its ties to Shia Iran, helped support the rise of the Sunni jihadi group Islamic State.
And it is where Shia militias are taking revenge against Sunnis with the same kind of brutality that Islamic State has employed.
McMaster asked another question before again quickly answering it.
“So what did we do to adapt to that, and also to adapt to cope with what the Iranians were doing to further destabilize the situation?” he asked. “We didn’t adapt. We stuck with our plan. Our plan was to accelerate the transition. We wanted to get out.”
McMaster is no stranger to asking tough questions about U.S. military involvement. In 1997 he published “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.”
He posed another question to the audience.
“So how do we do war?” he asked, ultimately answering his own question by calling it “a narcissistic approach to war. “We define war only in relation to us... And so here’s our plan, here is where we want to be in 20-whatever, here’s were we are now and we are going to make progress toward that agenda.
“What we don’t recognize, honestly,” said McMaster, “is a continuous interaction with complex environments and determined enemies.”
Laying out a series of what he called fallacies in the U.S understanding of the nature of war, McMaster cited what he called the “RSVP Fallacy, that you can opt out of future war... This is the ultimate in narcissism because wars choose you.”
Among other concerns, McMaster conjured up Eisenhower by saying “the military-industrial complex may represent a greater threat to us than at any time in history.”
The reason, said McMaster, is the jockeying for defense dollars, which mean money for communities and thus gain political support from politicians in those communities.
“And so where are these investments going in defense right now?” he asked. “They are going into areas that involve really big ticket items, that preserves the large capital transfer to defense industries and continue to bolster employment.”
McMaster, who said he is “not criticizing any element of this,” added another element to think about.
The military-industrial complex, he said, “involves increasingly as well think tanks, and when you see studies that are produced about the future of war or studies that are produced about certain aspects of defense strategy, you ought to look to see who is funding it.”
Without naming names, McMaster ticked off a few case studies of why he believes the funding of think tanks matters.
“There is a think tank now, for example, that’s about to publish a report on the future of the Army, and it’s bankrolled by a defense firm whose business model is the integration of high technology capabilities and selling them to the Department of Defense,” said McMaster. “What do you think that answer is going to be?”
McMaster, whose service is facing large personnel cuts, talked emotionally about another study that he said sees those in uniform as a detriment.
One think tank “dusted off the same study, adds a few robots, republishes it every few years and what it says is that personnel are a resource suck on the Department of Defense,” said McMaster, the volume of his voice increasing for emphasis. “People are a problem, man.”