H.R. McMaster Gets Third Star, Charge of Army Future

A rather impressive recovery from a career that was mostly dead in 2007.


Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster has been selected for promotion to lieutenant general. That shouldn’t be surprising. As a company commander during Desert Storm, he was the hero of the Battle of 73 Easting. Years later, as commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, he again made a new for himself with innovative solutions in Tal Afar. In between, he earned a PhD in military history at the University of North Carolina and turned his dissertation into  Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, a groundbreaking critique.

Yet, as many will recall, McMaster’s career was stalled seven years ago when he was passed over a second time for promotion from colonel to brigadier general. At the time, many of us were calling it the Peter Principle in reverse in which, as Matt Bennett put it, “genuinely gifted and brilliant public servants who are kept far below the level to which they should ascend.” As I wrote at the time,

The military is a bureaucracy and, as in all bureaucracies, it’s far easier to succeed by going along with the flow than by trying to change things. Being a gung ho maverick may well make a young officer stand out and get great evaluations; it’s more likely to piss off at least one senior rater during a career, though, and end one’s chances at promotions.

There’s a, possibly apocryphal, story about a briefing presided over by General Creighton Abrams. When the time came for questions, a young major stood up and ripped the plan to shreds. When he realized that the room was silent, the major said, “Sir, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. But I’m sure you didn’t get to be a general by telling your superiors what they wanted to hear.” Abrams is said to have replied, “That’s true. But it’s damned sure how I got to be a lieutenant colonel!”

I never served with McMaster and I’ve never heard anything but positive things about him. But it’s hardly inconceivable that a rock star who is both a brilliant tactician and a leading scholar has managed to rub some people above him in the chain of command the wrong way — or even inspire a bit of jealousy at all the attention he’s gotten. And the odds are more than even that those on the promotion board, who came up the ranks in a Big Wars Army, look askance at handing the keys to their institution over to people who want to make radical changes in it.

Well, a funny thing happened the next year: another PhD general who’d made a name in counterinsurgency operations was chosen to personally lead the next selection board to one-stars. McMaster finally got his star on the third try.

Army Secretary Pete Geren asked Petraeus to head the board, which convened in late 2007, and instructed it to stress innovation in selecting a new generation of one-star generals, the officers said. Several of the colonels widely expected to appear on the resulting promotion list, which has not yet been released, are considered unconventional thinkers who were effective in the Iraq campaign, in many cases because they embraced a counterinsurgency doctrine that Petraeus helped craft, the officials said.

They include Special Forces Col. Ken Tovo, a veteran of multiple Iraq tours who recently led a Special Operations task force there; Col. H.R. McMaster, a senior Petraeus adviser known for leading a successful counterinsurgency effort in the Iraqi city of Tall Afar, and Col. Sean MacFarland, who created a network of patrol bases in Ramadi that helped curb violence in the capital of Anbar Province, according to the officers.

In an article published this year on the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, McMaster challenged what he called the military’s preoccupation in the 1990s with technology, to the neglect of the political and cultural dimensions of war. Military leaders must end the “self-delusion” that high-tech weapons and a “minimalist” commitment of forces can solve conflicts, he wrote.

The promotion list has attracted keen attention from younger Army officers who are weary from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This sends a signal to the junior officers who are laboring in the trenches, literally, that the Army is trying to cast itself in a new mold,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a defense consultant and former head of the Army War College. “The quickest way to change the Army is at the brigadier general level. That is the surest way to turn the ship, because those names are how those young officers intuit where the Army is going,” he said.

As I added:

Why? Because, although Army promotions through lieutenant colonel have become almost automatic in these days of ridiculous OPSTEMPO, the math is stark: “the Army has 4,000 colonels and about 150 one-star generals.” Who gets selected to cross that chasm between field grade and flag officer sends a powerful message, indeed.

Fast forward six years. McMaster got passed over once for major (two-star) general but ultimately made it and is now in command of the “Maneuver Center of Excellence” at Fort Benning. For the uninitiated (as I was just a few months ago), a couple years back the Army decided to move its Armor branch from its historic home in Fort Knox, Kentucky and co-locate it with the Infantry branch.

And now? As Breaking Defense‘s Syndey Freedberg explains,

As a lieutenant general, he will be TRADOC’s deputy commanding general for “futures,” in charge of something called the “Army Capabilities Integration Center” (ARCIC).

In English, ARCIC is the Army organization tasked to think full-time about the next war and how to win it. So McMaster’s new position makes him point man for the entire Army as the service struggles to figure out its post-2014 role. What’s more, he takes that mission at a time when both the Army’s budget and its case for strategic relevance are coming under intense assault. If there was ever a time the Army needed a bare-knuckle intellectual like McMaster in the job, the time is now.

It’s an outstanding choice. And, certainly, a rather impressive recovery from a career that was mostly dead in 2007.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mikey says:

    It’s an outstanding choice. And, certainly, a rather impressive recovery from a career that was mostly dead in 2007.

    An outstanding choice, indeed. To think this brilliant soldier was almost passed over for promotion because he hadn’t checked the “joint tour” block…unbelievable. (Although I always thought that was mere pretext…)

    The Pipe Dream of Easy War

    Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past…

    …Believers in the theory known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” misinterpreted the American-led coalition’s lopsided victory in the 1991 gulf war and predicted that further advances in military technology would deliver dominance over any opponent. Potential adversaries, they suggested, would not dare to threaten vital American interests.

    The theory was hubristic.

    Unfortunately and horribly so.

  2. Butch Bracknell says:

    I don’t want to put the cart before golf course but think about what a successful three-star tour for General McMaster portends for the future. Eventually appointment as the vice chief of staff? Vice Chairman? National security adviser, or Under Sec. of defense for policy? The possibilities fill me with hope for the future. Not surprisingly I am a huge McMaster fan and wish that he was the template for agile thinking in the Marine Corps. Alas, as far as I can tell we don’t have anyone in the same ballpark — not even close. Topping it all off, he is a gentleman and a really nice guy. Do I sign up to be led by men like this?

  3. Butch Bracknell says:

    Please excuse the typos I’m using a voice recognition program

  4. john personna says:

    How many years will it be before an army officer is allowed to write

    Dereliction of Duty: George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to the Second Gulf War

  5. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: They’d be free to do that now. Certainly, at Marine Command and Staff, our majors and lieutenant commanders discuss those topics and are free to write well-supported papers making arguments critical of US policy. It’s trickier with the sitting administration, but doable. No problem whatsoever with past administrations, so long as the tone is scholarly.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Butch Bracknell: I was actually thinking about that earlier today myself. The Marine Corps—and I say this as a former junior Army officer—tends to produce better junior officers than the Army. It’s probably more attractive to young scholar-athletes than the Army, so likely has a recruiting edge. But the Army seems to produce far and away more legendary general officers. Aside from Chesty Puller, whose claim to fame was the heroism that would eventually win him promotion to general officer rank rather than his tenure wearing stars, I’m hard pressed to think of any really big time Marine generals from WWI, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam. And Jim Mattis is the only one I can think of offhand from the current era.

    Indeed, the Marine four-stars whose names I recognize all made their mark as Commandant rather than as field commanders.

  7. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    That’s not the way human societies work. It took 23 years from Vietnam to the publication of McMaster’s “Dereliction” because that’s how long it takes society to process the error. That this coincides with the dying-off of principals in Vietnam is certainly not unrelated.

    The Downing Street Memos frame GWII as exactly like “Dereliction,” but we (or I should say many of you) are just not ready to process it.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: But there’s plenty of literature out there, and has been for years, making that kind of argument. Thomas Ricks’ FIASCO came out in 2006. And, incidentally, Ricks was just at Marine Corps University earlier this month giving a talk to the students. Many if not most of my students—most of whom served in either Iraq or Afghanistan if not both—think the wars were a mistake in some fashion.

  9. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I have not read FIASCO, though I did just now read the interview at amazon. I see also that it links to Ricks’s 10 Non-Iraq Books for Understanding Iraq. Those seem heavy on understanding insurgency and less on the run-up.

    The parallel I’m looking for is at the top level. Bush is to Iraq as LBJ was to Vietnam.

    And yeah, I think we were criminally misled.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    Thank you for that, Dr Joyner. When I’d last heard of him the gentleman was Colonel McMaster and likely to remain so. A very optimistic sign for the US military.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: It’s been a few years since I’ve read it but FIASCO was very harsh on Bush, Rumsfeld, Franks, and the rest of the brass. But, not, it’s not that heavy on the politics of the war but rather the planning and execution.

    Paul Pillar does an impeccable job on the selling of the war, and especially the cherry picking of intelligence, in Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (Columbia, 2011).

  12. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I read a few pages of that on the Amazon preview. It looks good, or at least “Policy has influenced intelligence more than vis versa” is the story I want told.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead,
    there’s usually only one thing you can do.

  15. Mu says:

    You might have given Vandegrift credit for that little Guadalcanal trip prior to becoming Commandant.
    What gets me his how many high ranking officers have ruined their careers lately with an inability to abide by basic professional rules, be it women, booze or just keeping their mouths shut. Are promotion boards so isolated from the serving officers that these things are never discussed, or is it just not relevant, as “boys will be boys” and you cover for them?

  16. CB says:


    Excellent essay. His selection seems like a positive shift.

  17. Tyrell says:

    Generals Eisenhower and Marshall advised strongly that the US must avoid getting involved in brush wars around the globe. They also believed go into win, or don’t go in.

  18. Mikey says:

    @CB: I’ve followed his career from time to time–I haven’t met him, but we were in many of the same places. He deployed to the Gulf War from Bamberg, I from Erlangen, just to the south. I did a hitch supporting the 3rd ACR, he later commanded it. He was something of a legend even back then.

    When I heard he’d been passed over for lack of a “joint tour” (even though any assignment commanding at the brigade/regiment level during the Iraq war, was joint in all but name), I figured the higher-ups saw him as too innovative and a boat-rocker and wanted to find some excuse to keep him from getting a star. I’m glad someone finally saw the light.

  19. rodney dill says:

    @James Joyner: …go through his pockets and look for loose change.

  20. @john personna: How you read “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War”?

    I haven’t myself but it was recommended reading for one my college classes, just never got around to buying it (when you have trouble finding the money to buy the required books, recommended books don’t get that much attention).

  21. john personna says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    Some might discount Corn and Isikoff as “usual critics” …

    From that though I find:

    A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies
    by James Bamford

    The Publisher’s Weekly Blurb:

    After 9/11, he asserts, the Bush administration used the attacks as a pretext for a long-planned invasion of Iraq; a Defense Department intelligence unit was set up to tout trumped-up evidence against Saddam, which, Bamford says, CIA analysts were pressured into endorsing. Much of the book rehashes a now familiar critique of both the pre-9/11 lapses and the Bush administration’s selling of the war, but the author enriches it with a wealth of insider interviews that illuminate structural problems in the nation’s intelligence effort.

    I remember when this was a minority opinion … perhaps it is becoming quietly accepted … and the reason GWB will not be at the 2016 Republican Convention.

  22. Barry says:

    @Mu: “What gets me his how many high ranking officers have ruined their careers lately with an inability to abide by basic professional rules, be it women, booze or just keeping their mouths shut. Are promotion boards so isolated from the serving officers that these things are never discussed, or is it just not relevant, as “boys will be boys” and you cover for them? ”

    From what I’ve heard, the generals are doing the same old same old, but things get out more and are tolerated less.

  23. dazedandconfused says:


    I suspect Marines haven’t traditionally concerned themselves with winning wars overmuch, just winning battles. Kicking ass and maybe (if under direct orders to do so, only) taking names. Higher brain functions were semi-reserved for the smart guys who can steer ships and such. We have, perhaps unwisely, been recently semi-structured to serve as something like a second Army. We do not need two armies, IMO.

    I’ll opine the system of promoting people in just about any large organization favors narcissistic self serving prima donnas. Every once in awhile some guys are just too smart and too damn effective to be denied, so they bust through anyway. Abrams, Dempsey, McMaster?

  24. steve says:

    James- You forget Zinni.


  25. SC_Birdflyte says:

    The idea that there must be a prescribed curriculum, as it were, for promotion to the top ranks is wrongheaded.It’s my belief that promotion boards should give as much weight to an officer’s ability to think above pay grade as is given to other factors. Before George C. Marshall became Army chief of staff, Eisenhower and Bradley thought their careers would end with them rising no higher than colonel; after all, neither of them saw combat in World War I.

  26. Timbo says:

    I served as one of his scout platoon leaders at 73 Easting and later handed over the Tal Afar battlespace to the Regiment in 05. Everything they say about him is true. It was a hard ride but he made me the officer I became. Brilliant, tactically astute beyond description, and an innovative strategic mind that is three to four moves ahead of everyone else.

    Despite all that he is was one of the most personable and humble guys I’ve ever know. Twenty years later all of his LTs from the 73 Easting were there to watch him pin on his second star and take command. That says something about him as a friend.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna: Ricks’ book is very good and well worth the effort.

  28. Ilene Kent says:

    Love this guy. He is the Commanding General here at Fort Benning. He wrote a wonderful book when he was still a Major which almost cost him his first star. The book”s title pretty much says what it’s about: “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam” … substitute “Iraq” for Vietnam “Bush” for Johnson, add Rummy,and Cheney – and this book could have been written about Iraq. Wonderfully written and well-researched. You’d have thought we’d have learned before starting another war.

  29. Ilene Kent says:
  30. Tyrell says:

    @Butch Bracknell: Certainly in the same class as General George Marshall.

  31. justin says:

    You must also look at the incoming TRADOC Commander, Gen David Perkins. He is a great thinker and leader. With both him and LTG McMaster it gives me great hope in the leadership and direction the Army is going.

  32. John Kelsey, CW4, USA (Ret) says:

    I served on his staff as his Reg S-3 Air in the 3rd ACR at Tallafar and have never had a better leader. I would have and still would follow him to Hell and believe we would win with him up front.