H.R. McMaster Leads New Crop of Generals

The third time is the charm for H.R. McMaster, who is the most recognizable name on the list of new one-star generals selected by a promotion board headed up by none other than David Petraeus.

An Army board headed by Gen. David H. Petraeus has selected several combat-tested counterinsurgency experts for promotion to the rank of brigadier general, sifting through more than 1,000 colonels to identify a handful of innovative leaders who will shape the future Army, according to current and former senior Army officers.

The choices suggest that the unusual decision to put the top U.S. officer in Iraq in charge of the promotions board has generated new thinking on the qualities of a successful Army officer — and also deepened Petraeus’s imprint on the Army. Petraeus, who spent nearly four of the past five years in Iraq and has seen many of the colonels in action there, faces confirmation hearings next week to take charge of Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.

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.

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.

Via SWJ and Abu Muqawama

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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. Boyd says:

    If the list has not yet been released, how do we know who’s on it? Granted, my experience is dated and from the Navy, but promotion lists were just about the best-kept secrets around, until they were officially announced.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I guess Petraeus had to chair the board to ensure the institutional bureaucracy didn’t stymie those officers who will shake up the Army’s resistance to change.

  3. Cernig says:

    My initial reaction is that I’m very happy to see McMaster promoted. He’s a thinking, humanitarian and COIN-savvy soldier who is no-one’s lapdog, as far as I can tell.

    Regards, C

  4. Anderson says:


    I’m looking forward to Dereliction of Duty II: History Repeats Itself.