H.R. McMaster Passed Over – Reverse Peter Principle?

The legendary Colonel H.R. McMaster has been passed over, for a second time, for promotion to flag rank.

Matt Bennett, a VP at the liberal Third Way sees this is a “corollary to the Peter Principle: genuinely gifted and brilliant public servants who are kept far below the level to which they should ascend.” He, naturally, blames Bush. That’s rather absurd, given that presidents don’t sit on promotion boards and that bureaucratic politics is a far more logical explanation.

Still, McMaster would seem to be just the type of scholar-warrior that the military needs in its flag ranks right now. Bennett again:

Now you may be thinking, wasn’t it H.R. McMaster that led the pacification of Tal Afar, an operation so successful that Bush devoted an entire speech to it just last year? Didn’t I read about McMaster’s brilliant strategy in a long New Yorker piece about him? Wasn’t it McMaster who won a Silver Star in the Gulf War, leading troops so bravely and well that Tom Clancy wrote it up? And surely it was McMaster who’s PhD dissertation became a hugely influential book, Dereliction of Duty, that the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs made required reading for senior military types?

Well brace yourself — the answer to all of your questions is yes. McMaster is a brilliant tactician, a decorated hero, a soldier’s soldier, and a master of the very kind of war we’re fighting in Iraq — the counterinsurgency. In fact, he’s back in Iraq now, helping soon-to-be-fall-guy David Petraeus try to fend off further disaster. But somehow McMaster’s “superiors” — the suits at the Pentagon who helped bring us the Fiasco that McMaster is attempting to clean up — have decided that he isn’t flag officer material.

The editors at Small Wars Journal have an excellent discussion of the topic, including McMaster’s “rock star” status and the strange nature of promotion boards.

They also elevate to Update status a commenter’s discussion about something Air Force colonel John Boyd taught:

Although Boyd associated with many junior officers during his Air Force career, there were a few, perhaps half a dozen, that he had such respect for that he invited them to join him on his quest for change. Each one would be offered the choice: Be someone — be recognized by the system and promoted — or do something that would last for the Air Force and the country. It was unfortunate, and says something about the state of American’s armed forces, that it was rarely possible to do both.

That probably overstates things a bit but there’s a strong element of truth to it. 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.

An aside: McMaster graduated West Point in 1984, about two months before my cadetship began. Damn, I’m getting old.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , ,
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. DC Loser says:

    I had hoped McMaster would make it to flag rank, perhaps even someday be the CSA. But I’m not surprised by this development either. Whatever the reason of the promotion board, it’s a sad reflection upon the Army as an institution.

  2. Triumph says:

    The legendary Colonel H.R. McMaster has been passed over, for a second time, for promotion to flag rank.

    I have no idea what this means. Does this have something to do with Harry Potter?

  3. Barry says:

    James: “He, naturally, blames Bush. That’s rather absurd, given that presidents don’t sit on promotion boards and that bureaucratic politics is a far more logical explanation. ”

    Bush doesn’t actually get a vote on promotion board meetings, so I guess we can ignore him?

    This is certainly a unique view of the structure of authority and power in the US government. I never knew this, but I stopped at Poli Sci 101 :0

    Bush is president, and has had an incredibly free hand (or rather, Rumsfield and Cheney have) in the selection of the higher generals for six years. Bush (& R&C) are also Republicans, which the overwhelming majority of officers also are (ie, Clinton would presumably have had far less influence). Congress has been GOP for a bit, and remarkably supine under Bush & C&R.

    However, I do partially agree with you – I’d be willing to lay a good pitcher of beer that a bunch of generals who’ve failed at COIN were happy to slip one in his back, due to his successes where they’ve failed.

    And given that ‘Dereliction of Duty II – Worse than Before!’ is soon to be written, they probably had sh*t-eating grins on their faces when they did so.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Bush is president, and has had an incredibly free hand (or rather, Rumsfield and Cheney have) in the selection of the higher generals for six years.

    Senior generals are, essentially, political appointees. One and two stars are not. The former, especially, are picked by the same sort of promotion boards that pick field grade officers. It’s a purely bureaucratic process.

  5. Barry says:

    James, do those promotion boards know what the 3- and 4-star generals want? If not, it’d be surprising. Not that this would be critical in the case of Col. Joe Schmoe, but with a prominent colonel?

    Also, you’re forgetting that one trademark of this administration is an unrelenting attack on bureaucratic processes, checks and balances, whenever they would frustrate the administration’s political policies.

  6. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Having never been in the military, I can’t comment specifically on this. However, from my many years in the business private sector, I can affirm that such circumstances occur regularly in the business world.

    An individual who is seen as particularly gifted, industrious, or otherwise noteworthy is generally considered a threat to the positions of those above him/her on the corporate ladder. While these corporate superiors are keen to make use of such a person’s talents, frequently even taking credit for his/her accomplishments, they are also careful to keep him/her from gaining any exposure that might lead to promotion so as to protect their own positions.

    I have personally seen many cases where outstanding employees in an organization work hard for years only to get nowhere and end up quitting out of frustration. Conversely, I have seen individuals who excelled at butt-kissing (but nothing else) go on to reach high levels in corporate management.

    All this seems to give credence to Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Only in this case, it becomes survival of the wiliest.

  7. Dale says:

    Barry: As James points out 1 star generals (Brigadier General) aren’t senior generals. The promotion board for 1 star generals is made up of 3 and 4 star generals so I’m sure they know what they want. I seriously doubt that a 1 star even merit’s the attention of a president though I’m almost certain presidents get involved in picking 3 and four star generals/admirals.

    On another note, James you are getting old. I was a freshman in high school when you start at USMA and I now have 18 1/2 years in the Marine Corps. Sorry, couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

    Semper Fi!

  8. James Joyner says:

    I was a freshman in high school when you start at USMA and I now have 18 1/2 years in the Marine Corps.

    Yup. My cohort (1988) are LTCs and rising COLs now. They’ll be eligible to retire in another year.

    One of my high school classmates had retired from the Navy by the time of our 20th reunion, having enlisted right out of school and later gotten commissioned.

  9. DC Loser says:

    Sigh…my retirement date already came and went (but I’m not a retiree). It was fun while it lasted.

  10. Bob Sile says:

    Wow, if this is true then it really does send all the wrong signals to those of us deciding whether we’re serious about COIN. That said, besides getting a knife by some (just one on this board is all that’s needed), maybe he made a screw-up. You can be dammed by faint praise for a reason and this is the promotion that’s hardest to make. I would have thought he was golden, so big surprise he’s passed over. Much less than he’s been passed over a second time. One board I’d buy someone with a long knife. Twice passed over suggests to me maybe something more is hidden in his file. Still this is a huge mistake in that he gets positive results on battlefield.

  11. Barry says:

    Dale, if the 3- and 4-stars were picked by Rumsfeld (and Cheney), with politicaly reliability being paramount, then there would be quite a possibility for political influence.

    And, to the best of my knowledge, that’s exactly what the administration has done – picked generals who would go along to get along. In IRRC Rumsfeld earlier wanted to get rid of all the top generals, on the grounds that the administration had a right to 100% their choices.

    I’m puzzled as to the lack of understanding on how an administration devoted to political overrides of standard bureaucratic processes *wouldn’t* be suspected of interference here.

  12. William d'Inger says:

    The number of flag slots is strictly limited. How many other colonels are there vying for that same star? What are their qualifications? You seem to be concentrating on detail and missing the big picture.