Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster on the future of ground warfare: First, we need to unlearn some bad lessons from the last decade

By April Labaro Best Defense guest columnist (March 20, 2013) What’s new in warfare? Not much, according to Major General H.R. McMaster, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. Rather, McMaster said in a talk the other day (March 20) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, we’ve actually had to ...

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks

By April Labaro

Best Defense guest columnist

(March 20, 2013)

By April Labaro

Best Defense guest columnist

(March 20, 2013)

What’s new in warfare? Not much, according to Major General H.R. McMaster, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.

Rather, McMaster said in a talk the other day (March 20) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, we’ve actually had to re-learn some basic concepts. The most important one being that despite technological advances, there are continuities in modern warfare that shouldn’t be overlooked. This is where he got all Clausewitzian on us, arguing that the continuities are that war is an extension of politics, has a human dimension, is always uncertain and, ultimately, is a contest of wills. Ensuring that these lessons don’t have to be re-learned in the future may be more important than the outcomes of the wars themselves, he said.

There are also a few lessons that we shouldn’t have learned, the first "wrong lesson" being that the raiding approach leads to a fast, easy and cheap win. It didn’t work in Iraq or Afghanistan and is not likely to work in the future, he asserted.

The second bad lesson is that wars can be outsourced to proxy forces. What can be accomplished via proxy forces is often exaggerated, he warned, in part because collaboration does not necessarily mean congruent interests.

And what projections can be made about the future of ground maneuver warfare? There’s a lot of uncertainty, but McMaster said he doesn’t buy the arguments made lately by schools of thought that believe that the future will be more secure and our ground forces will not face many strategic surprises. Institutionalizing the lessons learned (and unlearning the "wrong" ones) is a critical first step towards making more accurate projections and improving the effectiveness of our ground forces, especially in the face of fiscal austerity and the growing range of unconventional threats.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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