The Insurgent in the White House – By James Kitfield February 21, 2017

In picking H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser, POTUS hired a maverick military intellectual who won’t put up with any nonsense.


When John Nagl ran into his old friend Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster at a conference recently, he needled the three-star general about his ill-fitting civilian suit. The two men have a long history. Both West Pointers, they served as armor officers in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and went on to write well-received books about the nature of war. After 9/11, they both fought in Iraq and became early proponents of the population-centric counterinsurgency tactics that finally turned the tide in that conflict, earning the sobriquet from friend and foe alike of “COINistas.”

So it was with good-natured ribbing that Nagl “complimented” McMaster—a bull of a man who is built like the tanks he once commanded—about the cut of his suit. Well, McMaster replied, I paid a tailor in Afghanistan $80 to make it.

“H.R., you were robbed,” Nagl told him with a smile.

Whether or not he retires from the military, McMaster figures to get a lot of wear out of that ill-fitting civilian suit in the months ahead. In one of the most unusual predicaments in a storied career, on Monday McMaster found himself sitting next to Donald Trump in the sumptuous Mar-a-Lago resort, accepting the president’s surprise offer to become national security adviser.

The pairing of the infamous real estate developer and reality TV star and the Army’s preeminent warrior-intellectual makes for an odd couple, even given the president’s proclivity for surrounding himself with generals. Trump is ahistorical and reportedly uninterested in books, while McMaster is not only a student of history but a historian himself, comfortable quoting Aristotle, George Washington, Immanuel Kant and G.K. Chesterton in a single recent speech. Trump is proudly unpredictable and impulsive, while McMaster is famously disciplined, having turned his doctoral dissertation into the well-received book on Vietnam Dereliction of Duty, all while teaching military history at West Point. Trump puts a premium on loyalty in his subordinates, yet he has hired as his national security alter ego someone who has made a career out of independent thought and speaking truth to power.

That independence has fostered fierce loyalty among McMaster’s many admirers within the broader military intelligentsia, who see the blunt-speaking former tank commander as a welcome addition to a White House they’ve otherwise viewed with concern, even alarm.

“McMaster is one of the best and boldest combat leaders of his generation of officers, and an intellectual who has trained as a historian and thinks like a strategist, always looking three moves ahead,” said Nagl, author of Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice. “He will pick and train a team on the National Security Council that is non-ideological and will run through brick walls for him. He is also someone of unquestioned integrity who will bring a clear moral compass to the role of national security adviser. So I think it speaks well of this White House and president that they chose someone like McMaster.”

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