McMaster, H.R. Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World

“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” So goes the macabre yet catchy rhyme with which British children are taught the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives. Without making too much of the parallel in too much detail, President Trump similarly had six National Security Advisors in total. A less catchy rhyme would be “prosecuted, interim, fired; fired, interim, survived.” Of the six, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is the second to release a memoir of his White House years. But unlike John Bolton’s cagey, agitated tell-all, McMaster makes a refreshing break with the tradition of Trump White House leaks and tell-alls. Battlegrounds does not seek to attack, reveal or embarrass. Rather, H.R. McMaster has used his White House experience to produce a cogent, easy-to-read and sincere assessment of America’s most pressing global challenges.

The General takes the reader with him around the world’s geopolitical hotspots, from Russia, to China, to South Asia and the Middle East, offering historical and personal insight into the challenges of each and what they mean for the United States. His experiences as used as springboards to assess America’s most pressing global challenges, exploring the state of world politics in deep— but not excessive— personal and historical detail, giving intimate portraits of the people and places most often in the news. His insight into the Middle East is especially penetrating in that it is personal. In examining Iraq, for example, McMaster begins with his own experience at the head of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, takes the reader back to the 1921 coup against the Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy before returning to the present, where he brings us into Iraq’s current political reality by revealing details of his conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a D.C. hotel suite. The style and narrative is engaging and convincing, and successfully avoids both the impersonal tendency of a diplomatic history and the over-invested narrative of a true memoir.

Unlike conventional history books or memoirs, the food for thought is not swathed in detail to the point where it is cryptic. It is served on a platter, a buffer for the incumbent or aspiring policy wonk.

But unlike conventional history books or memoirs, the food for thought is not swathed in detail to the point where it is cryptic. It is served on a platter, a buffer for the incumbent or aspiring policy wonk. McMaster is clear in his condemnation of “strategic hubris,” which McMaster defines in the classical sense of “vain attempts to transcend human limits” and “ignor[ing] warnings that predict a disastrous fate.” This kind of thinking— presumptuous, over-optimistic and short-sighted— is what McMaster blames for failures such as the aftermath of the Iraq War or North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. But far from offering a polemic, McMaster is equally clear in his call for “strategic empathy,” which he borrows from he historical Zachary Shore.

The idea of strategic empathy is to “understand what drives and constrains ones adversary,” but also demands, in the words of defense expert Nadia Schadlow, to “understanding both one’s competitors and oneself.” It is an appeal to policymakers to try and understand the historical dynamics that inform perceptions and policy processes, as opposed to trying to transcend and reengineer them. The book fittingly ends with a call for the “reinvigoration of history in higher-level education.” McMaster’s reasoning is worth quoting in full:

“Many courses in diplomatic and military history have been displaced by theory-based international relations courses, which tend to mask the complex causality of events and obscure the cultural, psychological, social, and economic elements that distinguish cases from one another. Some theories risk sapping students of strategic empathy and encouraging them to reduce complex problem sets into frameworks that create only the illusion of understanding.”

This call for a more historical way of thinking about international affairs encapsulates the crux of McMaster’s conclusion: that making an effort to consider the deep drivers of the past is the important first step to a better foreign policy. History is the ultimate source of “strategic empathy.” It can and should be a source of knowledge, restraint, and inspiration, it is as a result the best palliative to the curse of short-sightedness and over-optimism termed “strategic hubris.” This is the argument that McMaster makes in Battlegrounds, bringing to bear the sum of his experiences: in the abstract as a military historian and professor; in the field, as a combat leader; and in our time as third of President Trump’s four National Security Advisors. An important, sincere and well-written book.

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