America the Coercive: On H. R. McMaster’s “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World”

December 20, 2020   •   By Gregory A. Daddis


H. R. McMaster

IN THE SPRING of 2006, H. R. McMaster visited West Point, where he had once taught in the history department. The US Army colonel had recently gained national prominence for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s counterinsurgency campaign in Tal Afar, a hotly contested area in northwest Iraq. President George W. Bush was publicly praising the campaign that “worked so well in Tal Afar” because it gave him “confidence in our strategy.” McMaster returned home a triumphant warrior from a conflict producing far too few heroes for Americans’ liking.

At West Point, the cavalryman took the Robinson Auditorium stage to warm applause from cadets and faculty alike. But before speaking passionately about courageous Iraqi allies and his own troopers, some of whom had sacrificed all in combat, McMaster began with a film clip showcasing the might of his regiment. With the lights dimmed and music blaring, cadets whooped and hollered as they watched Abrams battle tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Apache attack helicopters unload their munitions in a spectacle of firepower. Here was war porn for an eager viewing audience.

It was a jarring moment for me — then a lieutenant colonel and rotating West Point faculty member — because the message seemed so discordant. After the film, McMaster spent most of his lecture talking about the value of history, of working closely with local allies, and of the importance of counterinsurgency’s nonmilitary programs. Yet his firepower-extravaganza opening belied something more brutal.

And judging from his latest book, Battlegrounds, the last 14 years have not much changed McMaster’s fundamental confidence in violence. While he may not be fond of war, he believes in it profoundly. And if not war necessarily, then certainly in the United States’s ability to coerce others into adhering to American interests with force or the threat of it.

Without question, Battlegrounds emanates from noble sentiments. The former national security advisor is concerned for our nation’s future and takes readers on a global tour evaluating the threats from Russian disinformation campaigns to Chinese authoritarianism and Iranian efforts to become a nuclear power. The world is a dangerous place, yet in McMaster’s view, self-satisfied American policymakers have placed the nation at risk because they somehow “forgot that they had to compete.”

In Battlegrounds, the potency of current threats facing America are real and the solution clear-cut: we need to shed our “strategic narcissism” — the preoccupation with defining the world only in relation to US interests — and confidently project American power abroad.

Surely, calls for improving American “strategic competence” are well founded. There is little evidence US policymakers are all that competent when it comes to grand strategy. The general’s contention that the United States has fought a one-year war in Afghanistan 20 times over, for instance, is hard to dispute.

From McMaster’s perspective, however, the United States is daily on the verge of catastrophic defeat from a rogue’s gallery of supervillains: near-peer competitors, transnational terrorists, cyber-enabled information warriors, and ideologues with dirty bombs. He demands that we conform to his Hobbesian view of the world. And herein lies the problem.

While the former three-star general calls for a clearer understanding of America’s adversaries — what he terms “strategic empathy” — the book offers little more than fear-based arguments for the increased militarization of American foreign policy, if not society as a whole. Indeed, fear undergirds McMaster’s definition of “security.” The entire treatise is an advertisement for coercive diplomacy, yet offers little exploration of the potential consequences of constant coercion of others, and of the increased risk of war that follows.

If intimidation and power projection are the central strategy, how difficult is it to imagine the world seeing the United States as a permanent aggressor? Is it actually much of a stretch to see how, through a non-American lens, it is the West that threatens global stability, not regional actors like Syria or North Korea? Is it not far-fetched to think that others might not see the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 not simply a “frustrating experience,” as McMaster does, but as an illegal and immoral one. McMaster acknowledges none of these as potentially valid positions.

In McMaster’s telling, Russia has returned to its expansionist Soviet roots, with Putin seeking to subvert international political systems by exploiting America’s absence from the “arena” (if that phrase rings a bell, it should be no surprise that the figure of Teddy Roosevelt casts a long shadow in Battlegrounds). Unable to compete as a global power, Putin’s Russia instead has sought to “disrupt, divide, and weaken societies” outside its borders. McMaster is convinced Putin sought to influence the 2016 presidential election, though he only weakly condemns the Trump campaign for encouraging such efforts and, in fact, censures the Obama administration for not responding more forcefully to the Clinton email hacking scandal. On this, the retired general tells us repeatedly he is not participating in partisan political games, yet he continually shows his cards.

Indeed, McMaster casts special aspersions on the Obama administration for withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and for signing the nuclear treaty with Iran in 2015. But there are scant details on how Iraqi leaders signed a Status of Forces Agreement with President Bush in 2008, agreeing to the complete withdrawal of US combat forces by December 2011, or how the Iran treaty brought together key actors on a topic of global significance.

The critiques of the Obama administration continue. Obama and his predecessors failed to act forcefully enough to obstruct Chinese support of North Korea, derail Chinese aggressions in the South China Sea, or halt unfair trade practices. McMaster argues that the Chinese Communist Party’s integrated strategy of “co-option, coercion, and concealment” has propelled its aims of extending authoritarian control beyond China’s borders. The only way to deter such aggressive behavior is for the United States to undergo a “fundamental shift” from “strategic engagement with China to competitive engagement” and to force Beijing to “relinquish a degree of control and return to the path of reform and openness.”

These arguments may appeal to those who see the world in black and white: the world is a dangerous place, and it is foolish to ignore threats. But this message — follow the rules laid out by the United States or suffer the consequences — is directly at odds with McMaster’s own call for strategic empathy.

Battlegrounds returns to a crusading version of American exceptionalism in which the United States is a force (literally) for good in the world. McMaster believes the United States is the indispensable nation and the world’s rightful leader. Hadn’t Alden Pyle in The Quiet American thought similarly?

This mission civilisatrice is central to McMaster’s claims that an American presence will help change the “avarice, historical animosity, [and] deep distrust” that mark politics in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. Echoing British imperialist officers from the late 19th century, the general believes that Afghanistan has become a “modern-day frontier between civilization and barbarism.” Taliban terrorists and others like them, it seems, only respond to brute force.

At its heart then, Battlegrounds is a clarion call against conciliation, isolationism, and policies of “resignation.” Though one must wonder what all those personnel on US military bases in more than 80 countries have been doing for the past few decades.

McMaster then shields himself from critique with a rhetorical move to cast any naysayers as part of the “New Left” and dismiss them as naïve, weak, or both. Hoping that adversaries will change voluntarily is the mark of strategic narcissists. Critics thus can be sidelined as amateurs and dilettantes who are “ideologically predisposed toward disengagement” and undermine those clear-eyed realists who appreciate the gravity of global threats.

Yet McMaster offers no real proof that America’s “endless wars” — he derisively places the term in quotation marks throughout — are really making the country any safer or more prosperous. The author lauds the “trade war” with China as marking a “return of the United States to the arena of economic competition” without acknowledging the catastrophic damage done to American farmers. He assumes that American national security is still threatened by the Afghanistan “ecosystem” without substantiation. And when the threats are this grave, the commitment must be generational, even endless. The general might be correct in advocating for more long-term strategies, but he fails to convince how a strategy predicated on power projection, competition, force, and coercion will make Americans any safer.

His solutions are mostly to encourage the fuller contribution of American society to the “competition” with our adversaries. Tech companies must participate in disrupting adversaries’ cyber-attacks. The private sector must help preserve America’s competitive advantages and support US sanctions. The media must celebrate the “combat prowess and battlefield achievements” of America’s armed forces. Everyone has a (militarized) role to play.

But the country is a divided one, and McMaster relies on partisan tropes and talking points even as he insists he is staying out of “toxic” partisan politics. One need look little further than his full-throated condemnation of the “New Left interpretation of history” and the tell that it is “identity politics” which divide the nation. He closes with a call for civics education to “reverse the shift toward micro-identities and the focus on victimhood.” Are these the words of a man honestly seeking to avoid partisan aspersions?

In promoting his book, McMaster has claimed that he has purposefully avoided tales of “palace intrigue,” but this maneuver is a convenient way out of criticizing a president whose foreign policy, by almost any measure, has damaged American credibility abroad. One wonders if the silence is purposeful. Battlegrounds reads like the extended résumé of an official biding his time for the next Republican administration to tap him for a cabinet position, where he hopes a more level-headed commander-in-chief will be persuaded by arguments for the perpetual militarization of American foreign policy and society.


Gregory A. Daddis is professor of History and the USS Midway Chair in Modern US Military History at San Diego State University.