H.R. McMaster: Featured this week in the New Yorker

Historians in the News
tags: HR McMaster

A few weeks ago Col. H.R. McMaster, who holds a Ph.D. in history and is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Dereliction of Duty, was featured in a 60 Minutes story about his work in freeing Tal Afar of terrorists. This week he was featured in a New Yorker (issue: April 10, 2006) story by George Packer,"The Lesson of Tal Afar."

In the article, which is not online, Packer suggests that McMaster discovered during two hard gruelling years of war in Iraq what the Pentagon has yet to figure out: how to win the war. McMaster admits that the first two years the Americans"didn't understand the complexity--what it meant for a society to live under a brutal dictatorship, with ethnic and sectarian divisions. When we first got here we made a lot of mistakes. We were like a blind man, trying to do the right thing but breaking a lot of things." The chief error Americans made was not listening."You have to really listen to people."

Other officiers told Packer that those first two years American higher ups were unwilling to admit that they were fighting a growing insurgency. The strategy chiefly adopted was to kill and capture them, which was no strategy at all. It was Vietnam all over again. As McMaster had written in his history book, attrition isn't a strategy.

Ultimately, McMaster decided to focus on learning the local culture so his soldiers could go door to door and know what they were facing: a family sitting down to a quiet meal or a house full of insurgents. He ordered them to take language classes and to read a history of Iraq (Phebe Marr's The Modern History of Iraq), along with selections from other authors including T.E. Lawrence.

When finally he took his soldiers into Tal Afar, which had been overrun by insurgents and terrorists, they succeeded in winning the trust of both Sunnis and Shia. The Iraqi army units attached to the Americans improved by adopting their approach. Instead of focusing on weapons they would focus on building relations with the local tribal chiefs.

Is it too late Packer asks for the Pentagon to shift course? Maybe. But pulling out of Iraq would guarantee disaster.

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