The Two Historians Who Are Playing a Key Role in "The Surge"


Mr. Elrick is an HNN intern.

It has been nearly four months since the Bush administration announced its latest strategy for the war in Iraq. The centerpiece of the "new way forward" is a strengthened US ground presence. Two historians, Frederick Kagan and H.R. McMaster, have emerged as important supporters of the troop surge. Kagan wrote the blueprint for  “the surge”  and McMaster is serving as a top military advisor in Iraq.  Both men are central figures in the success of the White House's renewed war effort.

Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and  a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard magazine, has been an outspoken supporter of a troop increase in Iraq and is one of the architects of the Bush administration's current plan. According to Jason Leopold at the liberal anti-war website,, the Bush plan "was culled from the white paper, 'Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,' written by Kagan" in December of 2006. Conservatives disagree with Truthout on many issues, but not this. Everybody recognizes Kagan's key role in devising the Bush administration's new war strategy. Few others have kept up as steady a drumbeat in defense of the plan as he has. Almost every week he pens a new op ed. The latest was published in the New York Times on Sunday.

Kagan holds a PhD from Yale with an emphasis in Russian and Soviet military history and often draws historical comparisons while discussing the current situation in Iraq. "Americans have gotten into the bad habit of believing that the outcome of every war is predictable," he wrote in the Weekly Standard. "The truth is that the outcome of most wars remains in doubt until they are very nearly over. Until late 1864, it looked as though the Union might well lose the Civil War. Within a year Lincoln had triumphed. The conflict in Iraq is central to our foreign policy, indeed to our wellbeing. Surely we must keep fighting to win as long as victory is possible."

Like Kagan, H.R. McMaster holds a PhD in military history, earning his from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Col. McMaster was commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq from 2005-2006 and is currently an advisor to the head of US forces, General David Petraeus. McMaster belongs to a group of "warrior intellectuals" who, according to Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, "make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq."

McMaster authored the highly acclaimed book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, which charges that President Johnson misled the country into war and pressured the nation's military leaders to lie about. The book is highly influential among current military officers and is required reading at West Point.

Both Kagan and McMaster have taught history at West Point. The former was a Professor at the US Military Academy from 1995 to 2005, while the latter taught there from 1994 to 1996.

In his book, McMaster is highly critical of how the Johnson administration sold the Vietnam War. But the Colonel doesn't see a parallel between the deceptions that led to Vietnam and the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War:  "President George W. Bush's approach to the current Iraqi problem stands in stark contrast to LBJ's approach to Vietnam. The Bush administration made its case for military action, and, after considerable debate, the American people, through their representatives in Congress, gave approval.

Unlike Kagan, McMaster has served in the army during the Iraq War, where he has won plaudits from many for his leadership there. "McMaster's command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq in 2005-06," MSNBC has reported, "provided one of the few bright spots for the U.S. military in Iraq over that year. In a patiently executed campaign, he took back the city of Tall Afar from a terrorist group, and he was so successful that Bush dedicated much of a speech to the operation." Last fall he served on a secret panel assembled by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to reinvent American strategy in the war. The panel recommended that the US, as MSNBC reported, "should 'go long' in Iraq by shifting from a combat stance to a long-term training-and-advisory effort." President Bush was briefed about the plan last December. Ultimately the president chose a different plan: the one advocated by Frederick Kagan. But McMaster has ended up as an implementer of the Kagan plan in his role as a critical advisor to Gen. David Petraeus.

It is ironic that two historians are playing such a key role in the war given the opposition of most historians to both the Bush administration and the neo-con rationale advanced in favor of the attack on Iraq. In March the American Historical Association officially went on record in opposition to the war in Iraq, urging its members "to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion."

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Good point, Liza. Kagan, like his more notorious brother, is a sharp wit, and quite unlike the sub-average IQ bloc that put a C- average history student and A+ Hypocrite in the White House. But I have to wonder whether his studies of Russian history omitted the Grand Armee.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The point was the IQ of the voters, not the candidates.

It was, for instance, also "reliably reported" that the "surge" in swing-state popular votes for W in 2004, one of the greatest all-time examples of good old American Stupidity, came from apathetic and relatively ignorant normally-non-voters provoked by fake Christian hokum, homophobia, and other clever but asinine propaganda tricks.

I certainly know a number of people who, for understandable reasons, voted for W in 2000, but for even more understandable reasons voted against him in 2004.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Mr. Hughes' first point is well taken (Democrats' desire for a "quick surrender in Iraq to disgrace the Bush administration"), but it is only half the sordid story of a spineless and incompetent Congress failing, so far, to effectively call an even more incompetent administration to account.

What is the "desire" of Republicans in Washington? Contrary to Hughes' inference, Republicans are not synonymous with "the United States." What the Republicans in Congress appear to desire is an indefinite denial or at least postponement of the acknowledgment of the disastrous defeat America has ALREADY suffered in Iraq (on THEIR watch, albeit while Democrats were busy sleepwalking), until after the begin of the next Democratic presidency, in order to try to foist all the blame there.

As soon as the Dems are fully charge (in 2009 or whenever) suddenly then America's military will be weak, suddenly America will have little international credibility or influence, suddenly the economy will be unsustainably reliant on massive government subsidies and deficits, suddenly Al Qaeda will have morphed into something nastier than before 9-11, etc. etc., and NOTHING that happened under the butterfingered and rudely arrogant misrule of Cheney, Rumsfeld Wolfowitz, et. al. and their fellow chickenhawk Fratboy, between 2001 and 2006, will have ANYTHING at all to do with it.

And HNN or something comparable will be around to help both sides distort history and obscure the truth.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I don't see anything particularly "ironic" about a neo-con historian advising a neo-con president. But, the more important questions, it seems to me, are: why is advice being solicited, and what is it being used for?

If one believes that the U.S. military's costly, bungled, and generally hopeless attempt at hasty and half-hearted nation-building in Iraq is actually "a war", then it might be supposed that military historians are being consulted for assistance in formulating military strategy.

The history of the past 4+ years of U.S. involvement in Iraq -basically one long rudderless drift from blunder to failure to disaster- makes it difficult, however, to position the word "strategy" anywhere near this serially-botched fiasco. The more obvious (and effective) use of (a few) historians by the Cheney-Bush administration has been to distort the past in order to deceive. Bush as Churchill sounding warnings on Adolf Bin Laden before he attacked us. Bush as MacArthur remaking Baghdad ala post'45 Japan. Bush as Lincoln fighting to save the Union. This whitewashing BS was over HNN too, as soon as the news turned sour in 2003. Kagan and McMaster are more insightful than their predecessors when it comes to making silk purses out of sows ears. But, even if you classify the current mess in Mesopotamia as a war (and if you do, pray consider who is the "enemy" of our military there: the Shias, the Sunnis, or the menu mix of the week?), there comes a point where cumulative bungles are now longer overcome-able, with a new "plan" or even a new set of "planners." Real historians doing real history would not dodge that issue.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

instead of "now longer" above

Lisa Kazmier - 5/15/2007

You think that proves intelligence? Hardly to me. By my test scores, I should be a mathematician. All it really proves is preparedness based on where you went to school. I was exposed to far more math than verbal dexterity and my scored reflected it. The guy above me in class rank outpointed me in math (he had even more drilling there) but did much poorer in the verbal section. Overall, the numbers are partially useful but hardly the standard bearer for smarts.

So sorry, but if you think SAT proves that George W Bush isn't a santimonious clod, you would be mistaken.

Stephen Kislock - 5/8/2007

In G.'s case S=Spineless
A= At Home
T= Tipsy

Stephen Kislock - 5/8/2007

have been kill for this c-i-c and if you don't know the US has already Won.

"Mission Accomplished", on the carrier Lincoln, remember.

What happen to the WMD, Rumsfeld gave, sold to Saddam?

As Globbles said, TELL A BIG LIE, over and over and the Sheep, will believe it!

mark safranski - 5/7/2007

Colonel McMaster is, as Mr. Elrick noted, unlike Kagan, an active duty military officer. Having already had combat command experience in Iraq, his moving to a senior staff advisory position would be a normal career step prior to McMaster being considered for promotion to brigadier general.

That McMaster is also a serious military historian is certainly a bonus, but not a prerequisite, for his current position.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/7/2007

I believe it has been reliably reported that Dubya's SAT scores were comfortably better than those of John F. Kerry, and very slightly lower than those of Albert Gore, Jr.

Gary W. Daily - 5/7/2007

Writing on the need to give the “surge” a chance to work hoped for wonders in Iraq, Frederick Kagan (“Plan B? Let’s Give Plan A Some Time First”) confusingly states how Plan A operates: “Yes, many things might happen to derail the current plan. But each eventuality would require a different response.” Doesn’t this turn Plan A into an ever shifting alphabet of responses, or, some might say, an exercise in winging it? “Benchmarks” are clearly off the table as long as Kagan’s Plan A in its endless permutations are being given “Some [unspecified] Time.”

Lisa Kazmier - 5/7/2007

I agree with you Peter. All of these things will seem to have been accomplished overnight by that new president/Congress as if Bush left them in such great shape. But I wonder if the Dems also think that they need a floundering Bush-in-Iraq in order to win in '08, that they're not cagily "spineless" in creating real accountability because they want to run another election on ending the stupid morass created by Bush.

This runs a great risk of course, and not merely the risk of Bush lovers claiming later that his successor "lost" Iraq, as if it were going so well right now. I wonder if both sides don't see advantage in running out the clock -- except that is, the American people and esp. those with loved one dying for nothing over there.

BTW in what sense is Kagan a historian? He may have some credentials, but he sure strikes me as political opportunist more than scholar, particularly of that region. Maybe if someone in the WH knew the difference between Shia and Sunni we wouldn't have created that clusterf--- over there.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/7/2007

Democrats (like the entire membership of the American Historical Association) need a quick surrender in Iraq to disgrace the Bush administration and assure a continued Democratic majority in Congress in 2008, as well as to capture the White House. If they do not get a quick surrender, say by cutting off funds, it will become more and more apparent that the central government in Baghdad will survive, prosper, and give us the conditions we desired when launching the war in the first place, i.e., victory. The Dinar is strong, which suggests world markets are betting the Iraqi government will survive and prosper. There is bound to be creeping terror at this prospect in the higher reaches of the Democratic Party these days, where they ponder the profound disaster which will visit them if Bush and the Unites States of America should prevail in its foreign war. Gen. David Petraeus could easily be the next president, or the one after the next. Victories after long wars are always greeted with great enthusiasm in American history. How foolish the Democrats were to bet against the United States!