Battlegrounds

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World by H.R. McMaster (Harper, Sept. 2020, 560 pages)

When discussing national security and his recently published book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, General H. R. McMaster’s passion for service, particularly during his time as the twenty-sixth National Security Advisor is evident. General McMaster is a scholar, soldier, and strategist.

He is well known for his first book, Dereliction of DutyJohnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. In it, he criticizes America’s failed strategy and leadership regarding the Vietnam War. His thorough knowledge of events like the Vietnam War and his appreciation of historical context shaped his tenure as the National Security Advisor. 

In Battlegrounds, he explores the country’s most recent challenges and discusses his leadership, management, and decision-making style. He sets expectations up front for the reader. This is no Trump “tell-all” book, but rather a reflective piece focused on his role in shaping national security policy, while refraining from partisanship. It is refreshing to walk alongside General McMaster as he describes his whirlwind selection—from being plucked as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center to being placed as the NSA in February of 2017. From there, he paints a picture of post-Cold War hubris that includes successes during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and other military engagements during the 90s. He quotes from the 2000 national security strategy documents to describe the United States strategic narcissism tendencies. “As we enter the new millennium, we are blessed to be citizens of a country enjoying record prosperity, with no deep divisions at home, no overriding external threats abroad, and history’s most powerful military.” Later, he describes strategic narcissism with roots in the American revolution, but here as it applies to our approach to China—a narcissism based on wishful thinking, rather than being steeped in reality. 

Soon after entering the West Wing, he explained to the national security staff that the approach to foreign policy and national security would evolve from strategic narcissism (referenced over fifty times—clearly, he was concerned with the US approach to world affairs) to strategic empathy. The latter refers to better understanding adversaries. It would move from hubris to evaluating all perspectives and from a US-government centric view to providing integrated strategies that account for allies and competitors.  

As mentioned above, McMaster wrote on the failure of leadership prior to and during the Vietnam War; and occupying the same office space as those leaders, must have been a surreal experience. He came prepared, however, with a deliberate decision-making process for presidential decisions:

  • Deliver options to protect American people,
  • Understand and frame the problem,
  • Insist on multiple options,
  • Assume non-linear progress.  

He used this process to address the return to great power competition, increased transnational threats, Iran and North Korea, and emerging capabilities, like space and cyber.

This captivating book steps the reader through the dynamic and intricate challenges associated with modern-day hot spots and emerging domains such as cyber, space, and other new technologies.  

McMaster does not shy away from highlighting where he disagreed with the president, like recommending the US remain in the Paris Agreement. He does so, however, with clarity and empathy. And, he tends to view things with a glass half full approach—withdrawing from the Paris Agreement may open other opportunities to address climate change. 

In one of the most engaging moments of the book, coming near its end, the author intimately describes a moment he had with his future son-in-law as he was transitioning to become President Trump’s national security advisor. Asked “why I was spending more time packing books than clothes,” General McMaster’s response defined his approach to national security challenges over the next fifteen months. He explained that contemporary challenges must be viewed and decisions framed with historical context by understanding previous presidential administrations and national security council staffs. 

In conclusion, McMaster vividly describes the actions that he, his team, and the administration took to protect United States interests during his tenure as national security advisor. For those interested in understanding the national security process and the complexity involved in the United States’ responsibility as a global leader, Battlegrounds is a must have book. H.R. McMaster closes the book with a call for education reform and a return to emphasizing lifelong learning, which he views as critical to our security and prosperity. Battlegrounds will prove a valuable reference well into the future, to grasp strategic empathy, foreign policy, and national security that the general mastered over his thirty-five plus years of service to our nation.  


Book review contributed by Lt. Col. Christopher P. Mulder, USAF
Mulder is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, an Air Force pilot, and engaged on national security and leadership matters. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization. Additional information about Christopher Mulder can be found at: Christopher P. Mulder – Atlantic Council

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