Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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The Warrior Ethos at Risk: H.R. McMaster’s Remarkable Veterans Day Speech

by Janine Davidson
November 18, 2014

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities an Integration Center and deputy commanding general of futures for the U.S. Army Training Doctrine Command, speaks at Georgetown University's Veterans Day ceremony. (Georgetown University Office of Communications)


On November 11, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, gave the keynote address at Georgetown University’s Veterans Day ceremony. His message was simple and powerful: the study of war should not be confused with its advocacy; today’s stakes are higher than ever; the warrior ethos is threatened by both tech evangelists (who believe all conflict might be resolved at a safe distance) and a growing gap between the U.S. military and civil society. It’s a remarkably lucid speech by one of the Army’s most energetic leaders. You can read the whole text below:

Dr. Degioia, faculty, administrators, students, guests—and especially veterans.

Good afternoon. It is a great honor for me to participate in this celebration. My thanks to Georgetown University and the Student Veterans Association and the Hoya ROTC battalion. It is a particular privilege to celebrate Veterans Day at an elite university that has both educated and been shaped by our nation’s veterans. I would like to begin by thanking, on behalf of all veterans, the university leadership for making Georgetown the top-rated college for veterans.

Our military is a living historical community and those of us serving today are determined to preserve the legacy of courageous, selfless service that we have inherited from the veterans who have gone before us. We might remember that we are commemorating Veterans Day in the year marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The Great War. We celebrate on this day because on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, World War I ended. Though much has changed in the character of armed conflict since the early twentieth century, there are also clear continuities in the nature of war and especially in the character, commitment, and ethos of those who have served in our Armed Forces.  I thought that we might consider two ways of honoring our veterans for which those connected to Georgetown University are particularly qualified. First, to study war as the best means of preventing it; and second, to help the American military preserve our warrior ethos while remaining connected to those in whose name we fight.

There is a tendency in the United States to confuse the study of war and warfare with militarism. Thinking clearly about the problem of war and warfare, however, is both an unfortunate necessity and the best way to prevent it. As the English theologian, writer, and philosopher G.K. Chesterton observed, “War is not the best way of settling differences, but it is the only way of preventing them being settled for you.” As George Washington, who addressed Georgetown students in August 1797 observed, “To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace.” One of the patterns of American military history is to be unprepared for war either because of wishful thinking or a failure to consider continuities in the nature of war—especially war’s political and human dimensions.

In Europe, Jan Bloch, Norman Angell and others believed in 1914 that war had become so irrational a means of settling disputes that sensible people would never again fight one. Orville and Wilbur Wright believed that the invention of the aeroplane would bring an end to war. Even Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun when asked if his invention would increase the human cost of war, replied that the weapon will “make war impossible.”

The experience of World War I, a conflict that took the lives of over sixteen million people, highlighted the need to understand the political and historical basis for violent conflict as critical both to preserving peace and ending wars. It was no coincidence that Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service opened in February 1919 with Edmund A. Walsh, the Jesuit priest for whom it is now named, serving as regent. Its charter was to help create and sustain lasting peace among nations. As we know, however, the “war that was to end all wars” was instead the first of two world wars that marked the bloodiest century in world history.

Constantine McGuire’s vision for the Walsh School was to promote peace through commerce and diplomacy. This vision was consistent with Immanuel Kant’s idea of humanity reaching ‘moral maturity,’ as international institutions helped to prevent war.

World War II highlighted that institutions inconsistent with the cultural dispositions or historical experiences of its members are doomed to failure. After Pearl Harbor, our nation mobilized. Georgetown was the first elite university to be incorporated into the Army’s plan to establish training centers on campus. As they had during World War I, Georgetown students and faculty answered the call to service. World War II involved all of America. The U.S. Army grew from an army of 190,000 to an army of almost 8.5 million—a 44 fold increase. A total of 16 million Americans served in uniform in WWII; virtually every family had someone in harm’s way, every American had an emotional investment in our armed forces.

As the historian Rick Atkinson has observed, the wars of the twentieth century also teach us that victory in war is only possible through sacrifice. In World War II alone, the U.S. military sustained almost 300,000 battle deaths and about 100,000 deaths from other causes. The war lasted 2,174 days and claimed an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or nineteen a minute, or one death every three seconds.

After World War II, the U.S. accepted that military power was necessary not only to the establishment, but also to the preservation of peace. However, many thought that strategic bombing capability and the atomic bomb was all that was needed to deter and, if necessary, prevail in war. The U.S. Army was unprepared to respond effectively to the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, anther bloody war in that bloodiest of centuries.

Georgetown graduates continued to serve our nation in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and across the Cold War. Prominent among them is Joseph Mark Lauinger for whom the library is named and who made the supreme sacrifice and received the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action.

It was during the divisive Vietnam War that many universities confused the study of war with advocacy of it and tended to view military forces and weapons as propagators of violence rather than protectors of peace. Some saw war as the cause rather than the result of international tensions and competitions.

As the new world order associated with the end of the Cold War was thought to usher in an era of peace, the U.S. military and many Georgetown graduates were again in armed conflicts in Panama, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. I had the great privilege of serving in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Lieutenant Mike Petschek who served with great distinction and received the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action at the Battle of 73 Easting.

The American military experience of the twentieth century was consistent with President Barack Obama’s observation, “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…”

It was Aristotle who first said that it is only worth discussing what is in our power. So we might discuss how to prevent particular conflicts rather than eliminate all conflict, and when conflict is necessary, how to win. And in the pursuit of victory, how to preserve our values and make war less inhumane.

And we might discuss war to understand continuities its nature and changes in its character. It was a misinterpretation of the lopsided military victory in the 1991 Gulf war that gave rise to what would become the orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs, the belief that American military technological advantages would shift war fundamentally from the realm of uncertainty to the realm of certainty. The language was hubristic. The United States would use dominant battlespace knowledge to achieve full spectrum dominance over any opponent. The U.S. military would shock and awe opponents in the conduct of rapid decisive operations. War would be fast, cheap, and efficient. The thinking betrayed what Elting Morison warned against in 1967 when he wrote the following in Men, Machines, and Modern Times.

What I want to suggest here is the persistent human temptation to make life more explicable by making it more calculable; to put experience into some logical scheme that by its order and niceness will make what happens seem more understandable, analysis more bearable, decision simpler….

The orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs aimed to make war more explicable and calculable. This fundamentally flawed thinking about future war set us up for many of the difficulties we would encounter in the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So we should discuss war in places like this great university because we have much to learn and because the stakes are high.

The stakes are high because we are engaged today, as previous generations were engaged, against enemies that pose a great threat to all civilized peoples. As previous generations defeated Nazi facism, Japanese imperialism, and communist totalitarianism and oppression, we will defeat these enemies who cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and violence.

The murder of more than 3,000 of our fellow Americans on September 11, 2001 is etched indelibly in all of our memories. Since those attacks, our nation has been at war with modern day barbarians. It is our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have volunteered for military service in time of war who will continue to stand between us and these terrorists who rape women, abuse children and commit mass murder of innocents.

The stakes are high because what see in the Greater Middle East is a humanitarian catastrophe of colossal scale. And battlegrounds overseas are inexorably connected to our own security. As the historian Margaret MacMillan has observed, “new technologies and social media platforms provide new rallying points for fanatics.” Enemy organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIL seek to perpetuate ignorance, foment hatred, and use that hatred as justification for the murder of innocents. They entice masses of undereducated, disaffected young men with a sophisticated campaign of propaganda, disinformation, and brainwashing.

As President Obama observed “a non violent movement could not have stopped Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” America, he observed has used its military power, “Because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”  Ultimately, it will fall today, as it fell then, on the shoulders of American servicemen and women to stop mass murderers who threaten all of us, our children, and our grandchildren.

It is for this reason that American veterans are both warriors and humanitarians.

And because the stakes today are high as they were then, we must preserve our warrior ethos while remaining connected to those in whose name we fight.

The warrior ethos is a covenant between the members of our profession comprised of values such as honor, duty, courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. But our warrior ethos also depends on our military’s connection to our society. That is because when we are valued by others we value ourselves. Ultimately, as Christopher Coker has observed, it is the warrior ethos that permits servicemen and women to see themselves as part of a community that sustains itself through “sacred trust” and a covenant that binds us to one another and to the society we serve. The warrior ethos is important because it is what makes military units effective. It is also important because it is what makes war “less inhumane.”

The warrior ethos is at risk because fewer and fewer Americans are connected to our professional military. Separation from our society is consequential because warriors depend on respect for what they do to maintain their self-respect.

The warrior ethos is at risk because fewer and fewer Americans understand what is at stake in the wars in which we are engaged. How many Americans could, for example, name the three main Taliban organizations we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The warrior ethos is at risk because some argue that victory over an enemy or winning in war is an old idea that is no longer relevant in today’s complex world.

The warrior ethos is at risk because some continue to advocate simple, mainly technologically based solutions to the problem of future war, ignoring war’s very nature as a human and political activity that is fundamentally a contest of wills.

The warrior ethos is at risk because popular culture waters down and coarsens the warrior ethos. Warriors are most often portrayed as fragile traumatized human beings. Hollywood tells us little about the warrior’s calling or commitment to his or her fellow warriors or what compels him or her to act courageously, endure hardships, take risks, or make sacrifices.

So I suggest, in honor of our veterans, that we build on the work of Georgetown University and embark on a renewed effort to understand war and warriors. And we might ensure that we do not take for granted the important role that Georgetown and other universities play in keeping our military connected to those in whose name we fight.

Understanding war and warriors is necessary if societies and governments are to make sound judgments concerning military policy. It is our society’s expectations that allow our military to set expectations for ourselves and our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.  And in our democracy, if society is disconnected from an understanding of war or is unsympathetic to the warrior ethos, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the fundamental requirements of military effectiveness and to recruit young men and women into military service.

I would like to end with a quotation from George Washington’s speech to Connecticut Troops before their enlistment ran out during the Siege of Boston in 1775. It is apt in connection with the service of our men and women today as well as the relationship between them and our society in time of war.

 Your exertions in the cause of freedom, guided by wisdom and animated by zeal and courage, have gained you the love and confidence of your grateful countrymen; and they look to you, who are experienced veterans, and trust that you will still be the guardians of America. More human glory and happiness may depend upon your exertions than ever yet depended upon any sons of men. He that is a soldier in defense of such a cause, needs not title; his post is a post of honor, and although not an emperor, yet he shall wear a crown—of glory—and blessed will be his memory!

Veterans. Blessed will be your memory. Thank you.

Hoya Saxa and God Bless the United States of America.

Post a Comment 33 Comments

  • Posted by Kevin Therrien

    Thanks for posting this speech. Right on all accounts.

  • Posted by Shaun Williams

    Quite inspirational and a great reminder to those who might forget what is at stake. ’84.

  • Posted by SPDudley

    H.R. McMaster is the best current US Army general bar none, and we are lucky to have him!

  • Posted by Pete

    Brilliant, concise and true. Greatly appreciate your posting the transcript. Much to think about, much to consider.

  • Posted by Steven

    Dr Davidson, from one veteran to another on the topic of the state of warrior ethos the best way I heard it was from a soldier in my platoon who said “We’re not getting lazier(lack of discipline and morale), we’re getting smarter(realizing some of our leaders are incompetent and shouldn’t be in their leadership positions).” I served in the army and a bright new policy they’ve implemented is the 360° review of leaders because of the crisis of toxic leadership.

  • Posted by Chris

    I remember reading that in Europe a “Professional” was limited to those who studied Law, Medicine and Warfare.

    General McMaster is correct, and we should not only honor those who study war, but understand the difference between the study of war versus war advocacy.

  • Posted by Chuck Dean

    Very inspiring I only wish I could have heard it first hand.

  • Posted by W. Kepley

    General McMaster is one of our very best. I’d pull overwatch for him as he knocked on the Gates of Hell, asking for the owner to come out, so he could kick his ass. A fighter and a thinker – one. of. the. best.

  • Posted by steve foster

    General McMaster makes the intellectual argument for why we should maintain a strong link between our military men and women and civil society. He implies artfully so that the Warrior Ethos is indeed at risk! Why? Between the lines if I may be so bold the General implies our society is disconnected, self absorbed and yes uninformed in their daily walk. He pays tribute to our President rightly so because he is subordinate to civil authority. I believe however he in fact uses the President’s own words to imply he and yes we the American people can do better by our Veterans! Just my read!

  • Posted by Roy Campbell

    HR is right on all counts but one. President Washington spoke eloquently, but there is no “glory” in war. There is honor, selfless sacrifice, and courage to be sure. But war itself is a necessary but unmitigated evil; hence, there can be no glory.

  • Posted by Donald Moore

    I served as LTG McMaster’s Regimental Intelligence Officer for most of the 3d ACR’s Iraq deployment in 2005-2006. Within days I learned I would never be as smart or eloquent as then COL McMaster and the best I could do to help the Regiment accomplish our mission was to give him the information and intelligence he asked for so he could make decisions. Most of the time he already had it fiigured out before I even could get him what he needed. The year I served under his command was the most challenging and rewarding year of my Army career. I said then that I was honored to walk among giants during that tour. LTG McMaster is the greatest of those giants, the epitome of a scholar warrior. “Brave Rifles – Veterans!”

  • Posted by Joe Davis

    LTG McMaster is a role model and inspiration. I had the honor of being his driver while he was LTC with 1/4 Cav in Schweinfurt, Germany from 1999-2002. He is educated and defines the ethos he speaks of. Anyone who has met this fine leader has had the honor and privilege to feel his charisma.

  • Posted by Scot Zinggeler

    I served with LTG McMasters from 1990 to 1991. My undying respect to a great man. Always ready second to none.

  • Posted by Dee

    The most striking example of this countries failing warriors ethos is its failure to care for them upon their return from war. Unless the fat cats in D.C. and those who think cookies and milk will stop our enemies, do a 180 in their treatment of our vets. Well, no one will ever have faith cause of the broken promises and cowardly back room deals. Leaving our vets betrayed and abandoned in their own country by their own government.

  • Posted by Tim

    I agree with the man. But I think the very ideal which LTG McMaster bemoans is what divides us from society. That is to say that as a military, we generally reflect society- in both the good and the bad. We retain that which American society holds dear, we like sports, pop culture, and iPhones- among many others- yet represent a population of less than 1% who volunteer to sideline those things in their defense, on behalf of the most diverse and liberated population on the planet. Alas, as much as America would like to set us apart, we are all, at our core, invariably- Americans. When it comes down to it, during a draft we all feel very Soldierly and American, but it is easy to criticize the military while so few shoulder the burden. We must seek to improve and educate those of our population that do not understand our profession, NOT begrudge them. We do this for them.

  • Posted by C. Turnnidge

    Sadly, he will be marginalized by the civilian AND military leaders in place.

  • Posted by William Jones

    Great speech on all accounts but do not agree with the statement that warriors depend upon on respect from society for what they do to maintain their self-respect. There are numerous studies that show that warriors sacrifice, and therefore draw self-respect, for their buddies on the left and right of them, not some high lofty ideals, the least of which is acceptance by society. I would offer that in respect to a society, it is more about a society sharing the principles (not values) that the warrior is fighting for. After all, the oath of office is to support and defend the Constitution and the principles it espouses, not the society from which they come.

  • Posted by Chris Chambers

    Awesome speech! Just pointing out the numbers of casualties are way off, not the totals, but the deaths per second, minute, hour etc… At a rate of 27,600 every day the 400,ooo deaths would have been reached in the first two weeks.

    Actually, if the 400,000 number is accurate (I have no reason to believe it is not), that would still be about 184 deaths per day. I work in Casualty, and that would be unimaginable.

  • Posted by Emil Bagalso

    I, and many of my cavalry brothers, had the opportunity to serve with then-Captain H. R. McMaster when he was commanding officer of Eagle Troop, 2/2 Armored Cavalry Regiment. in Germany and in Operation Desert Storm. To have served with such an awesome, fiery, thoughtful, and intelligent leader was one of the highlights of my military service. Toujours Pret! Always Ready, Second to None!!

  • Posted by Dei Chung

    Speaking to the comment on Casualty figures (Chris Chambers), the total number of deaths in WWII was over 60 million, which would make LTG McMaster’s other numbers correct. The 400,000 figure most likely is a reference to the US figure (418,500). There may be something missing in the transcript.

    Also, regarding the “crown of glory”, commented on by Roy Campbell, and mentioned at the end of the speech: I believe the general is speaking to a heavenly reward, often referred to as a crown of glory.

    Awesome speech!

  • Posted by Theresa Hilsdon

    As one of the veterans (an alumni) in the audience listening to General McMaster on Veterans Day, I deeply appreciated his speech. Powerful, simple, and true. He is a consummate leader and thinker. Echoing the sentiments of many comments here, if required, I’d follow him into battle too. We need more leaders like him.
    Theresa Hilsdon

  • Posted by Mark Jean

    More important than any “Warrior Ethos” are both both “effective diplomacy” and “maneuver warfare.” But both have fallen out of favor. Both intend to reduce bloodshed, while accomplishing political and economic objectives. Sorry – no “crown of glory” with either.

    Does the U.S. State Department have a vision and working strategies to reduce conflict and risk? Does the U.S. Army or Air Force train to maneuver warfare?

    Also, what is being done to reduce the threat of terrorists obtaining and using nuclear weapons? Are drone strikes in anyone’s best interest? Einstein predicted the perfect storm building right now. 2001 provided a lesson in modern warfare. Yet we reminisce about the past, and ignore the growing storm.

  • Posted by Mark Jean

    With all due respect, of greater value than “Warrior Ethos” are both “effective diplomacy” and “maneuver warfare.” And yet they too have fallen out of favor. Both intend to reduce bloodshed, while accomplishing political and economic objectives.

    Does the U.S. State Department have a vision and effective strategies to reduce conflict and risk? Does the U.S. Army or Air Force train to maneuver warfare?

    With regard to enemy strategy and tactics, what is being done to reduce the threat of terrorists obtaining and using nuclear weapons? Are drone strikes in anyone’s best interest? Einstein predicted a perfect storm – and 2001 provided a lesson in modern warfare. Yet we reminisce about the past, and ignore the obvious.

  • Posted by Anthony Alfidi

    Lt. Gen. McMaster is correct to advocate the reengagement of civil society with the military. This can proceed on several fronts but must somehow engage socioeconomic elites in urban areas that lack a permanent military presence. Upper income Americans remain disconnected from the military because they do not personally know people who serve.

  • Posted by Bill

    I too had the pleasure of serving with LTG McMaster and as others have noted it was a highlight of my career. I can attest that he has a warriors heart and truly loves his troopers.
    Prepared and Loyal

  • Posted by MG Jackson

    His several quotations from Barack Obama puzzled me. Aren’t there any better presidents who truly respect or respected the members of the military and what they have done and are doing today for the freedom of our country? Or has it just gotten so that Generals are required to quote that no-nothing in the White House?

  • Posted by Jorge

    Proud to shortly serve with LTG McMasters when he was in the 11th ACR!

  • Posted by David Ryan

    Like many, I agree that society is disengaged. However, part of this lies at the feet of the veterans who distance themselves from others, either intentionally or because we do not know how to properly say what needs to be said. Bridging this gap is an important step to shaping more effective military policy.

    This communication is not always difficult because of the “expected” or “stereotypical” reasons. I believe it is often difficult merely because the subject is so complex, or because some of us have not yet figured out how to say it. The mission to synthesize my reactions to the Iraq War into something manageable and understandable and to share that with others is what caused me to write a book about it (Vision of Glory, in the website above). I hope to help to further this conversation to slowly build a better military policy that allows us to retain a strong warrior ethos and not lose the high stakes contest.


  • Posted by Albert

    Inspiring speech, we should proud of veterans who risk their lives for us.

  • Posted by Les Evjen

    I had the honor to command Eagle Troop, 2/2 Armored Cavalry in 1967 to 1968 along the East German, West German, Czechoslovakia border. In 1990 I took my wife and three sons to see where I served in Bamberg and Coberg. Then Captain H.R. McMaster was commander of Eagle Troop. The “wall” had just come down and we were allowed to visit Coberg. Cpt. McMaster and his LTs were very friendly and accommodating to our family. Our three sons, two of which went on to be Army Rangers, were allowed to crawl around the the Abrams and Bradleys much to their great enjoyment. We have a short video of McMaster and our family in front of Coberg HQ building. I have followed his career since the 1st Gulf War with great pride, admiration and awe. Our nation was blessed when he decided to remain a career leader of warriors. Our family was blessed to have stood in his presence at the beginning of his remarkable life of service.

  • Posted by Michael R Puig

    Powerful words from one of the most respected leaders in today’s Army and a great American. I had the privilege of serving with then COL McMaster in 2005-2006 during the 3rd ACR’s deployment to Tal Afar in OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM. Truly his leadership promoted a campaign of success and mission accomplishment by all. I look back on that deployment as one of my most memorable, proudest and satisfying of my 27 year career. Aieeyah! Brave Rifles!

  • Posted by JR

    H.R. McMaster is a Soldiers Soldier. If we have leaders like him leading us into the next 10-15 years, we will be a lucky nation. I briefed, at the time, Col McMaster on our Artillery Operations in Iraq in a small town in the “Triangle of Death” called Yusafiyah back in ’05 when he was brigade commander of 3ACR. They were supposed to take over our sector and we were to head to Tal Afar. However, 3 ACR ended up making that trip and we went elsewhere. He was all business asking pertinent questions and was grateful for the very nervous briefing I’m sure I gave. He was and is a down to earth and inspirational leader, and you knew he had every soldiers back.

  • Posted by Emily Fender

    Lt. General H.R. McMaster is indeed a great thinker of the future warfare.. I only hope there are more like him to strategically and inteliigently guard our country, our soldiers in the future.

    Emily Fender

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