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.