Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Army General Talks About Training Future Leaders

Army General Talks About Training Future Leaders
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan push on, we'll hear from Army General H.R. McMaster about the moral and psychological preparations for combat.

ALAN RAY (Host): You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. It is said that battle plans go out the window when the shooting starts. What happens with combat ethics when the battle plan goes out the window? America is fighting two wars in places with very different cultures under very different conditions. Iraq has been a terrifying urban war at many times. Afghanistan is a land of mostly tribal villages, few urban centers. It's a war on a frontier. The enemies may be different from each other in many ways, but neither has shown much interest in ethics as we commonly understand that term. Ethics, though, is important to the American military. We’re joined on These Days by U.S. Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster. He’s Director of Concept Development and Learning at the U.S. Army Capabilities Center (sic), Training and Doctrine Command. Tonight, he will give a speech at the University of San Diego's annual Stockdale Symposium. That speech is titled, “Moral, Ethical and Legal Preparations of Leaders and Units for Combat.” You’re welcome to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. General McMaster, good morning and…

BRIGADIER GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER (U.S. Army, Director of Concept Development and Learning, Army Capabilities Integration Center): Good morning. It’s great to be here.

RAY: …and welcome, sir.


MCMASTER: Thank you.

RAY: Now your speech this evening deals with teaching future officers about moral, ethical and psychological preparations for combat. What does that mean?

MCMASTER: Well, it’s important that our soldiers understand that, you know, their expectations are that they maintain sort of the what we call the warrior ethos, the professional military ethic even when they’re confronting these brutal and murderous enemies who victimize innocence, who operate in and amongst the population. You know, there’s some people who might say, well, because you’re fighting this brutal enemy, that you can apply firepower with less discrimination because the ends justify the means and they’re, you know, they’re hiding among the population, victimizing them, so you have to, you know, you have to relax your standards but, really, nothing could be further from the truth. So we have to equip our soldiers, our leaders, our units, to operate in this very difficult environment, an environment of persistent danger, an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty and complexity. And so the moral, ethical and really psychological preparation of units for these sorts of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan is immensely important.

RAY: How much does the problem of PTSD complicate the issue of ethics in battle?

MCMASTER: Well, PTSD but really combat stress, combat trauma, can obviously lead to all sorts of, you know, disconnectedness. You know, it can lead to rage. You know, and it’s important for our soldiers and leaders to understand that, really, the only proper motivating factors in war are the mission and your fellow soldiers, taking care of your fellow soldiers, not rage. And so we have to equip leaders, you know, because healthcare professionals aren’t available all across, mental healthcare professionals across the battlefield in these dispersed, as you mentioned, in Afghanistan in particular where forces are widely dispersed and we’re conducting these decentralized operations. We have to equip our leaders to really understand grief work, how to communalize grief, and also a lot of this has to do with making sure that soldiers understand the historical and cultural context of the areas in which they’re operating, and there’s several reasons for that but one of them is to develop empathy for the population, to really be able to understand the dynamics at the local level, to understand why, you know, why people who have been intimidated and coerced by the enemy may not be cooperative. So instead of being frustrated by that, they empathize with that population and will take the time to build a relationship based on trust, mutual respect and, really, the common purpose to – that allows you then to really make the kind of inroads that give you the intelligence you need to get after the enemy effectively and then allow you to apply your fire power or take military action with greater discipline and, really, discrimination to protect innocents.


RAY: In kind of broad brush strokes, can you talk about what are the moral and ethical codes of combat today?

MCMASTER: Sure. Well, you know, we have a professional military ethic and warrior ethos that our army – our army’s values, for example, respect. I mean, you know, the army’s value of respect, if you read that, and then you read Aristotle or you read Immanuel Kant, you know who talks about treating man as an ends. I mean, it’s very – Our values are very consistent with ancient philosophy and ethical thinking, so – ethical writings and philosophies, so, really, much of what we do with values is applied ethics, training and education for our soldiers and, you know, this is particularly important today because the military code is to only apply violence against combatants, and to do it, you know, to achieve war aims, whereas in the popular cultures, you know, with many of the movies that we’re exposed – that our youth are exposed to, you know, gansta rap and, you know, that – the use of violence is to just demonstrate prowess, you know, and to advance self-interest, you know, whether it’s The Sopranos or take any example of violence in the popular media. So it’s important that soldiers understand that when they begin to serve in our Army that the application of violence is for the specific ends to which they are committed and that violence is only to be aimed at combatants.

RAY: You mentioned popular culture movies, and video games certainly…

MCMASTER: Video games, right.

RAY: …have the same kind of mayhem bent to them.


RAY: The question I would think would be how difficult is it to change that mindset for kids who come to you fresh out of lives where that’s – they’ve lived that for the last 10 or 15 years.

MCMASTER: Well, I don’t think it’s that hard because we have, you know, we have the benefit of taking into our Army volunteers, volunteers who have volunteered to serve our nation in time of war so there really are no illusions among these young men and women about what they’re about to get into. And so, you know, they’re patriots, they’re well motivated to begin with, and then when they begin to understand, really, what the Army’s values are and what the professional military ethic is, you know, it’s – they begin to create a whole different set of expectations for themselves and for each other. I mean, one of the things that’s really important is sort of the collective nature of applied ethics education and training because it’s really to the expectations of your little society of others, really, that really helps shape your, you know, your behavior and your values. So we have extraordinarily effective leaders, you know, now at this point with multiple combat tours who have operated in these conflicts environments, and so these young soldiers are under very capable leadership at the squad and platoon levels and the expectations of their colleagues, of their fellow soldiers, I think really helps inculcate in them, you know, a sense of the professional military ethic and our values.

RAY: Is this new? I don’t recall having heard this much focus and certainly not this kind of public conversation about the military’s attention toward ethics and morality in combat.

MCMASTER: Well, it’s really a longstanding focus of our Army. You know, there’s – for many years, we’ve said our Army’s a values-based organization and so what now, though, is we recognize what are really the unique and particularly difficult demands associated with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, and so we – there’s a renewed emphasis on ensuring that we steel our soldiers and units against, you know, what can be the corrosive effects of operating against this brutal, murderous enemy, you know, the difficult situations that soldiers can find themselves in as a result and the environment of persistent danger and how to cope with that and how to equip them psychologically and equip them, really, from an applied ethics perspective as well. You know, there are a lot of new initiatives in our Army to – We think we’re going to be fighting these kinds of conflicts for the foreseeable future so there are a lot of adaptations in our Army that are ongoing, including one on improving soldier resiliency and the resiliency of units, and so how to cope with combat stress. Combat stress is normal. Everyone is going to experience combat stress. The key thing is to really balance an effort to make sure we don’t stigmatize combat stress and combat trauma, get soldiers the treatment they need, but also build that kind of resiliency and have – maintain the kind of mild form of stoicism necessary for units and soldiers to endure what they must in combat and continue the mission so that they can accomplish our objectives, they can protect the people of Afghanistan, for example, and they can protect each other.

RAY: Now, you served in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in the early nineties. Markedly different war from the ones we’re fighting now?

MCMASTER: Oh, markedly different. Much simpler, much different war. There are many reasons for that. I mean, one of them is – was, you know, the ineptitude of the Iraqi army that we faced, the fact that they actually committed their forces in a way that made them vulnerable to all of our sort of overmatched capabilities and strengths. We also had a very limited political objective, you know, a relatively unambitious one of going back to the status quo ante, you know, the situation before the war and liberating Kuwait. Now, we’ve had – we have, really, much more ambitious political objectives in the aftermath of the collapse of the Saddam regime, for example, in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, because we recognize that it’s critical for us to be able to shape in a positive way, for the people of the region and for our own interests, the political outcome, what comes next. And so that took, obviously, a much more protracted commitment. It took – it takes a protracted and sustained commitment to defeat these enemies who we’re facing both in Iraq and Afghanistan who, as we’re trying to build, we’re trying to reestablish civil society and conduct security sector reform and reconstruction and rekindle hope among these populations who have just known conflict and hardship for so long, our enemies have a relatively low standard for success of inciting chaos and conducting attacks to really exacerbate public discontent and use that discontent and that chaotic environment to establish control and, ultimately, they hope to impose an altogether different political order that would be a grave threat to our interests and also would result, I think, in tremendous suffering, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

RAY: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking this morning with U.S. Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster. He’s Director of Concept Development and Learning at the U.S. Army’s Capabilities Center (sic), Training and Doctrine Command. Tonight, he gives a speech at the University of San Diego's annual Stockdale Symposium, a speech titled “Moral, Ethical and Legal Preparation of Leaders and Units for Combat.” Critical question: Can you train the units if the leaders are not properly trained?

MCMASTER: No. I mean, leadership is the most important factor and so developing capable leaders, you know, who are compassionate, who are tough, who are competent, you know, is really the thing that we focus on most in our Army. In fact, General Dempsey, who’s the commander of training in doctrine command, has made leader development and education his top priority and one of the reasons for that is we recognize that in the environments in which we’re operating, very complex, uncertain environments that demand a high degree of decentralization, demand a high degree of autonomy in small units, leaders have to really be able to adapt very quickly to these complex and uncertain conditions, take initiative, and lead their soldiers effectively. So, you know, effective leaders is (sic) probably the most important element of what we call combat power in our Army.

RAY: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We go to the phones. Kent in Oceanside, good morning. You’re on KPBS.

KENT (Caller, Oceanside): Yes, I’ve worked with a lot of these kids coming back and, you’re right, four-fifths of them do well being stoic and tough and buck up, etcetera, because there’s a lot of pressure to just tough it out and, you know, my uncle was in the war and grandfather, etcetera, so just tough it out and buck up. But one in five, 20%, come back and they have a lot of damage in their head and a lot of anger and guilt and depression associated with the traumas they’re exposed to. Are the leaders that are on the ground sensitive to these guys or are they still saying just tough it out?

MCMASTER: Oh, I think leaders across the board now are very sensitive to the debilitating effects of combat, combat stress and combat trauma. In fact, there’s – this has been a huge area of emphasis from the top level of our Army all the way through our ranks and so there is a tremendous emphasis now on no longer stigmatizing combat stress, and I think you’ll find that across the board in the units that have had sort of the, you know, the greatest focus on developing combat prowess and the pride associated with that and, you know, what you might call is an over-abundance of sort of stoicism in those kinds of units, every single unit, every combat formation, is very sensitive to this – to what our troopers go through, no longer stigmatizes this. One of the things we do, for example, is, you know, the most difficult circumstances are typically when you lose a comrade, you know, someone you care about deeply, that you really love. I mean, you know, and a military unit is, as you know, I mean, takes on really the qualities of family over time under these difficult conditions and with shared experiences, and especially in combat. And so to lose a fellow trooper is a traumatic experience, always. And so, you know, we have critical event debriefings. We try to communalize the grief. We try to, you know – soldiers oftentimes feel responsible for the deaths, you know, the survivors’ guilt, we try to divide the guilt, you know, and then, obviously, leaders want to steel their soldiers before they go back into combat but we make sure that, you know, that they do have access to mental care – mental healthcare professionals and there is, if necessary, continuing treatment for our troopers. So, I mean, you make a great point, you know, that everybody has their breaking point, everybody’s different, everybody brings a different sort of background and constitution into our Army. It is our job, as an Army, to build as much resiliency as we can into individual soldiers and units but at the same time to recognize that everybody’s going to – different and everybody’s going to respond differently, be sensitive to that and don’t stigmatize, you know, the combat – the combat stress and the combat trauma and its debilitating effects and make sure soldiers have access to treatment.

RAY: Are there provisions to make sure that people in that 20% are not sent back into the combat theater?

MCMASTER: Well, you know, the emphasis is on trying to help soldiers manage that stress and be able to go back and continue to serve. But if there are soldiers who cannot continue to serve, obviously, and they’re not equipped to do that, we, you know, we make sure those soldiers have access to healthcare professionals who can help us make that judgment, help the commanders make that judgment. But the emphasis, obviously, is on helping the soldier cope with it such that that soldier can continue to serve and continue to be part of the team. You know, one of the important things, one of the important ways to, I think, to help units cope with this and be able to manage stress is really the cohesiveness of organizations, trying to keep those organizations together. You know, soldiers do, when they encounter combat stress, combat trauma, they do need access to healthcare but they also really need to maintain, to be part of this community, you know, that has the shared experience and cares about each other. That helps tremendously as well. Part of the problem, I think, and I think your caller may have recognized this as well, is when those teams break up, you know, and if soldiers don’t have that support group anymore, don’t have fellow soldiers around them who have had these experiences, that’s when they can maybe experience more of this feeling of disconnectedness and can experience more of the debilitating effects so, really, the follow up on that and making sure soldiers stay in contact with each other and continue to form that kind of support for each other, I think, is an important dimension of this.

RAY: How important do you think it is to have set timetables for withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan?

MCMASTER: Well, I mean, obviously, this is more of a policy question and, really, it’s our job within the Army to execute whatever policy decisions are made. I mean, I think it’s well known that there – Everything that you do in Iraq or in Afghanistan has advantages and disadvantages associated with it. I mean, I think that there are some very positive aspects of setting time goals and this is how Secretary Gates and President Obama have described it, is these are goals and we’ll begin to reduce the numbers of forces. What’s important to recognize, I think, is that the way this enemy operates, the enemy will go into areas, they’ll try to exacerbate or latch onto local grievances and portray themselves as sort of patrons and protectors, that they’re going to come in and represent their interests or protect them. But once they get in there, they intimidate and coerce that population, brutalize that population, and then extend that campaign of intimidation and coercion broadly. And, you know, this is a particularly nihilistic enemy, misogynistic enemy, who has a vision for the future of Afghanistan that people just don’t want. I mean, the Taliban, we have to recognize, is immensely unpopular. I mean, the recent poll data that came out where, you know, 70% of Afghans are most optimistic now in some of these critical areas in the eastern and southern part of the country largely because of what is already a reinforced security effort. 90% of the people prefer the current government to any Taliban government, I mean. So, you know, the thing – I think the key now is going to be able to provide enough security to secure the population, lift the pall of fear, defeat the enemy’s campaign of intimidation and coercion, and then allow Afghans to take more responsibility for their own security by recruiting, as you’ve seen in the news the last couple of days, larger numbers into the Afghan security forces, into the army and the police. If those forces are larger, more capable, and also enjoy the trust and confidence of the population, that’s when you really see the initiative gained and the momentum shift. And a lot of the Pashtun areas in the eastern and southern part of the country, people can’t participate in the army or the police because the Taliban will not only kill them, they’ll kill their whole families. So one of the first steps to make progress in some of these areas, like expansion of the security sector, is improvements in security and you’ll see that. That’ll take more U.S. and coalition troops but over time the majority of that effort and more and more of that effort will shift to indigenous forces, to Afghan forces, police and army.

RAY: Have you read Greg Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea?”


RAY: Do you find truth in that?


RAY: It sounds like a lot of what you’ve been talking about.

MCMASTER: It’s exactly what I’m talking – I mean, what you have in the areas in which the enemy has operated is – This is an enemy, okay, and, you know, this is a hybrid enemy, okay. This isn’t a monolithic enemy. You have certain groups of Taliban. You know, you have what’s called the Hekmatyar’s group. You have the Hakani network. You have the Afghan Taliban represented mainly by Mullah Omar and the Kaddish Sharan. You have an Al Qaeda problem grafted onto these groups. You have the Pakistan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-taiba who have, you know, conducted attacks in India, brutalized their own people in Swat and Buner Province and now in southern Punjab and parts of Karachi and these are people who are conducting these mass murder attacks in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. What they have in common is they have this nihilistic sort of approach and they have this irreligious, perverted, you know, sort of ideology that they want to impose on people. And the way that they do it is they go into these areas, intimidate and coerce the population but also what they do is they dismantle the social structure. So if there were tribal leaders, local leaders, there, they will kill them and all generations of that family so they can impose this, you know, this now artificial, you know, social structure in those areas. You know, they’ll go into the legit – into the mosques and they’ll get rid of the legitimate mullahs. I mean, these are people, you know, who are not learned men oftentimes. The mullahs in these areas will be replaced by people with third grade educations and these are essentially demagogues who come in and preach hatred and violence. What they need more than anything, what our enemies, broadly in this region, need more than anything is ignorance because without ignorance you can’t incite the hatred and without the hatred, you can’t have the kind of violence against innocent people, these mass murder attacks. So and what “Three Cups of Tea” is, it’s a brilliant book because it focuses on, I think, what is ultimately the longterm effort that’s necessary, which is in the area of education to equip people to make judgments, to – When people tell them to hate other people, that they are educated enough to know that that’s wrong, that there is an alternative view. When people say that women shouldn’t go to school and that the women’s schools ought to be bulldozed, you know, when they – when they’re recruiting, you know, adolescents and pre-adolescents into, you know, this lifelong, you know, sort of militia existence and existence of violence, when they take the most vulnerable people in society, when they supplant the social structure. They look for these young adolescents, you know, and they – and people who most crave affirmation, you know, who, you know – who may experience self-doubt at this point in their lives. They recruit them into these cells. Oftentimes, they make them part of beheading cells. They try to dehumanize them. They abuse them sexually. I mean, this is an enemy that must be defeated. In the short term, you know, we have a military problem associated with this but also, as you know with the sort of comprehensive approach we’re taking in Afghanistan, there’s a development aspect of it. You know, there’s a security sector reform aspect of it, there’s an economic dimension of it. But, really, the longterm battle, I think, is on this battleground of education and, you know, in effect, enlightenment of people so they are inoculated against these purveyors of hatred and violence.

RAY: You’re asking people who are in a lot of cases 18 and 19 years old, have never been away from home, very seldom in their lives been away from video games with no sense of this culture to be involved in this kind of moral, ethical nation building.


RAY: Are – Is the U.S. Army equipped to do anything like that?

MCMASTER: Yeah. We really are. I mean, you know, we’re not going to be development experts, okay, but we are trying to develop enough developmental expertise so we can ask the right questions, we can understand the indigenous systems, we can, you know, we can work with indigenous leaders to help improve governance, to help address grievances. And American soldiers are just great at establishing relationships with the population. I mean, I wish we had more access to how our soldiers can connect. I mean, in the area that our regiment was in, for example, in Tal Afa, Iraq, I mean, it’s a city that’s sort of replicated all the complexity of Iraq in microcosm, you know, and these communities were pitted against each other. There was this localized, brutal, you know, civil war going on. Our soldiers were able to adapt to that, to understand, you know, really the situation. They treated the population with respect and then built these relationships based on respect and based on clarifying our intentions with their deeds, with their discipline, with their respectful treatment. What happened over time is our soldiers found themselves as the mediators, really, between these, you know, these sectarian groups that were locked in this fight against each other, really an unnatural condition. I mean, people did not want to be locked in this contest against each other, did not want this violent situation but extremists in both camps, Al Qaeda on the one end and Shia Islamist militias on the other were trying to perpetuate the cycle of sectarian violence to accomplish their objectives but, you know, we had people in the city of Tal Afa naming their children after our soldiers. I mean, so it’s, I think, if we have the opportunity to live in and amongst the population, to secure the population, those sort of relationships can develop.

RAY: General McMaster, thank you very much.

MCMASTER: Thank you, Alan.