Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is a legendary military officer and former National Security Advisor to President Trump. In the Army, Lt Generals are not made in armchairs but on the battlefield. As a young Cavalry Captain in the first Gulf War, McMaster led his Troop in one of the greatest tank battles in history.

Critical Thinker

Herbert Raymond McMaster was born in Philadelphia on July 24, 1962. His father, to whom both his name and profession he would take after, was one of those who fought during the Korean War, where he was a lieutenant colonel of Infantry. His mother was a school teacher and administrator.

Herbert Raymond McMaster during the 2018 Munich Security Conference.
Herbert Raymond McMaster during the 2018 Munich Security Conference. (Kuhlmann / MSCCC BY 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

McMaster got his high school diploma from the well-known Valley Forge Military Academy in 1980. Upon graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1984, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He got his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in American History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The focus of his thesis was the military role in the policies of the Vietnam War. It was further detailed in his book titled “Dereliction of Duty,” which was criticized by high-ranking officers of that time.

Gulf War

During the Gulf War in Iraq, McMaster found himself in charge of E(Eagle) Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment against an entire Republican Guard tank Regiment in a prepared and fortified position.

Destroyed Iraqi T-62. (US Army, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On February 26, 1991, McMaster’s 2nd ACR  was assigned to serve as the forward covering element of the VII Corps as it advanced into Iraq. However, his unit ran up against a brigade of Iraqi Republican Guard’s Tawakalna Division and elements of its 10th Armored Division, all led by “Major Mohammed,” as he calls him in his writings.

As he wrote in the Strategy Bridge, an online war journal,

Mohammed’s defense was fundamentally sound. He took advantage of an imperceptible rise in the terrain that ran perpendicular to the road and directly through the village to organize a reverse slope defense on the east side of that ridge. He anticipated that upon encountering his strong point at the village, we would bypass it either to the north or south

He built two engagement areas or kill sacks on the eastern side of the ridge to the north and the south of the village, emplaced minefields to disrupt forward movement, and dug in approximately forty tanks and sixteen BMPs about one thousand meters from the ridge. His plan was to engage and destroy us piecemeal as we moved over the crest.

The David-Goliath Moment

McMaster’s unit was undeniably outnumbered, composed of 12 M3A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, nine M1A1 Abrams tanks, a small number of support vehicles, and some 140 soldiers. While it was easy to assume how the encounter would turn out, with McMaster’s unit basically being slaughtered by Mohammed’s forces, it was impressive and almost impossible, but McMaster’s unit turned it the other way around. McMasters’ forces wiped out the enemy in roughly 23 minutes, destroying 20 personnel carriers, 30 tanks, and 30 trucks. The Battle of 73 Easting, as it was called, marked the last great tank battle of the 20th century.

Mohammed committed a huge mistake, which was basically assuming his enemies’ capabilities. He thought that the US forces would travel via the road. Because of that, he had his tanks and other weaponry readied in the area. He assumed that they would not be capable of navigating through the confusing geographic conditions across the desert. Little did he know that GPS technology was a thing. It was something that McMaster’s tanks were equipped with. When they arrived from elsewhere, Mohammed’s technologically inferior weapons had to relocate.

In his in-depth account of how he was able to pull off his epic victory, he wrote,

There is not much written … about pitched armored combat the small unit level… I drafted this account immediately after the temporary cease-fire in hope that I could relate the Troop’s experience to the American people whose support we felt in a very direct manner.

This battle just went to show how superior military technology could greatly turn the tides of even the most impossible-looking battles. As McMaster described the success of that war,

“There are two ways to fight the United States military: Asymmetrically and stupid… ‘Asymmetrically’ means, you are going to try to avoid our strengths. In the 1991 Gulf War, it’s like we called Saddam’s army out into the school yard and beat up that army.”

This battle is an important illustration of how good equipment, well-trained and disciplined troops, and effective leadership can combine to defeat a vastly larger force enjoying the advantages of terrain and preparations. We see that lesson being taught again in the Russo-Ukrainian war with a large Russian force of undertrained conscripts with bad morale being bested by a smaller force of highly motivated, well trained and ably led Ukrainians.