Book Review of Battlegrounds

By Kyle Staron

First off, here are some old Civil Affairs stories to set the mood. When I was in the schoolhouse, an instructor gave a few of us some advice during a post-scenario teaching moment.

Don’t be afraid to be an 800-pound gorilla in the room. You’re an American. You have the money. Use that.”

And another one, from just before a deployment. A commander explained what I should prioritize as far as mission.

I remember the SF guys put beacons on motorbikes and gave them out to the locals to track movement. That’s what you need to be doing. Figure that out.

These anecdotes kept popping up in my mind as I read H.R. McMaster’s book, Battlegrounds. Part memoir, part primer on geopolitics, McMaster organized the book to follow the theme of “Strategic Narcissism” versus “Strategic Empathy”. Each chapter tackles a specific region of the world and begins with an examination of the United States’ “Strategic Narcissism” in that region. This narcissism is typified by the belief that the United States has the power to change countries’ behavior single-handedly. Interestingly, McMaster makes the point that this narcissism comes in two flavors. The first is more of the neoconservative view, where the United States’ use of its power is good for the globe. The second is from the “New Left” view of history, where the United States has irretrievably disrupted the world through coups, malfeasance, and economic hits. Both views of American power presuppose that the target country will behave as Americans would behave and that American power is infinite in its utility.

McMaster then discusses the key assumptions that previous American administrations have made based on narcissism and the consequences of their policy choices. This allows McMaster to discuss his policy prescriptions based on “Strategic Empathy,” in which he views other countries as separate entities with their own interests and agency. He examines key statements from national leaders to parse out their motivations and goals, such as Xi on Taiwan or intellectual property theft. He looks at the recent past to predict future behavior, as with Iran and North Korea and their nuclear programs.

Naturally, “Strategic Empathy” implies the existence of “Operational Empathy”. Operational Empathy would be a continuous examination of the assumptions of a mission set. Do these assumptions accurately capture the reality that teams face on the ground? Of course, Civil Affairs believes that it performs the analysis that McMaster discusses in his book. But Operational Empathy would not just be country studies or reusing project templates from Special Forces. It would be continual reappraisals of networks, social conditions, and the state of instability in a region.

However, a survey over team leaders with operational experience showed that a majority do not feel that their home-station reporting requirements match the operational needs of their forward commands. In other words, Civil Affairs is not demonstrating operational empathy amongst fellow Americans, much less the target populations that we wish to influence.

While questioning assumptions may be painful, McMaster demonstrates that this step is critical to finding new and innovative strategies for managing complex problems. After all, reinventing the wheel is what progressed us from The Flintstones to Formula One.

About Author

Kyle Staron is an AFRICOM Planner at the 353rd CACOM. His views are his own and do not represent the Department of Defense.