Ret. Col.Douglas Macgregor presents “Mission Command in the 21st Century Army” at the Army Leader Exchange for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College on Feb. 28, 2018, Fort Leavenworth, KS. (U.S. Army photos, Dan Neal)
The revenge of Col. Douglas Macgregor

Amid an unprecedented Pentagon shakeup, an outspoken defense reformer who wants out of endless war, finally gets his shot.

As it turns out, not only does Donald Trump hate to lose, he can be vindictive when he does. The defeated president — clearly pouting over his election loss to Joe Biden and unforgiving to those who he thinks have crossed him — has roiled the national security establishment with a shake up that rippled through the Pentagon this week. 

The first to go was Defense Secretary Mark Esper, summarily dismissed by presidential tweet. But Esper was soon followed by the swift resignations of several others, a gallery of figures that Trump (apparently) felt had not shown sufficient fidelity to his governing style: Jen Stewart, Esper’s chief of staff (whose exit, once Esper was gone, was predictable); James Anderson, acting undersecretary of defense for policy (reports say he was forced out); Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. 

Then there are the rumors: a deeper flush at the Pentagon, that CIA director Gina Haspel would soon be dragged to the block, and that Trump will consign to oblivion any and all who have disagreed with him. Excepting, presumably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Washington was immediately filled with dark forebodings: that the president was lining up acolytes who would take us to war, that he was taking vengeance on those who opposed his suggestion that the U.S. military be used to put down domestic disturbances, that he was planning to announce a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — that he was master-minding some kind of “soft coup.” The names of some of the reported replacements helped to fan the flames: retired Army General Anthony Tata (an on-the-record Islamophobe), Ezra Cohen-Watnick (a former aide to retired Gen. Michael Flynn and regime-change proponent), and retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor — who will serve as special assistant to Christopher Miller, the new acting secretary.  

Most of these guys, with the exception of Miller himself, are well-known to the public, having built reputations as last-ditch Trump supporters or seeding controversy with hair-raising suggestions on how to handle people (like Muslims and Mexicans) whom they don’t particularly like. But there are also outliers — like Macgregor — whose statements on America’s overseas adventures have been so controversial, and so outside the military’s own well-trodden path, that they actually make sense. 

Macgregor, a West Point graduate, is an acquired taste: outspoken and controversial. He has flagged reporters with his statements about immigrants (we need martial law at the U.S.-Mexico border), Iranians (we need to look for areas where we can cooperate), Afghanistan (we have no business being there) Iraq (we should have left, long ago), and Syria (we should get out immediately). Those views aren’t to everyone’s liking, but they’re especially controversial in the military, whose staid stance on foreign interventions does not countenance the kind of dissent in the upper ranks that Macgregor represents. Macgregor, it is said, has refused to “stay in his lane,” has been too outspoken, too vocal, and not really a team player. 

Yet, senior military officers quietly admit that in terms of sheer intellect, no one quite matches Macgregor. Several years ago, I asked a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer to name each of the services’s most creative thinkers. His answers were entirely predictable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of those in uniform, except when it came to the Army. He didn’t hesitate: “It’s Doug Macgregor,” he said. “He’s the best thinker they have, living or dead.” Retired Gen. Tommy Franks would probably disagree. 

Franks, the former commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, brought Macgregor (then still in uniform), to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa in the run-up to the Iraq War in early 2002 to brief his war planners. Macgregor took a roundabout, but effective route, in getting there: he had briefed Newt Gingrich on his own war plan for Iraq, and Gingrich was so taken by what he had to say that he recommended him to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who insisted that Franks hear him out. 

Macgregor’s appearance in Tampa is now a part of Army legend. The U.S. military can take Baghdad with 15,000 troops, Macgregor announced to the room of uniformed experts. The statement stunned Franks, as did Macgregor’s advice on “Phase IV” (postwar) operations — which had not been mentioned in his briefing. Why wasn’t it there? Macgregor was asked. “The reason it’s not there,” Macgregor said, “is because we’re not going to need it. We’re going to turn the governing of Iraq over to the Iraqis, then we’re going to get out.” 

Whereupon Mike Fitzgerald, one of Franks’ most senior planners, got up from his seat and left the room. “I think it was at that point that Doug’s career ended,” a fellow West Point graduate says. That’s probably true, but only in part.  

While Macgregor retired soon after his Tampa appearance, he did so only after talking with then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. Macgregor told Shinseki that the Army needed to get lighter and faster, cutting away its logistic tail and its top-heavy officer corps. Shinseki not only agreed, he was planning his own Macgregor-like series of reforms. But the talk with Shinseki wasn’t the first time Macgregor had made his mark. Shinseki’s immediate predecessor, Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer, required his senior staff to read “Breaking the Phalanx,” Macgregor’s 1997 book on how the Army should fight. Reimer helped to put Macgregor’s innovations on the map. This is where we need to go, Reimer told his staff. 

And then there’s 73 Easting.

Arguably, none of Doug Macgregor’s later influence would have been possible without the Battle of 73 Easting (named for its map coordinates — its “phase lines”), which is still studied by armored officers as one of the most significant, and most lopsided, tank victories in the history of American warfare. The battle took place on February 26, 1991 — when elements of the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, under Macgregor, took on the tanks of the Tawakalna Division of Saddam Hussein’s vaunted Republican Guard. Macgregor expertly maneuvered his tanks through the enemy lines — directing his tank leaders, one of whom was H.R. McMaster, through the enemy lines. Macgregor lost one man killed, but his tank squadrons destroyed dozens of armored vehicles. The battle had a deep effect on Macgregor, who remembers talking with one of the Iraqi prisoners after the battle: “Why do you not go to Baghdad now?” the prisoner asked him. “You have the power. Your army rules the heavens and the earth. Do you think we love Saddam?” In the years that followed, the Iraqi prisoners’ words haunted Macgregor. The road to Baghdad was open — but America didn’t take it. 

Ironically, in one of those odd twists of history, Macgregor’s role as the commander of his tank squadrons is often ignored, while McMaster is remembered and celebrated. Then too, as any senior Army officer will testify, Macgregor’s outspoken and often too-public critique of his own service hurt his chances for promotion. Macgregor questioned everything: why are we staying in Afghanistan? Or Iraq? Or Syria? Why are we prosecuting these endless wars? Doug Macgregor had lots of time to ponder these questions, particularly during Operation Iraqi Freedom, as his kinsman and fellow officer, McMaster, was adding to his laurels during the Anbar Awakening, where he performed brilliantly. Macgregor, meanwhile, was sidelined and marginalized, with a position at the National Defense University.

And so, it seems the McMaster-Macgregor narrative was set. McMaster got his stars, while Doug Macgregor went on to a career as a military historian. McMaster became the acolyte to greatness (the up-and-coming friend of David Petraeus), a controversial president’s national security advisor (one of the “adults in the room”), a gruff-voiced patriot (warning us incessantly of looming threats in Russia, China, Iran, etc.), and all-around “team player.” 

Macgregor has always shrugged this off: his old friend deserves his stars, deserves his praise, and has proved his courage. Team player? It’s true: McMaster has been so fitted to his uniform that he looks like a throwback, a latter-day Patton. He’s the quintessential team player in a service that prizes staying in your lane, that rewards teamwork. And Macgregor? Oddly, and ironically — and for all of his outspoken views on ending America’s endless wars, Doug Macgregor has also been a team player. 

He’s just been on the wrong team. 

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