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The Two Historians Who Are Playing a Key Role in "The Surge"

It has been nearly four months since the Bush administration announced its latest strategy for the war in Iraq. The centerpiece of the "new way forward" is a strengthened US ground presence. Two historians, Frederick Kagan and H.R. McMaster, have emerged as important supporters of the troop surge. Kagan wrote the blueprint for  “the surge”  and McMaster is serving as a top military advisor in Iraq.  Both men are central figures in the success of the White House's renewed war effort.

Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and  a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard magazine, has been an outspoken supporter of a troop increase in Iraq and is one of the architects of the Bush administration's current plan. According to Jason Leopold at the liberal anti-war website, truthout.org, the Bush plan "was culled from the white paper, 'Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,' written by Kagan" in December of 2006. Conservatives disagree with Truthout on many issues, but not this. Everybody recognizes Kagan's key role in devising the Bush administration's new war strategy. Few others have kept up as steady a drumbeat in defense of the plan as he has. Almost every week he pens a new op ed. The latest was published in the New York Times on Sunday.

Kagan holds a PhD from Yale with an emphasis in Russian and Soviet military history and often draws historical comparisons while discussing the current situation in Iraq. "Americans have gotten into the bad habit of believing that the outcome of every war is predictable," he wrote in the Weekly Standard. "The truth is that the outcome of most wars remains in doubt until they are very nearly over. Until late 1864, it looked as though the Union might well lose the Civil War. Within a year Lincoln had triumphed. The conflict in Iraq is central to our foreign policy, indeed to our wellbeing. Surely we must keep fighting to win as long as victory is possible."

Like Kagan, H.R. McMaster holds a PhD in military history, earning his from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Col. McMaster was commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq from 2005-2006 and is currently an advisor to the head of US forces, General David Petraeus. McMaster belongs to a group of "warrior intellectuals" who, according to Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, "make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq."

McMaster authored the highly acclaimed book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, which charges that President Johnson misled the country into war and pressured the nation's military leaders to lie about. The book is highly influential among current military officers and is required reading at West Point.

Both Kagan and McMaster have taught history at West Point. The former was a Professor at the US Military Academy from 1995 to 2005, while the latter taught there from 1994 to 1996.

In his book, McMaster is highly critical of how the Johnson administration sold the Vietnam War. But the Colonel doesn't see a parallel between the deceptions that led to Vietnam and the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War:  "President George W. Bush's approach to the current Iraqi problem stands in stark contrast to LBJ's approach to Vietnam. The Bush administration made its case for military action, and, after considerable debate, the American people, through their representatives in Congress, gave approval.

Unlike Kagan, McMaster has served in the army during the Iraq War, where he has won plaudits from many for his leadership there. "McMaster's command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq in 2005-06," MSNBC has reported, "provided one of the few bright spots for the U.S. military in Iraq over that year. In a patiently executed campaign, he took back the city of Tall Afar from a terrorist group, and he was so successful that Bush dedicated much of a speech to the operation." Last fall he served on a secret panel assembled by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to reinvent American strategy in the war. The panel recommended that the US, as MSNBC reported, "should 'go long' in Iraq by shifting from a combat stance to a long-term training-and-advisory effort." President Bush was briefed about the plan last December. Ultimately the president chose a different plan: the one advocated by Frederick Kagan. But McMaster has ended up as an implementer of the Kagan plan in his role as a critical advisor to Gen. David Petraeus.

It is ironic that two historians are playing such a key role in the war given the opposition of most historians to both the Bush administration and the neo-con rationale advanced in favor of the attack on Iraq. In March the American Historical Association officially went on record in opposition to the war in Iraq, urging its members "to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion."