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A Soldier Reports: The Education of John Nagl

When the last combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan passes away due to old age and the final memoir has been published, how those wars will be remembered will shift as the direct, vivid memories of veterans are replaced with stolid histories, short catchphrases, and iconic photos summarizing a conflict for generations yet to come.  ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

When the last combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan passes away due to old age and the final memoir has been published, how those wars will be remembered will shift as the direct, vivid memories of veterans are replaced with stolid histories, short catchphrases, and iconic photos summarizing a conflict for generations yet to come.  Some expressions are associated with strategies used at the time, others convey a sense of place, a method of warfare, or a political view but they all contain some essence of the conflict.  Words such as "trenches," "blitzkrieg," "search and destroy," "domino theory," and "quagmire" evoke strong images of the wars they represent and, while it will take many years for our most recent conflicts to shift to this realm of remembrance, a few phrases are already taking hold.  Who can forget the opening rhetorical rounds of "shock and awe," the struggle to define the wars as "insurgencies," the great hope of the Iraq and Afghanistan "surges," and the solid logic of "clear, hold, and build."

It is this last phrase though, describing a set of steps military units must undertake to defeat an insurgency, which proved the most difficult for our civilian and military leaders to grasp — that they learned it at all is due in no small measure to former Army officer John Nagl’s strenuous advocacy on its behalf, efforts that helped to change the course of two wars.  Nagl’s counterinsurgency concepts of "clear, hold, and build" did not spring whole cloth from his mind, but were a rediscovered strategy of warfare that had been forgotten after Vietnam, particularly by the U.S. Army’s conventional forces.  As Nagl chronicles in his invaluable memoir of service, Knife Fights: An Education in Modern War, the great challenges of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not just in making the U.S. Army a learning institution, helping it adapt to the unique problem-set of counter-insurgency warfare, but also helping civilian leaders better understand the wars our military were  undertaking. 

His memoir is also a cautionary tale of how the U.S. Army became an "un-learning" institution, "over-learning" the lessons from Vietnam that were most convenient to its bureaucratic interests and "under-learning" those lessons most central to victory in this type of warfare.  However, before Nagl could help the U.S. Army become a learning institution, he first had to receive his own education in war.

As Saddam Hussein’s tanks smoldered in the desert at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, then U.S. Army First Lieutenant John Nagl sat in his tent in the desert, after successfully leading an M1A1 tank platoon against Iraq’s forces, and contemplated the victory’s meaning.  In many ways, it was not just a defeat for the Iraqis, but the death knell for a type of warfare that had characterized much of U.S. military power since World War II.  However much conventional nation-state wars on the scale of World War I and II had come to characterize "modern warfare," small-scale conflicts continued to persist, even in the age of nuclear bombs, strategic bombers, and M1A1 tanks.  These types of wars, such as insurgency, had been a permanent condition of human conflict well before the birth of the nation-state at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  Thus, while the United States celebrated its victory in parades down Madison Avenue in New York City — having applied the lessons it wanted to learn in Vietnam, such as applying overwhelming force, having a clear exit strategy, and gaining broad support from the American people — it reflected a selective learning, one more convenient to its institutional interests.  Large gaps existed in the conventional Army’s understanding and memory of the requirements for success in Vietnam, gaps which would later ill-serve the country.  Having successfully participated in his war, Nagl set out to expand the education he had received at West Point, building on his Masters degree from Oxford (earned as a Rhodes Scholar) to complete his doctoral studies in the United Kingdom.  It was an education that would prove decisive to his career, the U.S. Army, and U.S. strategy during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nagl’s second stint at Oxford to complete his Doctorate of Philosophy would contribute greatly to his future counter-insurgency thinking, advocacy, and leadership.  His dissertation compared the British government’s experience battling a communist insurgency in Malaya with the U.S. experience fighting the communist insurgency in Vietnam.  While the British were able to successfully defeat the insurgents, the U.S. experience was far less sanguine.  While Nagl addressed the various differences in the respective counter-insurgency campaigns, different terrain, demographics, histories, etc, his central insight was that the U.S. military and the U.S. Army in particular had not become a "learning institution," readily adapting itself to Vietnam’s insurgency threat.  In many respects, it had initially fought the war in a conventional manner utilizing "sweep and clear" and "search and destroy" operations in support of an attrition-based strategy seeking to defeat the enemy through imposing significant losses on its military.  While the U.S. effort in Vietnam and the U.S. Army in particular eventually adapted to the unique characteristics of Vietnam’s insurgency under the leadership of Gen. Creighton Abrams using a holistic, whole-of-government approach that fought the communist insurgency as well as its main force conventional units, it took many years for this to take place — years where countless lives were lost for a strategy that could not win.  As Nagl’s career progressed, he would have an opportunity to not only implement what he had studied, but play a central role in two wars of insurgency that he was uniquely qualified to influence.

Nagl deployed to Iraq in 2003 as the operations officer for the 1-34 Armor unit in the town of Habbaniyah in western Iraq’s province of Al-Anbar.  Over the course of his year tour, he would receive a brutal education in the difficulties of fighting an insurgency and would learn first-hand the challenges of putting counter-insurgency theory into practice.  He quickly learned that constant clearing operations using outside forces against the insurgents was not a path to victory in Iraq, since it inevitably left the civilian population unprotected from reprisals and intimidation from the insurgents once the force departed.  Additionally, absent an indigenous security partner, U.S. forces lacked the ability to discern the hidden insurgent from the local population, significantly complicating their operations.  Nagl also discovered that U.S. Army units designed and organized to fight conventional wars had to quickly change their conception of the conflict, how they measured effectiveness, and were organized to be successful. 

Nagl was learning firsthand that deployed military units had to adapt quickly and constantly in an insurgency environment.  However, even as he struggled to shape his own unit, the institution of the U.S. Army adjusted much more slowly.  As Nagl internalized these lessons in Iraq, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine heard about his dissertation on insurgency, which he would subsequently publish as a book titled How to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, which would change his professional direction.  The subsequent cover article brought Nagl to the attention of key decision-makers at the Pentagon and he quickly found himself serving as a military assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.  Nagl would use his new position to launch his very own insurgency in Washington, D.C. to advocate his ideas of counter-insurgency and to educate Bush administration officials about the gap between their aspirations for Iraq and the brutal reality of the war.

By 2006, it was clear that the war in Iraq was not going well, but a shortage of ideas about which direction to go paralyzed decision-makers at the Pentagon and at the White House.  Many military leaders at the time viewed the U.S. presence as an irritant to Iraqi society and advocated a withdrawal of U.S. forces to large bases within Iraq, thus minimizing exposure to the insurgency threat, and a quick transition to Iraqi control.  Other military commanders felt that an increase in U.S. forces along with a counter-insurgency approach to the conflict, embedding U.S. forces in Iraqi communities and developing Iraqi security forces, would significantly decrease violence and promote stability.  In late 2006, following the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had long opposed using the word insurgency to describe the conflict, a new energy was brought to the conflict with the arrival of Secretary Robert M. Gates.  Additionally, with the capture of the U.S. Congress by the Democratic party, due, in part, to the problems in the war in Iraq, President Bush became more directly involved in shaping the course of a new strategy. 

Within this maelstrom of ideas, Nagl readily contributed his perspective and he was increasingly sought after to share his views on the war.  As attention turned to a new way forward for the war in the Iraq, Nagl was selected by Gen. David H. Petraeus to participate in the drafting of a new counter-insurgency manual to provide greater direction to U.S. Army forces as they adjusted to the counter-insurgency reality of the conflict.  It was at this moment that Nagl’s practical experiences from two wars, his academic training, his knowledge of the Army, and his close connections with Petraeus proved decisive. 

The manual they produced, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, re-conceptualized the war in Iraq — viewing it through the lens of counter-insurgency doctrine.  Instead of relying exclusively on military clearing operations and direct action raids against insurgents, operations were now nested within the matrix of "clear, hold, build."  Instead of unilateral operations, U.S. forces would now partner with indigenous forces.  Instead of pulling back to large bases, U.S. forces would disperse among the people in a population-centric approach, preventing insurgents from intimidating them through a persistent presence.  Inspired by Nagl’s advocacy and to help the U.S. military adapt more quickly to Iraq’s insurgency challenge, a counter-insurgency school was founded in Iraq and another would eventually be constructed in Afghanistan.  Following the successful publication of the manual, the assumption of command of Multi-National Forces — Iraq by Petraeus, Bush’s decision to surge U.S. forces to Iraq beginning in 2007, and the revolt of Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes against al Qaeda, the war in Iraq began to turn around and the insurgency began to recede.  However, even with all of Nagl’s success, he was unable to secure promotion to Colonel, since he had missed crucial command billets he needed to rise in the conventional U.S. Army.  The fact that he had missed them due to pursuit of his Ph.D. and work on the counter-insurgency manual seemed immaterial to the U.S. Army’s promotion boards.  However, Nagl’s great work on behalf of counter-insurgency and his advocacy of a new approach did not go unnoticed.

In 2008, Nagl retired from the U.S. Army and became a fellow at the center-left defense think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  The think tank had been founded by former Clinton Administration officials who sought to provide not only a different perspective on how to fight insurgencies, as well as on a broad array of other defense policy issues, but to prepare a government-in-waiting if the Democratic Party were to win the presidential election in 2008.  Upon the election of Senator Barack Obama, many CNAS members joined the administration and Nagl assumed the presidency of the Center for a New American Security.  While he would remain separate from the administration, Nagl was appointed to the Defense Policy Board, an in-house group of advisors to the Secretary of Defense, and he would actively participate in administration deliberations about the way forward in Afghanistan.  Nagl continued to advocate for additional troops in Afghanistan, opposed President Obama’s decision to prematurely establish a deadline for withdrawal from the war in 2014, as well as his decision to send a number of troops lower than recommended by the military, and continued to support the work of Petraeus as he assumed command of CENTCOM and then the campaign in Afghanistan.  With Obama’s reelection, Nagl eventually departed CNAS for a fellowship at the U.S. Naval Academy and then became headmaster of a private boys school in Pennsylvania.

One of the central themes of Nagl’s counter-insurgency advocacy is the concept of making the U.S. Army a "learning institution," wherein it is able to not only understand the nature of the insurgency threat but make the necessary adjustments to its strategy and how it is organized to properly deal with the challenge.  However, an interesting implication of his views is why did the U.S. Army become an "unlearning" institution, setting aside the lessons of Vietnam?  It is also an interesting paradox in Nagl’s perspective that while the great success of the Gulf War had to do with the sound leadership of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and CENTCOM Commander Norman Schwarzkopf, he never mentions the influence of Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and only briefly mentions President George H.W. Bush. 

When Nagl examines the decisions surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he excoriates Bush and Rumsfeld, but is not equally outraged at the professional shortcomings of Generals Franks and Shinseki, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers.  Where military leaders are lauded for their successes, their shortcomings are due to poor civilian leadership.  While Nagl did contribute to an article by then U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling titled "A Failure in Generalship,", which argued that general officers, as a group, had failed to anticipate the Iraq insurgency and that they needed to be overhauled, it misses crucial linkages between civil and military authorities that allowed this to take place.  A broader perspective needs to be adopted when examining these disparate outcomes.  Herein, Nagl’s perspective on creating a "learning" institution is central.  There are several reasons the U.S. Army set aside the lessons it had learned from Vietnam and why modern civil-military relations have complicated war planning.

Within the U.S. Army, the early death of U.S. Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams in 1974, the commander who had turned around the Vietnam War, robbed the institution of his leadership, largely preventing it from learning from his experiences.  The fact too, that he was thus unable to write his memoirs contributed to a mis-remembering of the war that emphasized conventional war themes versus a holistic approach.  The second contributing factor was the separate institutional development of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, a central player in fighting the insurgency and the Viet Cong’s shadow government, which, though part of the army, had learned the lessons of the war but were not able to shape the broader U.S. Army’s views.  These "fugitives from discipline," as one U.S. Army chief of staff referred to them, were a necessary irritant to conventional thinking but were not actively included in army thinking or leadership following the war.  Third, there is no real domestic political constituency for irregular warfare. Conventional military approaches are well funded and reach directly into the political constituencies of members of Congress, and so even lessons that are learned are not defended on Capitol Hill.  Fourth, the switch to an all-volunteer force, versus a draft, removed the systematic exposure of the U.S. Army to unconventional thinkers who also brought an array of civilian perspectives.  Fifth, the removal in 1958 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the chain of command by the Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1958 removed a crucial link between the fielded force to uniformed leadership in Washington, D.C. as well as removed the Chiefs of Staff as a corporate body able to review war plans.  Through the struggle over roles and missions between the services and separate perspectives on how to conduct war, the initial draft of a war plan is greatly improved – a process which would have helped the initial Iraq and Afghanistan war strategies immensely.  Another benefit of having the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the chain of command is that it not only protects the military from the political machinations of an administration but protects the administration as well by providing it with the political cover it would need to transition a war plan mid-conflict.  These and other factors help to explain how the U.S. Army became an "unlearning" institution and why, however effective civilian leaders may be at waging war, they are never experts and require not just the sound advice of the uniformed military, but its leadership as well.  John Nagl’s exceptional memoir chronicles an important period in the wars of insurgency the United States waged following 9/11; it is also a story of how one professional soldier received a brutal education not just in war but in the harsh reality of politics.

Daniel R. Green is a Defense Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.  He is the author of The Valley’s Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban (Potomac Books, 2011) and co-author with William F. Mullen III of Fallujah Redux: The Anbar Awakening and the Struggle with al-Qaeda (Naval Institute Press, 2014).  He is a former Bush administration political appointee working at the U.S. Department of Defense (2001-2003, 2008-2009) and at the U.S. Department of State (2003-2008).  He earned his Ph.D. in political science at George Washington University in 2012.

Daniel R. Green is a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of The Valley’s Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban and co-author with William F. Mullen III of Fallujah Redux: The Anbar Awakening and the Struggle with al-Qaeda. He earned his Ph.D. in political science at George Washington University in 2012. He tweets at @FallujahRedux @fallujahredux

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