Soldier Scholar On Modern War: Lt. Col. John Nagl

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John Nagl
Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.)


WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) served as an army tank commander in the First Gulf War in 1991, a time when he had a prescient realization: “America’s military superiority meant that the age of conventional combat was nearing an end.” Asymmetric warfare, he saw, would be the source of America’s future threats. Before Desert Storm, Nagl studied counterinsurgency warfare at Oxford University, where he earned his PhD with a dissertation on “Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya to Vietnam.” After serving in the Iraq War in Al Anbar Province in 2003, he joined the Pentagon, where he was tapped to co-write the U.S. Army and Marine Counterinsurgency Manual. Today, Nagl serves as Headmaster of The Haverford School in Pennsylvania. Nagl spoke with The SAIS Observer via Skype to talk about his new book, modern war, and the future of conflict.

You just wrote a second book called “Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice.” If you were to boil down all 269 pages to a few themes, what would those be?

The theme of Knife Fights is that counterinsurgency is not going away, because insurgencies are not going away. And therefore that it behooves the United States to learn to fight them effectively. That point is probably subordinate to the principle point of the book, which is that wars are messy and uncertain and slow and unbearably costly, so the United States should be remarkably careful about deciding whether to engage in them. I believe that both of the last two administrations have made unwise choices about the use of force in international relations that have cost the United States very dearly.

In the inside flap of your book, it says you were an “early convert to the view that America’s greatest future threats would come from asymmetric warfare — guerrillas, terrorists, and insurgents.” And that this view made you “an outsider within the army.” Can you elaborate on that a little more?

After Desert Storm, the Army really spent the next ten years focusing on getting even better at conducting force-on-force warfare, at destroying enemy forces in formation on a battlefield devoid of human beings. I thought that it was unlikely that any future enemies of the United States would allow us to do that again. And so I spent the next decade thinking hard about wars of insurgency and terrorism and guerrilla warfare. And that made me unusual. One of my jokes is that I wrote the best and worst doctoral dissertation written on counterinsurgency in the 1990s because it was the only one.

You are both a soldier and a scholar. You served in Iraq as an army tank commander in the First Gulf War in 1991, and then you went off to Oxford University, where you studied counterinsurgency warfare and wrote your doctoral thesis on “Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam.” With this intimate taste of war in both theory and practice, why do you think insurgencies rise in the first place?

Insurgencies develop because governments are not meeting the needs of their populations. An insurgency is a rebellion against a government that its people feel is incompetent or malicious or indifferent – often, all of the above. So counterinsurgency campaigns then have been described as competitions in governance. Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Politics is closer to the surface of insurgency and counterinsurgency than it is to the surface of conventional war.

Does the United States have a role in addressing these root conditions that give rise to them?

The United States certainly can play a role. Whether it chooses to do so is a function of how important that state or region is to U.S. national interests. Arguably, we are engaged in a global counterinsurgency campaign against radical Islamist extremism. And ultimately to defeat that scourge, countries around the globe are going to have the change the way they govern their populations. They are going to have to be more representative, more inclusive, provide greater economic opportunities. We see a lots and lots of economic insurgents. The United States will often have a role in helping those governments govern more effectively, more efficiently, and more fairly. And I believe that is often a very wise investment for the United States, helping them do so actually before insurgency erupts.

In Chapter 8, you said, “Desert Storm was a military triumph without a political victory.” Saddam Hussein stayed in power, he continued to threaten his neighbors, and the U.S. ultimately intervened again in 2003. This raises the important question of post-conflict strategy and policy — planning and preparing for what fills the vacuum after conflict. Who shoulders this responsibility in the U.S.? How can the U.S. place more priority and investment in this area?

Great question. St. Augustine taught us that the only purpose of a war is to win a better peace. We have failed to think through what that better peace looks like in any of the wars of my lifetime. And this is a national command authority — the president and his or her cabinet — issue. And we simply have to do better.

If we look back to Vietnam, when you were coming of age when you were fighting in Desert Storm and before you went off to Oxford, do you think there was no appetite in the U.S. military to admit or to see the reality of Vietnam as a classic insurgency, that our tactics had to change? Or was there this desire to continue fighting wars that you say are tank-on-tank battles that we were really good at fighting? It seems like the wars of the 2000s really changed the U.S. mindset.

In the wake of Vietnam, the United States decided it was not going to fight counterinsurgency campaigns anymore. And having fought both kinds of war, conventional and counterinsurgency, I agree. The problem is the enemy gets a vote. And so we have to understand that we have to be prepared to fight anywhere on the spectrum of conflict from insurgency and terrorism all the way through full-scale tank-on-tank conflict.

After you served in the Iraq War in Anbar Province in 2003, you were tapped to co-write the new U.S. Army and Marine counterinsurgency doctrine with General David Petraeus. Can you briefly walk us along the path of what went into the foundations of this field manual?

The manual was written as Iraq was descending into civil war over the course of the year 2006. It was designed to change the military’s focus from exclusively killing and capturing our enemies to understanding that in this kind of war, you have to protect the population. If the counterinsurgency manual can be boiled down into two ideas it would be protect the population, and learn and adapt. Counterinsurgencies have been described as competitions in learning. And the side that learns and adapts more rapidly tends to succeed. The focus of my doctoral dissertation was on building adaptive organizations.

What do you think are the key counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan? What worked well, and what failed?

There’s actually a very good study on that from the Joint Staff titled “Decade of War.” It lists eleven lessons, from “understand the environment in which you’re fighting” to “be prepared to adapt if the conventional warfare paradigm is inappropriate in the fight you’re in” to “partner effectively with host nation forces” to “fight and win the battle of the strategic narrative.” We failed to do all of these things, and made many other mistakes as well, which are all laid out in a uniquely honest U.S. military self-study. Most of all, don’t fight wars you don’t have to fight, and have a plan for what happens once you succeed in toppling a government; both of the last two administrations failed to heed those lessons.

Do you think that counterinsurgency is making proper headway today in the U.S. military? It seems this is an evolving process. How would you grade or assess this notion of adapting and learning to fighting new types of conflicts?

I actually think the Army gets a pretty good grade after being completely unprepared for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it did a good job of learning and adapting. I think that process was both reflected in and accelerated by the publication of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual in 2006. Where I think we failed as a nation — and by no means am I giving the military a free pass [as] the military was unprepared for the wars it was tasked to fight in this century, but it did a reasonable job of learning and adapting — the most grievous failures have been at the level of national policy. I think that we have not done as good a job of understanding and internalizing the lessons of the role of force in international politics across two administrations at the national level.

The United States still has unrivaled military power today, yet it finds itself increasingly fighting what author Robert Taber calls the “war of the flea” in which superior powers struggle with “too much to defend… and too small, ubiquitous and agile an enemy to come to grips with.” The French experienced this in Algeria, and the United States in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. So is FM 3-24 the bridge to adapting and reorganizing U.S. military doctrine, or does more have to be done?

Much more work has to be done going forward. This was a step, but only a step. The manual has actually been rewritten and republished, a process I was tangentially involved in around the edges. The broader issue here is that until the United States demonstrates that it is capable in low-intensity conflict, in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts, our enemies will continue to fight us as insurgents and terrorists.

We have the best conventional force in the world. And arguably we have developed over the last five to ten years — certainly we have developed an effective counterterrorism force — and we have gotten much better at counterinsurgency, still I believe have a ways to go. I have been a long-time proponent of building a corps of advisors to embed inside host-nation security forces, which I believe is one of the important steps we still need to take as an Army. As a nation, we also need to develop a more effective information operations capability to win these wars.

In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Ali Velshi, you said the Islamic State is a “different animal,” that it holds ground, collects and levies taxes, pumps oil, [and that] it is a rudimentary state. If the Islamic State continues to make gains, how the does a Western-led coalition defeat it? What is the long-term strategy?

I have been very critical of the administration’s strategy in Iraq and in particular in Syria. The challenge in Iraq is not really that difficult. We need to increase the number of advisors in Iraq by a factor of ten. We need to increase the number of airstrikes we are conducting against ISIS by a factor of ten. And I believe that pushing ISIS out of Al Anbar, at least driving it underground to a phase two insurgency is not that difficult. The really hard part is Syria, where I don’t think we know who we want to rule in Syria – [that] is a question I still don’t know.

You also predicted that “we will be in Iraq for the next fifty years. I will be dead and gone, and there will still be Americans in Iraq… because what happens in Iraq matters to the future security of the American people.” Can expand on this link a little more?

It’s fairly obvious. Iraq is currently the home base for the Islamic State, an organization that is dedicated to propagation of radical Islamist values and policy options; is committing horrific human rights abuses; [and] is dedicated to restoring the Caliphate across the Middle East. We don’t want that to happen. We need to turn back the Islamist State’s progress over the last six months. Over the long term, Iraq is in the heart of the Middle East. It straddles the Shia-Sunni fault line. Instability in Iraq is a long-term threat to world oil supply, to our friends in Israel, to Saudi Arabia, to Turkey. So stability and security in Iraq matter to the United States.

If we fast-forward a couple years, let’s say the Islamic State does fall. What does victory look like in a post-insurgency state?

The Islamic State is expelled from Iraq. It is unable to operate within Iraq’s borders. Iraq is sovereign. It has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force inside its borders. It has essentially no terrorism threat. It has capable security forces, able with minimal outside assistance of defending their country from any outside threats — all in support of a government that is broadly inclusive of all three of Iraq’s main ethnic groups.


You said the First Gulf War was necessary, but that the Iraq War was not. How does the United States prevent itself from going down that path again?

First by understanding the reasons why it got involved in the unnecessary war in Iraq. Next by understanding why it got involved in the current, necessary, but entirely predictable and entirely preventable war in Iraq. Most of all, we need people to study the history of conflict, the character of conflict, and think through how the United States can minimize the number of wars it has to fight, and maximize the return on U.S. and allied national security as a result of these wars.

David Galula once said, “In the final analysis, the exercise of political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement of the population” – the sine qua non of victory in insurgency warfare. This task is inherently more complex than conventional tank-on-tank battles as the forces at play are not only military, but also political, economic, social, religious, ethnic, and even cultural. Do you think U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine can benefit from including these other elements?

The reason counterinsurgency has been called the graduate school of war is because it requires a pretty granular understanding of economics, governance, and politics inside the state inflicted by the insurgency. So many of the best counterinsurgents are anthropologists or think like anthropologists.

In the 1990s, you saw the crystal ball of America’s future conflicts: the move from tank-on-tank conventional battles to asymmetric warfare. If we fast-forward to the year 2050, what do you think war looks like then?

I believe that we will continue to see enormous progress in American technological advantages over any conceivable enemy, in particular in the area of robotics — remotely controlled systems and even autonomous weapons systems. But I believe that that very superiority in conventional combat will increasingly force our enemies in the direction that we have seen them move over the past decade toward asymmetric warfare. And so I predict a future, sadly, that looks very much like the last decade.

Today, you serve as headmaster of The Haverford School in Pennsylvania – quite a different pace from bureaucracy and war. What led you to this job, and what do you enjoy most there?

I am currently engaged in running an organization of 250 staff and faculty teaching 1,000 boys, and I continue to get the chance to teach, and to lecture, and to think about foreign policy. And most importantly right now for me, one of those thousand boys is a 13-year-old of whom I am particularly fond. I am taking a few years to be a dad, and to run an organization with a wonderful mission: preparing boys for life. And it is a mission that delights me and inspires me every day. So I feel enormously fortunate.

And lastly, if public service knocked on your door down the road, would you open it?

I continue to serve on an advisory board in Washington — the Reserve Forces Policy Board. I like to think I continue to serve by being a voice for certain policy options and organizational improvements. And certainly once my son graduates in 2020, I would be open to the possibility of returning to Washington again. But one of the surprises for me of this past year — I have been headmaster now for a year — is how little I miss Washington, [because of] how much I enjoy being here with my faculty and my boys.

So you don’t miss the bureaucracy in Washington?

I miss being with very good people and friends in Washington, but I miss neither the traffic nor the Washington power game. Here I can really feel that I’m making a difference.

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