The COINdinista

Commentary Magazine

DEC 1, 2014

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice
By John Nagl
Penguin, 288 pages

When the U.S. military found itself bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years after 9/11, it was forced to rediscover the tenets of counterinsurgency—a strategic approach to war-fighting that had been all but forgotten following the unpleasant ending of the conflict in Vietnam. That transformation was led in large part by a small cadre of officers who had studied guerrilla warfare at a time—the 1990s—when few thought this arcane discipline had any relevance for future conflict.

The best known and most influential “COINdinista” was David Petraeus, who had written his Princeton Ph.D. thesis on the Vietnam War. But he was assisted by an impressive group of insurgents—officers such as Peter Mansoor, Conrad Crane, and Michael Meese who, like him, were West Point graduates turned West Point professors. Now another of their number, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, has written an important, engaging, and forthright memoir that sheds great light on how he and his fellow COIN theorists helped transform the way the Army fought.

Knife Fights begins with a superb account of Nagl’s experiences as a young lieutenant leading his tank platoon in the Gulf War in 1991. “If no one close to you gets killed, and if you don’t get too close to those you kill,” he writes, war “is exhilarating and vivid and intoxicating, every minute an adventure.” The Gulf War was more exhilarating than most, because it was precisely the kind of conventional clash at which the U.S. armed forces excel.

Much harder was a deployment his tank company made the following year to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. An Alaska National Guard infantry company, whom Nagl’s team called the Nanooks, ran rings around the veterans of Desert Storm by employing unconventional tactics. One night the Nanooks sneaked around to the rear of Nagl’s dug-in tanks and defeated his company “using man-portable (albeit heavy) missiles, precisely targeted artillery shells, and sheer dogged determination.” Nagl found this experience “infuriating” but also eye-opening—it showed how much damage an enemy could do to heavy American forces if he did not fight out in the open.

Nagl kept that experience in mind when he went to Oxford and wrote a dissertation on the lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. The lesson he took away was that the British had been better at learning on the fly in Malaya than the Americans had been in Vietnam. This had allowed British forces to adapt and defeat insurgents, even as the U.S. military was losing its war. He tried to get his dissertation published but was turned down by university presses because no one was interested in counterinsurgency. Only after 9/11 would his book see print and become a cult favorite among officers grappling with the challenges of a new Iraq war.

Nagl was one of those officers. After teaching at West Point, he shipped out to Iraq in 2003 as the operations officer, or S-3, of an armored battalion—the most important staff job, the one tasked with overseeing the daily conduct of battle. His battalion’s task was to secure “the troubled town of Khalidiyah” in Anbar Province. The problem, he writes, was “that we were completely unprepared for the war we were about to fight.” In a counterinsurgency, the soldiers would discover, the chief challenge was not to kill but rather to identify an enemy that often hid in plain sight. Nagl was better prepared than most for this complex challenge, but his background in counterinsurgency was entirely academic. Now, he would discover, “all the things I’d read about that were required to succeed in counterinsurgency were a lot harder than they’d seemed in the books, including the one I’d written.” But like many other American soldiers, Nagl improvised to good effect. Regulations, for example, forbade him from paying for information, but he could pay for garbage pickup. “[I] always kept a napkin in my pocket in case someone was willing to provide information,” he writes. “If I dropped it and they picked it up, they could be paid for trash removal.”

The struggles of this COIN theorist-turned-practitioner were highlighted in a 2004 New York Times Magazine cover story, “Professor Nagl’s War.” That led to a job as an assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and a major role in helping to write an influential new COIN manual under the supervision of Petraeus and his Marine counterpart, James Mattis. But while Petraeus got a chance to practice what he preached by taking over as commander in Iraq, Nagl, much to his frustration, remained stateside as the commander of a battalion tasked with training advisers who would be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. This was an important but unglamorous mission that Nagl knew “was likely the kiss of death,” for his Army career, “such as it was.”

After completing his tour as a trainer of advisers, Nagl retired from the Army in 2008. He subsequently assumed the presidency of the Center for a New American Security, a think thank in Washington, followed by a yearlong stint as a professor at the Naval Academy. Since 2013 he has been headmaster of the Haverford School, a boys’ school in Pennsylvania, but he remains engaged in the national-security debate.

In his concluding chapter, “Counterinsurgency Revisited,” Nagl notes that guerrilla war continues to proliferate while conventional warfare continues to disappear. Few enemies will be foolish enough to challenge the U.S. military in open battle, but many will resort to hit-and-run tactics that have worked in the past. How should the U.S. respond? He writes: “Large-scale counterinsurgency is rarely a great option—it is in fact messy and slow and hugely expensive—but it may sometimes be for the least bad option available.”

That is, in fact, the case today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where the United States has no choice but to wage counterinsurgency against jihadist killers—or, rather, to help others wage that counterinsurgency. Most of the ground fighting will be done by American allies, not by Americans themselves, but if the allies are to be successful, their tactics and strategies will have to rely heavily on the hard-won wisdom of COINdinistas like John Nagl.