The Wheatley Institution

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

John Nagl
February 19, 2015

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Thanks Richard for that kind introduction and thanks Fred for that prayer. Thanks Fred for being my workout partner this morning. A healthy mind and I healthy body are an important part of a life well lived. Thanks to all of you for being here today. I am going to wander aimlessly, which will make it hard for the camera person back there. Sorry about that, camera person. It will be alright. I am camouflage now, so I will be harder to track as well.

My military service began a long time ago, before the young cadets were born and at about the time the senior cadets were being born. I got to have lunch with some of the more senior cadets today and they were busy being born just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. I am a year group 1988 officer, commissioned in ’88 out of West Point, product of the Cold War. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. The headquarters of strategic air command of the Cold War was very real to me in my elementary school. We did duck-and-cover drills, as if that would have made any difference if the Soviet Union had attacked the headquarters of America’s nuclear arsenal. So the quick coincidence of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Then as peace was breaking out all over, Saddam Hussein deciding that Iraq wasn’t quite big enough and needed a 19th province, the province of Kuwait in the summer of 1990—this all happened as a student of international relations that I was (a graduate of West Point and of Oxford), was finally putting all that education to use. I decided to stand here, sit here, wander here. In this great institution of higher learning, you are being educated and trained for this person, for when your nation calls, that you are ready and capable and the nation can count on you to do what needs doing. And some things needed doing in the summer of 1990.

I was assigned to the First Calvary division out of Fort Hood, Texas, the famous first team, and I received command of a tank platoon in the sand, in the desert. My predecessor was a young man who, for whatever reason—despite the training and education he had received—when the nation called, he wasn’t ready. He asked to step down from leadership of his tank platoon, and I was allowed to step in and meet my platoon on a beautiful afternoon in October of 1990. The sun was going down behind the tank (you couldn’t script this in a movie because nobody would believe it), the 15 soldiers lying against the tank, sitting against the tank, hanging out around the tank to meet this new platoon leader who was going to lead them into war for the first time. I stood in front of them and introduced myself with all the vibrato that I could muster, pretending I wasn’t terrified, pretending like I had some idea of what I was doing. And at the end I said, “Any questions?” One of them said, “Yes sir, I have got a question. Did they tell you we were the worst platoon in the battalion? Or in the whole brigade?” I answered truthfully and I said, “They said it was the worst platoon in the brigade. And that just changed.” So we started training, and we were fortunate to have several months before the bullets started flying for real. Ultimately I got to be a part of Operation Desert Storm, the thunder and the lightning of Desert Storm on the first cavalry, and was part of an operation.

I am cognitive in the fact that we have America’s best, which means we have the world’s best air force ROTC detachment in the room, so let me give credit where it is due to an enemy that had been really softened up and pretty much decimated by the US Air Force, but the ground wore 100 hours. We took the Iraqi army in 100 hours from the fourth largest army in the world, to the second largest army in Iraq. That was a pretty uplifting experience for a young man who turned 25 on the day the war ended. Cadets in the room, let me give you a quick piece of advice that I hope you will remember. This may be the only thing you remember from my whole talk, but never let your platoon know it is your birthday. Bad things happen. Fortunately, we were in charcoal, chemical suits so the birthday spanking I received didn’t hurt as much as it would otherwise. We were young and we were alive and our first war had come to a close.

Then came, in a lot of ways, the important part of the experience. William Wordsworth said, “Poetry is powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.” So now I had the chance to reflect on what I had learned and what I had seen. Quick succession: the end of the Cold War, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, and then the destruction of the Iraqi army, the very rapid defeat of one of the world’s most powerful militaries. I am a student of warfare. I have been trained at West Point and Oxford to think about warfare, to think about the future, to think about the trends that drive history, right? Big, big sweeping trends that drive history. I became convinced, as I thought about what I had seen, the combination of those events that in Desert Storm, the United States had demonstrated that it was the very best force in the world at conventional force on force conflict. Therefore, because we were so good, because our army and, in particular, because our air force were so good, nobody would ever fight us that way again. A big part of this talk is going to be the fact that the enemy gets a vote, and no enemy in their right mind would let the US Air Force and the US Army blow them up, array themselves a neat battle and allow us to destroy them as the Iraqi army had. Instead, I became convinced that the future of conflict was going to look much more like our nation’s previous war in Vietnam, a war that hadn’t gone very good for us and would not look like a repeat of Desert Storm, a war that had gone very, very well for us.

As I thought about this, my nation, sadly, was taking a different lesson. President George H. W. Bush (in my eyes, the best president of our lifetime) made the incorrect statement, “By God, we have licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all in the wake of operation Desert Storm.” Some guys at the Pentagon put up a sign on that great building that said, “We only do deserts.” So when the army decided to send me, after Desert Storm, back to Oxford to get my phD (because we all make sacrifices for national security—work with me guys), I decided not to look at the war that I just fought but at the kind of war that I thought we were going to fight in the future: wars of insurgency, guerilla warfare, and terrorism. If that happens, if you are at Oxford studying counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, you have to read the works of T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, a famous guerilla leader. He was an insurgent; he led a band of Arab guerillas against a conventional Western army during the First World War. Lawrence actually felt sorry for the conventional armies that had to fight as Arab guerillas. He said for them,

We are like a vapor. We rise up out of the sand, we congeal, we strike and we dissolve back into the sand and they are left with nothing to swing at, nothing to hit, they are like a blind boxer. They could kill us if they could only find us….For them, war on rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.

I happened to read that phrase in Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the tub. I had been for a run (running is something the army does, air force) and I had been for a run on Oxford’s fort meadow and was in the bathtub drinking champagne, eating strawberries, because it is Oxford. That is what you do there. I read that phrase and came out of the tub and said, “Eureka. I found it. I have the title of my dissertation—‘Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.’” So seven words down, 99,993 to go. Remember that, cadets, next time you are complaining about a research paper. 99,993 to go.

To fill those 99,993 words, I decided to compare the cases of two counterinsurgency campaigns: the case of the British army and Malaya and, as Richard just said, the American army in Vietnam. So the Brits fought a counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya (what we today call Malaysia) from 1948 to 1960, and they started badly. Conventional armies tend to start badly when they are fighting insurgents because it is not what they are designed to do. They are designed to fight other armies that look like them. The Brits adapted. They learned and they ultimately defeated their insurgent enemies in what is today is widely viewed to be the classic case of successful Western counterinsurgency in the 20th century. It only took them 12 years. So when Lawrence said messy and slow, he wasn’t kidding. I compared that case with the American army in Vietnam, which also started badly when fighting in insurgency, as we would expect; which also adapted and learned, as we would hope, but we didn’t learn fast enough. When a great power loses a small war, it does so for one reason and one reason only. It is not going to run out of tanks, it is not going to run out of fighter planes, it is not going to run out of soldiers, it is going to run out of will, resolve, national will. That is what happened in Vietnam with excruciatingly bad results for the people of South Vietnam who suffered horribly, for the entire region. The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, which I would argue is a direct result of our failings in Vietnam. The Killing Fields is horrifying, and you must see it to understand what the failings of American foreign policy mean for the people of the world. It matters whether we get this stuff right and with hugely bad implications and long-term consequences for the American military and in particular for the American army, which took a full generation to recover from the trauma of losing the Vietnam War.

So I argued, as I was concluding my dissertation, that the ability to adapt and learn and, in particular, the ability to adapt and learn how to conduct insurgencies, fight insurgencies, conduct counterinsurgency campaigns, was an important attribute for US military forces to have. I completed that work in 1997 and I am proud to say that it was the best and ashamed to say that it was the worst doctoral dissertation written on counterinsurgency in the 1990s because it was the only doctoral dissertation written on counterinsurgency in the 1990s. So when I sent that off to university presses, which I won’t embarrass by mentioning here, I received back rejection letters asking me why I was writing about a subject that nobody cared about and why I didn’t study something that had some contemporary relevance. A few years later, after the attacks of September 11, it reminded us that insurgency and terrorism are a much more ancient form of war than so-called conventional force-on-force conflict, and suddenly I was able to get the thing published and published the—what did Newt Gingrich say? Newt was talking about my books on Fox News and said, “John Nagl has written the best book written by an American on counterinsurgency on modern times,” which is undeniably true because it was the only book on counterinsurgency written by an American at the time he said it. There have been a whole bunch more that are much better since then. So I was finally able to get the book published after September 11, and then having written the book, I went and did the research. In general, cadets and students, I would encourage you to do the opposite direction, to do the research first, but having written a book on counterinsurgency, I went off to practice counterinsurgency for the first time in fall of 2003.

We had invaded Iraq unnecessarily, let me get that out right to start, a mistake. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake and an unnecessary decision, a very poor decision. We had invaded it not only unnecessarily but also very, very badly with no plan for the aftermath—particularly inexcusable, given that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, in Richard Hoss’s words, “A war of choice, not a war of necessity.” So in the fall of 2003, my tank battalion task force was sent to Al Anbar province of Iraq as Iraq was descending very, very rapidly into civil war. We were stationed in a town named Al-Khaldiya, a lovely town in between the also lovely slightly larger towns of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Al Anbar, and Fallujah, a pretty tough little town that became much in the news in the years that followed. So that gives you a sense of the neighborhood I was in. It was a pretty good neighborhood. I actually bought some property there and we were going to retire there, but the schools are better in Philadelphia, so that is where we ended up. Tough, tough town, tough, tough fight. Over the course of the year that followed, my task force that followed lost 23 soldiers, had more than 150 wounded, earned the Valorous Unit Award. And at the end of our year of fighting, we were no closer to succeeding, to achieving American objectives in Iraq than we had been when we started, and in many ways, we were further behind. So the smart aleck battle captain in my three shop printed up coffee mugs when we got back to Fort Riley that said, “Iraq 2003–2004. We were winning when I left.” We weren’t and we knew it.

It went from Al Anbar to the E-ring of the Pentagon, to the office of deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, the number two person, the chief operating officer of the world’s largest organization. The US Military and the Pentagon was a big change from Al Anbar. Wait for it. At least in Iraq, I had some idea who I was fighting against, and we talked at lunch about the importance of serving in the Pentagon for military officers and future officers in the room, as early as you can to understand how it works. I have got to tell you that when you have been fighting for a year and losing friends, you really hope that somebody somewhere has a plan that doesn’t make sense to you on the ground, but you really hope that somebody up there somewhere knows what they are doing, and it is extraordinarily discouraging to realize that, not so much. So I spent two pretty difficult years in the Pentagon trying to help us figure out the war that we were losing and losing pretty badly. There was this guy named Fred Kaplan, an interesting thinker and writer, phD from MIT. His first book is still probably his best book, the Wizards of Armageddon about the nuclear strategists, and his most recent book is called The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. I am going to talk about the subject he describes, the so-called plot, in the next couple of minutes. I have told him that he should really call that the Wizards of Less Than Armageddon, the wizards of counterinsurgency, and in the book he describes me at this point, wandering the halls of the Pentagon with a gaunt, haggard look on my face desperately looking for someone to talk to about counterinsurgency, and that is probably about right. My big ally in that fight was a guy named David Petraeus. Captain David Petraeus had been one of my teachers at West Point and he was a pretty special guy. Even then, I was pretty sure he was going to be somebody. I thought he was going to make ‘06 for sure. He was going to be a big guy, and it turns out he did a little bit better than that and the awesome power of a full bird colonel, particularly in the Pentagon. You are allowed to hand the coffee to the brigadier general to give to somebody important. That is true! So Petraeus was doing a little better and I had stayed in touch with him. There is a lesson there. Stay in touch with your mentors. They will help you. They may give you really tough tasks, as you will hear in a minute, but maintaining a relationship with Petraeus was enormously important to me. Petraeus back from his second tour in Iraq and I got the chance to pull him aside on one of his visits to the deputy secretary of defense to Paul Wolfowitz and say, “General, we need to write a new instruction book for how to conduct counterinsurgency. We haven’t done it since Vietnam. We don’t know how to do it; we haven’t been trained on it. We need to do it better.” Petraeus said, “John, that is a great idea. Why don’t you get to work on that.” So I did. We pulled together a team of people, and three people with an idea can change the world. Three people with an idea and committed to that idea can change the world. A minimum of 3. Our team ended up being bigger than that, but not appreciably bigger than that. Over the course of a year, 13 months, from November of 2005 to December of 2006, we wrote the US Army Marine Core Counterinsurgency Field Manual and published that book on December 15, 2006. It was downloaded a million and a half times in the next month; it was translated and critiqued on Jihadi websites; copies were found in Taliban training camps in Pakistan. So we knew our enemies were reading it—we just had to get our guys to do that. It is easy to get officers and sergeants to read stuff. Easy, you guys are all over. So the process of doing that, of turning counterinsurgency into a topic both that the military understood but just as importantly that the American people understood because the limiting factor on the fight in Iraq in Afghanistan was national will, the support of the American people for the fight. We had multiple audiences to talk to. We were enormously fortunate that the University of Chicago Press agreed to print the counterinsurgency field manual and enormously fortunate that the New York Times chose to review it on the front page of its Sunday Book Review section (that was the first time that had happened), and that the Daily Show with John Stewart invited me to come on board and sit down with John to talk about the US Army Marine Core Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The two of us had the funniest discussion John Stewart has ever had about an army field manual on camera. You think that is because it is the only one, but it is not. He tried it again later with someone else and it didn’t go so well. You can look it up with the miracle of YouTube.

So there was Fred Kaplan who talked about a plot—and there was in fact a plot—and we were working hard to give Petraeus the time he needed to implement counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq even as American support for the war diminished dramatically, and it was a near run thing. So November of 2006 and the midterm elections of 2006, the American people were very disappointed with the leadership of this country and rightly so in my eyes. They turned out the Republican majority in both the House and the Senate. If we had both parliamentary system of government like every other civilized country in the world, the government would have fallen and we would have had a new prime minister. Because we have the very unusual presidential system, George Bush had one more try. Although he was facing democratic majorities in both houses, which made it more difficult for him, he made the bravest and, in my eyes, the best decisions of his presidency replacing Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, the worst secretary of defense we have ever had, with Bob Gates, the best secretary of defense we have ever had, and putting a new commander in charge in Iraq, Dave Petraeus.

Petraeus implemented the principles of the counterinsurgency manual, which are essentially two: First, the hard part of conventional combat isn’t finding your enemy. He is in the tanks that don’t look like yours. It is not that hard. The hard part is killing them. In irregular warfare, it is pretty easy to kill them or capture them. The hard part is figuring out who they are. Insurgents are, to use a phrase, fish swimming among the sea of people. So the essence of counterinsurgency, the manual said, is to protect the population first, protect the population so that they feel safe telling you who the insurgents are. That is precept one: protect the population. Precept two is learn and adapt because it is hard for armies to change from this to this, so you have to build adaptive, flexible learning institutions. And that is an effort that the US military is still engaged in understanding that answers are not prescribed. Answers for every situation are not prescribed, and you need to understand the culture in which you are operating and language of people you are working with, their political ambitions, their fears, their desires in order to protect them, in order to keep them safe, in order to build a better future for them and to get them on board in that effort. A very different kind of war than my first kind of war. It was far more complicated.

The counterinsurgency begins with a quote from a Special Forces friend of mine, an officer, who when he learned that I was helping writing the counterinsurgency manuals said,

Remember John, counterinsurgency is the graduate level of war because you have to do all of this stuff, but you also have to do the politics and the economics and the tribal society and the cultural anthropology and you have to do it in a language you don’t speak and you have to build relationships with people you can’t necessarily trust. That is really, really hard.

The good news for our country is that a bunch of you in this room have been engaged in efforts in some ways similar to that. One of the great national assets we have: young people who have lived abroad, who speak foreign languages more broadly than the great strengths of this nation. As Bill Murray says in the classic army training film Stripes, “We are Americans. Our ancestors were kicked out of every decent country in the world.” Those people who had the courage to flee their own countries and the courage to take risks and try to develop a brighter future but also the language skills and the cultural knowledge that they draw upon are some of the things that make this country the best bet the world has for the long term. The great advantage that we have. So Petraeus put those concepts to work. Napoleon said, “All my generals are good. Give me some who are lucky.” Petraeus, I would argue, was both lucky and good. He took advantage of something that was called the al-nahda, or awakening. We were fighting two different groups who had been allied in Iraq and in particular in Al Anbar. We were fighting the Sunnis who were upset that they had been dispossessed, the minority of the Iraqi population. They had had a majority of political power. When we toppled the Iraqi government and imposed some form of democracy, the Sunni’s dispossessed the power and didn’t like it. Fought against it, fought against the Shia government that replaced them, and fought against us. We were also fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda had had no presence in Iraq prior to our invasion in March of 2003. Saddam wouldn’t have tolerated that. He ruled that country for better or for worse with a pretty tight hand, but in the chaos that followed, our toppling of him, our failure to create a plan of the peace—St. Augustine said, “The only purpose of a war is to build a better peace.” We failed to plan for that better peace. Al-Qaeda moved in, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq became a big part of the enemy we faced. The good news about Al-Qaeda in Iraq is also the good news about their successor organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is a direct descendent of Al-Qaeda. These people are so brutal that nobody wants to live under their rule. The Sunni tribes chafed under their rule and ultimately decided to switch sides and fight with us against them in an uprising and awakening called the al-nahda in Arabic.

As a result of the al-nahda, as a result of the counterinsurgency principles that Petraeus implemented, as result of some good luck, during his 18 months in command he was able to reduce violence in Iraq by some three-fourths and provide a reasonable chance for Iraq to endure as a reasonably democratic state in the Middle East, which is a pretty rare thing and one that had a foreign policy that was, broadly speaking, aligned with the United States in the region. Unfortunately, that opportunity was squandered by subsequent administration, by the Obama administration, which against the advice of everyone, myself included, but many people a whole lot smarter than me including the aforementioned Petraeus; Hilary Clinton, his secretary of state; Bob Gates, his secretary of defense; Leon Panetta, his director of central intelligence—all recommended that the President maintain a long-term US security presence in Iraq of some 15,000 or 20,000. He chose not to do so. That decision not to station a long-term security presence in Iraq gave room, provided the opportunity for the Islamic State to retake the ground that my soldiers died fighting to take in the first place, died fighting to take Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the Sunni insurgency. I won’t talk about Afghanistan now, if anyone wants to talk about Afghanistan in questions, I am happy to. It is beyond belief to me that we plan to make the same mistake in Afghanistan after many years of effort there and despite the extraordinary importance of Afghanistan as a long-term base for American Special Operation Forces, for American intelligence assets to keep an eye on Pakistan. The most dangerous country in the world for US interests, Pakistan. Our great noble friends and allies, the Pakistanis, right? Scares me silly. We need to keep an eye on them, and Afghanistan is a great place from which to do that. Despite the lessons of Iraq and the importance of Afghanistan’s long-term base and support of American interest in that region, we currently plan to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by December of 2016—a completely arbitrary date geopolitically, an important date politically. One man’s legacy and a decision that I still hope will be overturned.

Briefly, the kind of wars I have been talking about today in Iraq and Iraq again and now the third Iraq war happening in my lifetime, currently against the Islamic state, the continuing war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the broader war against Al-Qaeda and its successor organizations, against radical Islamic extremism, already a 20-plus-year war where for America began in 1993 with the first bombing of the World Trade Center. A bomb that almost succeeded in bringing down the towers and of course eight years later their second attempt would in fact succeed. We are 20 years into this war, and I predict that very few of you in this auditorium will live long enough to see the end of this war against radical Islamic extremism. This is a multigenerational fight. We can make choices that will make that end come sooner or we can make choices that will make that war last longer. We have not made particularly good choices, as I have indicated, over the past several years, and the worst decision we made was the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which absolutely provided fire to tinder, poured gasoline on Islamic extremism, and gave them a cause for which to fight. We will be paying the price for that mistake both financially and in lives and in the security of the American people and our friends around the globe for generations. That is the bad news. The good news, if I may. There is a whole lot.

I am a headmaster now; I am in education. You can’t be an educator, and you certainly can’t be a good educator, and not be optimistic about the future. Education is an investment in the future, and I have been privileged for the past several months to be wandering around speaking on some great college campuses the last few weeks. I have been at West Point in the naval academy and Duke and UVA, Berkeley next week, and this week obviously I am here at BYU. I have also gotten the chance to speak to some of our active duty military forces including the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky a few weeks ago. The young people of this country are enthusiastic and committed and dedicated to making a difference. In particular, because I know them best, our military are unbelievably patriotic and committed and willing to assume unlimited liability in support of a government, despite the fact that the government over the last 15 years has not made particularly good decisions and has put many of them unnecessarily at risk. So my hope is that we are able to elect governments as a democratic people that are worthy of our military in uniform and that build a country and a future that all of you are going to bring to fruition. I am delighted to be here and look forward to your questions.

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