As one of the earliest evangelists of adapting United States military thinking to match a low-intensity conflict environment, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl (Ret.) stands in a unique position to critique the services’ haphazard application of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Using a form of gallows humor that illustrates many of Nagl’s complaints about military bureaucracy erasing intrepid units’ gains after their tours’ conclusions, a cup made by one of the author’s subordinates upon return from Iraq serves as Knife Fights’ leitmotif: it reads “Iraq 2003-2004 – We Were Winning When I Left.”1
Clear from the book’s opening pages is that it is in no way meant to augment Nagl’s seminal review of COIN strategy, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife. However, this distance is often of great value: by structuring Knife Fights as a memoir rather than just a niche title for COINdinistas, Nagl’s appeals for an institutionally responsive U.S. military reach a broader audience.
Nagl begins the narrative with his service as a tank commander in Desert Storm, where through conventional warfighting the U.S. turned the fourth-largest army in the world into the second-largest army in Iraq.2 Fresh off a textbook victory in a major regional conflict that it had prepared for through much of the Cold War, the military restored its confidence lost so bitterly in the jungles of Vietnam and began molding its future force posture to repeat the 90-day success of Iraq. However, as the result of a grueling 1992 exercise at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center, Nagl realized that the traditional American way of war no longer sufficed for future conflicts. A National Guard unit familiar with the landscape from many training rotations routed the author’s tanks with unexpected guerilla tactics, and no current doctrine existed to prepare conventional units to counter this threat.
Performing an after-action review and determining that the Guardsmen had eschewed a head-on assault on an experienced armor unit, Nagl describes his eureka moment as the realization that future opponents would not risk such an engagement either. Instead, he grew convinced that the future of warfare lay in smaller, hit-and-run situations that would allow the enemy to slip away and blend into the population when the going got tough.3 Such conviction led the author to return to Oxford for a doctoral dissertation on COIN that later evolved into Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, which earned Nagl recognition as one of the Army’s pre-eminent scholars of a strategy foolishly ignored after Vietnam’s collapse.
In his follow-up assignment after a stint teaching at West Point, Nagl’s brigade deployed to the restive Anbar Province in Iraq’s lawless west, an experience that makes up the majority of Knife Fights. Recounting many experiences where the minimal deployments ordered by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compromised the mission’s objectives and left forces treading water, Nagl’s assertion that U.S. forces should instead have been used in greater number—what he refers to as “loaded for bear” —is weighty and damning.4
Nagl’s descriptions of the ad hoc style of COIN practiced on the battalion level but thwarted by the upper echelons’ punitive decisions targeting Saddam-era institutions should dispel claims by COIN’s opponents seeking to discredit the idea of a “savior general.”5 While those like Colonel Gian Gentile may wish to vindicate their role in the pre-Surge Iraq War, Nagl’s depiction of the sharp turnaround of Iraq’s faltering security situation after General David Petraeus achieved strategic buy-in for COIN’s application is hard to argue against. Furthermore, Knife Fights addresses head-on the second major complaint raised by COIN detractors, as Nagl is blunt in stating that insurgencies will not end in the U.S. military’s preferred fashion. Instead, a politically unsatisfying drawdown and continued support for fragile host governments via cash and a small advisory force will need to suffice, if only to continue to work toward long-term gains.
Though much of Nagl’s work is devoted to pointing out the inability of the current U.S. military apparatus to wage an effective counterinsurgency, the work is not all doom and gloom. Peppered with dry wit and many a humorous anecdote, Knife Fights ends on a hopeful note. Should the armed forces take lessons learned from their unnecessary losses and should politicians restrict their interventionist tendencies to protecting vital national interests or acting in righteous coalitions, misadventures like Afghanistan and Iraq can be avoided.
1. John Nagl, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014), 105.↩
2. Ibid., 19.↩
3. Ibid., 24.↩
4. Ibid., 68.↩
5. Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency (New York, NY: The New Press, 2013), 6.↩
Collin Hunt is a first-year student in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Security Policy Studies program with concentrations in transnational security and strategic communications. His current research focuses on jihadist groups and weapons smuggling in North Africa. Collin completed his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University, studying politics and diplomacy of the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter at @hunt_collin and email at email@example.com.