Oct 16, 2014
After fighting in the first gulf war, John Nagl returned to the United States and took part in a simulated military exercise. As a tank commander, he had all the overwhelming firepower any soldier could hope for…and yet he lost to a group of Alaskan National Guard infantrymen, known as the Nanooks. Nagl’s unit was unassailable by any conventional military force but a group of lightly armed troops, defying all the rules of how wars “should” be fought had defeated a much, much stronger force. That failure bothered him so much that he decided to devote the rest of his life to understanding it and making sure it never happened again. During the 90’s, the American military trained for the war it wanted to fight: a war just like the first Gulf War. Nagl’s experience with the Nanooks had convinced him that no conventional military would ever make the same mistake that Saddam Hussein had made in taking the US Army on head on. Instead, he suspected that the US’ major threats would come from small, irregular groups of troops employing hit and run engagements rather than full frontal assaults. Even though it would reduce his chances of rising through the ranks, Nagl convinced the Army to send him to Oxford to study counter-insurgency and figure out how the US could defeat an enemy as irregular as the Nanooks. As he read through the histories and primary sources, he came to realize that what the Nanooks had done was a very old form of warfare. In fact, it was the exact form of warfare used by the Viet Cong in Vietnam. The exact form of warfare that America (focused on the conventional military tactics of World War II) had been unable to defeat. While in traditional war, the goal is to annihilate the enemy this strategy is counter-productive in fighting a counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is much more complicated, subtle and time-consuming. It is what T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) described in his book as being like learning to eat soup with a knife. This phrase so inspired Nagl that he made it the title of his own book on the topic, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, little attention was paid to this book. By the time Nagl deployed to Iraq for the War on Terror, the book was still virtually unknown. However, as America found itself mired in another insurgency, the American military began to realize the vital importance of Nagl’s insights. And so, General Petraeus asked Nagl to write the official Army and Marine Field Manual on Counter-Insurgency. In his most recent book, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice, Lt. Col John A. Nagl (Ret.) tells the story of the incredible revolution in military thinking that he has helped pioneer. If you don’t want the terrorists to win, you should read all of John Nagl’s books.