John Nagl and the Futility of Counterinsurgency

Lt. Col. John Nagl’s excellent book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, which came out several years ago was sufficiently well-regarded in military circles that it got him tapped to work on the Counterinsurgency Field Manual that David Petraeus was working on pre-surge. But now he’s retiring to go work instead at the centrist CNAS think tank where Hillary Clinton’s future assistant secretaries are cooling their heels. This, in turn, has produced a lot of interesting commentary. James Fallows remarks:

Petraeus, as is obvious, has been greeted as a savior by politicians of both parties. The striking thing that Nagl’s resignation illustrates is that younger officers in the Petraeus model and, like Nagl, around Petraeus himself are faring nowhere near as well. The other most famous case, too resonant and complicated to do more than mention at the moment, involves Col. H.R. McMaster: author of Dereliction of Duty, a book that has had tremendous influence within the military. (More on McMaster here.) He has been a successful combat leader in Iraq but, as every serving officer knows, he has twice been “passed over” for promotion to general. Unfortunately there are a lot of other examples, involving not just Petraeus’s own coterie but promising-yet-stifled officers more generally.

Fred Kaplan puts this in the context of a larger retention problem the Army is having with its mid-level officers, an issue explored in even more depth by Andrew Tilgman here.

All of which makes me curious to see what, exactly, Nagl will wind up saying and doing once he’s at CNAS free and clear of the obligations of active duty service. In my view, the smart counterinsurgency set — Petraeus, Nagl, McMaster, T.X. Hammes, David Kilcullen, and all the rest (guys who, unlike seemingly everyone else who writes about these issues I’ve never met) — tend to outline the requirements for successful counterinsurgency in terms that make it clear to me that successful counterinsurgency is almost never going to happen and almost never going to be worth the cost. But they themselves don’t see it that way. Instead, you get analysis that very much reflects the “can-do” spirit of America in general and the Army in particular.


And of course a can-do spirit is precisely what you want from a soldier. But from an analytic perspective, there’s a real issue here: Who’s going to do the kind of stuff Nagl says the military needs to be doing? Kaplan concludes:

The Army is so desperate to retain good captains that it’s offering $35,000 bonuses if they stay in the service for another term. For many officers, that’s not enough; money isn’t really the issue, and if it were, they could make much more on the outside. Can’t the Army come up with another incentive to officers like John Nagl — maybe offer them the lure of a stable life?

Presumably the Army could to more to offer the lure of a stable life to key officers. But conducting the counterinsurgency warfare pretty clearly isn’t compatible with all officers having stable lives. Someone needs to rotate in-and-out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And, presumably, one would want our top counterinsurgency people doing that rotating. But nobody really wants, personally, to engage in a multi-decade counterinsurgency operation in Iraq. And yet that’s what the COIN people seem to think would be necessary to get the job done.