Thursday, October 02, 2014

I first became aware of John A. Nagl when I read and reviewed his iconic book, "Learning To Eat Soup With A Knife."  Since he published that book, I have followed with interest his career - starting the Center for A New American Security (CNAS) along with Nate Fick, and now as headmaster at The Haverford School.

"Knife Fights: An Education in Modern Warfare" is unique among war memoirs in that Nagl is able to comment on our recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan from three very different perspectives.  As an academic, he wrote Masters and Doctorate treatises on the history and theory of Counterinsurgency.  He served as a "boots on the ground" soldier in both theaters of war, struggling to implement those theories.  Finally, he also served at a very high level in the Pentagon, helping to make policy decisions regarding Counterinsurgency.

In this book, Nagl is very strident in his critique of the Bush administration's lack of planning for the phase of the war in Iraq that would follow the toppling of Saddam Hussein.  The author gives many examples - citing chapter and verse - of decisions that were made by Bush and Rumsfeld and their minions that placed American warriors and American "treasure" in harms way needlessly and egregiously.

Nagl also makes a very clear and compelling case for why proven principles of Counterinsurgency need to be pre-eminent in our planning for anticipated future engagements in trouble spots around the globe.

The author describes a visit to Iraq by New York Times reporter, Peter Maas.  He quotes Maas in making an observation about Nagl's dual perspective on the war:

"One of Peter's turns of phrase was, I thought, particularly apt. Describing my transition from student of counterinsurgency to practitioner, Peter described me as a paleontologist who suddenly had the chance to observe live dinosaurs. 'But Nagl can't simply stand around and take notes.  He is responsible, with the rest of his battalion, for taming an insurgency, which is as difficult as teaching a dinosaur to dance.'" (Pages 91-92)

This book is a "must read" for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of the U.S. involvement in the hornet's nests that were - and are - Iraq and Afghanistan.  Written from the perspective of an insider who was often treated by senior officials as an outsider, Nagl's memoir is full of conceptual, philosophical and intellectual IEDs that blow apart preconceived ideas of how modern wars are fought - and how they should be fought.



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