John Nagl

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"[Soldiers] require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies." - John Nagl [1]
soldier-scholar John Nagl

John A. Nagl is one of a number of counterinsurgency writers associated with David Petraeus. He is an advocate of the use of the US military to change societies through force and political coercion.

Biography

John Nagl is the eldest of six children. He grew up in a Roman Catholic household in Omaha, Neb., and said he decided to attend West Point out of a desire to serve his nation and spare his family the expense of putting him through college. (His father was an electrical engineer who served in the Navy.) [2]

According to the New York Times, Nagl 'graduated close to the top of his West Point class in 1988 and was selected as a Rhodes scholar.' He studied a Masters in International Relations for two years at Oxford before the 1991 Gulf War - during which he led a tank platoon [3] - and then returned to Oxford to study a PhD at St. Antony's College. [4] At Oxford Nagl 'immersed himself in the classic texts of guerrilla warfare'. According to the New York Times, 'the book that most forcefully captured Nagl's imagination' was T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, whilst his research focus was on the 'counterinsurgency' operations in Malaya and Vietnam. [5] His thesis was published in 1997 and titled, 'British and American Army Counterinsurgency Learning during the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War' [6] It was supervised by Professor Robert O'Neill, who was at that time director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University. Nagl writes that O'Neill 'suggested the topic and saw it through to the end.' [7] In 2002 Nagl's thesis was published as a book titled Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. The introduction to a recent edition of the book was written by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, at the time the Army's chief of staff. [8]

According to the Washington Post, Nagl served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as the operations officer for an Army battalion in Iraq's Anbar province.' [9] A contributor note in the December 2007 Rusi Journal states that Nagl commanded, 'the 1st (US) Battalion, 34th Armor at Fort Riley, Kansas' and 'served as the operations officer of Task Force Centurion in Al-Anbar in 2003 and 2004'. [10]

After serving in Iraq Nagl became an assistant to Paul Wolfowitz. [11] Then under the stewardship of David Petraeus Nagl helped produce the Army's counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24. [12] Nagl first met Petraeus in around 1986. According to Mother Jones, Nagl was 'interning at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, where Petraeus served as a speechwriter to then-NATO military commander General John Galvin.' [13] Another likeminded individual who contributed to the document was Nagl's friend David Kilcullen. Kilcullen also worked at the State Department under Wolfowitz and Nagl was probably responsible for his appointment. [14]

Nagl then became the commander of a battalion in Fort Riley, Kan., that teaches U.S. soldiers how to train and advise Iraqi forces. [15]

In 2008 the Washington Post reported that Nagl, then 41, had 'decided to leave the service to study strategic issues full time' at the Center for a New American Security [16]

Views

Nagl is an advocate of the use of US military power to force and coerce social changes on other countries. In an article in The Atlantic, Andrew J. Bacevich refers to two camps within the US military he labels as ‘Crusaders and Conservatives’. These groups differ as to the extent that they believe the US military should use social and political tools to achieve its goals. Bacevich writes that Nagl is, ‘Among the Crusaders’ most influential members’. He summarises Nagl’s position as follows:

Instability creates ungoverned spaces in which violent anti-American radicals thrive. Yet if instability anywhere poses a threat, then ensuring the existence of stability everywhere—denying terrorists sanctuary in rogue or failed states—becomes a national-security imperative. Define the problem in these terms, and winning battles becomes less urgent than pacifying populations and establishing effective governance. [17]

This focus on 'pacifying populations' and creating 'effective governance' should be understood in the context of the the lack of post-war planning in Iraq, associated particularly with Donald Rumsfeld. Nagl's alternative is the use of military power combined with political, economic and cultural measures to pacify resistance. For example he has written that:

The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies - and not all of those soldiers will wear uniforms, or work for the Department of Army. The most important warriors of the current century may fight for the US Information Agency rather than the Department of Defense. [18]

This reflects Nagl's background as a student of 'counterinsurgency'. It is a doctrine which has become popular, particularly in the liberal American media. Tara McKelvey comments in The American Prospect that: ‘Counterinsurgency has a special allure for liberal writers and thinkers because it offers a holistic approach, emphasizing efforts to win the hearts and minds of local people, and attempts to transform formerly autocratic governments into ones that respect human rights, women's education, and the rule of law.’ [19] Given this portrayal it is worth considering an historical precident used by Nagl. In his book he writes approvingly of the brutal American annexation of the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century:

Military measure were only one component of a broader political-military campaign that included effective propaganda, payment of cash bounties for weapons surrendered by the insurgents, and building of schools and hospitals in a comprehensive public works program. Those rebels who maintained their antagonism were deported, imprisoned or defeated in the U.S. Army’s most successful instance of counterinsurgency theory and practice. [20]

The Filipino author and academic E. San Juan, Jr. explains what in reality this 'successful instance of counterinsurgency' meant for the Filipinos:

The first Philippine Republic led by General Emilio Aguinaldo, which had already waged a successful war against the Spanish colonizers, mounted a determined nationwide opposition against U.S. invading forces. It continued for two more decades after Aguinaldo’s capture in 1901. Several provinces resisted to the point where the U.S. had to employ scorched-earth tactics, and hamletting or “reconcentration” to quarantine the populace from the guerillas, resulting in widespread torture, disease, and mass starvation. In The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective (2003), Prof. Gavan McCormack argues that the outright counter guerilla operations launched by the U.S. against the Filipinos, an integral part of its violent pacification program, constitutes genocide. [21]

Affiliations

Notes

  1. 'John Nagl reviews Here, Bullet By Brian Turner', RUSI Journal, Vol. 152, No. 6, December 2007, pp.94–108
  2. Peter Maass, 'Professor Nagl's War', New York Times, 11 January 2004
  3. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  4. Peter Maass, 'Professor Nagl's War', New York Times, 11 January 2004
  5. Peter Maass, 'Professor Nagl's War', New York Times, 11 January 2004
  6. John A. Nagl, “British and American Army Counterinsurgency Learning during the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Oxford: University of Oxford, 1997
  7. see Acknowledgments in John A. Nagl, Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: learning to eat soup with a knife (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002)
  8. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  9. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  10. 'John Nagl reviews Here, Bullet By Brian Turner', RUSI Journal, Vol. 152, No. 6, December 2007, pp.94–108
  11. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  12. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  13. Daniel Schulman, 'Like Ike: Petraeus for President?', Mother Jones, 10 September 2007
  14. note the reference to an unnamed official in Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  15. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  16. Thomas E. Ricks, 'High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank', Washington Post, 16 January 2008
  17. Andrew J. Bacevich, ‘The Petraeus Doctrine’, The Atlantic, October 2008
  18. 'John Nagl reviews Here, Bullet By Brian Turner', RUSI Journal, Vol. 152, No. 6, December 2007, pp.94–108
  19. Tara McKelvey, ‘The Cult of Counterinsurgency’, The American Prospect, 20 November 2008
  20. John A. Nagl, Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: learning to eat soup with a knife (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002) p.46
  21. E. San Juan, Jr., 'Stop U.S. Genocide in the Philippines', Social Viewpoint, Vol 5, No. 3, March 2005
  22. King's College London Insurgency Research Group, accessed 27 may 2009