The Historian Who Now Commands a Tank Unit in Iraq

Historians in the News

Peter Maass writing in the NYT (Jan. 1, 2004):

Maj. John Nagl approaches war pragmatically and philosophically, as a soldier and a scholar. He graduated close to the top of his West Point class in 1988 and was selected as a Rhodes scholar. He studied international relations at Oxford for two years, then returned to military duty just in time to take command of a tank platoon during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, earning a Bronze Star for his efforts. After the war, he went back to England and earned his Ph.D. from St. Antony's College, the leading school of foreign affairs at Oxford . While many military scholars were focusing on peacekeeping or the impact of high-tech weaponry, Nagl was drawn to a topic much less discussed in the 1990's: counterinsurgency.

At Oxford , he immersed himself in the classic texts of guerrilla warfare. There are different schools of thought, but almost every work in the canon imparts the message that counterinsurgency is one of the hardest types of warfare to wage. Nagl read "Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice," by Col. C.E. Callwell, a British officer who in 1896 warned of "protracted, thankless, invertebrate war" in guerrilla terrain. Nagl also read "Small Wars Manual," published in 1940 by the United States Marine Corps, which cautions: "Every detachment representing a tempting target will be harassed or attacked. The population will be honeycombed with hostile sympathizers."

The more Nagl read, the more he understood the historical challenge of insurgency. Julius Caesar complained that his legions had trouble subduing the roving Britons because his men "were little suited to this kind of enemy." In the early 1800's, Carl von Clausewitz wrote of "people's wars" in which "the element of resistance will exist everywhere and nowhere." The book that most forcefully captured Nagl's imagination was written by T.E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, the British officer who, during World War I, led Arab fighters against the Turkish rulers in the Middle East and described the campaign (taking liberties with the facts) in his counterinsurgency classic, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom."

Lawrence 's is one of the few books in the canon written from the point of view of the insurgent. (Another is Mao Zedong's "On Guerrilla Warfare.") In a near-hallucinatory state, suffering from dysentery and lying in a tent, Lawrence realized the key to defeating the Turkish Army. "Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head," he wrote. Lawrence 's guerrillas, by contrast, "might be a vapour." For the Turks, he concluded, "war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."

In his own research, Nagl focused on two modern insurgencies in Asia . In Malaya in the 1950's, the British successfully suppressed a Communist revolt (comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese) by generally steering clear of excessive force and instituting a "hearts and minds" campaign to strip the insurgents of public sympathy. In Vietnam in the 1960's and 1970's, the United States military took a different approach and failed. The Americans resorted to indiscriminate firepower and showed little concern for its effect on the civilian population. Comparing the two efforts, Nagl demonstrated that a key issue for a counterinsurgent army is to calibrate correctly the amount of lethal force necessary to do the job with the minimum amount of nasty, counterproductive side effects. Even if using force with restraint meant the mission would take more time or reduce the level of force protection, it was still an indispensable step: a successful counterinsurgency took care and patience. When Nagl's doctoral thesis, "Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam ," was published in 2002, it carried the subtitle "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife."

Nagl's scholarship helped earn him a post as a professor at West Point . But when I met him last month, he was testing his theories far from the classroom. Nagl is now the third in command of a tank battalion in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, which extends north and west of Baghdad . The counterinsurgency expert is, for the first time in his life, practicing counterinsurgency. ...

Writing more than a hundred years ago, C.E. Callwell, the British military historian , predicted in his classic text "Small Wars" a dilemma that would face every counterinsurgent force of the 20th century. "In a guerrilla situation," he warned, "the guerrilla is the professional, the newcomer the amateur." Callwell offered this remedy: "It cannot be insisted upon too strongly that in a small war the only possible attitude to assume is, speaking strategically, the offensive. The regular army must force its way into the enemy's country and seek him out. . . . It must play to win and not for safety. . . . It is not a question of merely maintaining the initiative, but of compelling the enemy to see at every turn that he has lost it and to recognize that the forces of civilization are dominant and not to be denied."

Callwell's solution tends to create a new problem, however. What is the right amount of offensive force to use? At the outset of the Vietnam War, Col. John Paul Vann, who would emerge as one of the most thoughtful and ultimately tragic officers in the war, recognized the paradox and realized his firepower-loving commanders had not. In 1962, he warned David Halberstam, then a young reporter for The New York Times, that the wrong strategy had been adopted. "This is a political war, and it calls for the utmost discrimination in killing," he told Halberstam, as recounted in William Prochnau's "Once Upon a Distant War." "The best weapon for killing is a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The next best is a rifle. The worst is an airplane, and after that the worst is artillery. You have to know who you are killing."

Nagl, in his book, portrays Colonel Vann -- the protagonist of Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book "A Bright Shining Lie" -- as a clear-eyed officer who saw what was wrong and had the courage to say it out loud. Nagl understands the message Vann imparted to Halberstam and tried to impart to the generals he served under: counterinsurgency requires an excruciatingly fine calibration of lethal force. Not enough of it means you will cede the offensive to your enemy, yet too much means you will alienate the noncombatants whose support you need.


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Gary Henrickson - 1/14/2004

Just a comment on the Malayan insurgency, often considered an example of how to fight a guerilla war successfully. First, the British were able to isolate the insurgent Chinese by turning Chinese villages into concentration camps, only allowing the villagers outside of the wire to work in plantations under supervision. Second, the campaign was only partially successful. On a visit to northern Malaysia in the 1980s, we were warned that there were still insurgents near the Thai border.