Lt. Col. John A. Nagl (Ret.) is the author of the new book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice. He also has written Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Dr. Nagl served in the U.S. Army, and cowrote the U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. The former president of the Center for a New American Security, he is the headmaster of the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and why did you decide on “Knife Fights” as the title?
A: I wrote Knife Fights in order to capture the reasons the United States was so poorly prepared for the wars it has had to fight in this century, and to attempt to ensure both that we fight fewer wars in years to come—but fight them wisely and well.
My motivation for those desires is my memory of the many good soldiers and innocent civilians who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as we painfully relearned lessons of previous counterinsurgency campaigns that we have intentionally forgotten in the years since we fought them.
“Knife Fights” is a reference both to my first book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, and to the battles I fought on the ground in Iraq and in Washington to help us fight our counterinsurgency campaigns more effectively.
Q: You write that earlier in your career you decided to focus on counterinsurgency in your dissertation because it was “the kind of war that I thought was the most likely emerging challenge for American troops.” How successfully has the United States used counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what has the impact been?
A: In the words of T.E. Lawrence, counterinsurgency campaigns are messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been slower and messier than most. After a horrible start to an unnecessary war, Iraq turned out better than we could have hoped--well enough that Vice President Joe Biden in February of 2010 predicted that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”
Unfortunately, by failing to maintain a long-term American security presence in Iraq after 2011, the United States opened the door for the return of Al Qaeda to Iraq; AQI’s successor organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now controls the western third of the country, ground over which I fought in 2004.
Afghanistan has also been a grinding, difficult campaign, now America’s longest ever. With the peaceful departure of President Karzai and his replacement by Ashraf Ghani, there is every chance for a long-term security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that will prevent the return of the Taliban to control of that country and give the Afghan people the stable, democratic government they deserve.
I very much hope that the administration is studying the lessons of the premature American withdrawal from Iraq and will not make those mistakes again in Afghanistan, whose people have already suffered so much.
Q: As someone who’s studied and written about the lessons of Vietnam, how much do you think they are still playing a role in U.S. decision-making today?
A: Attempting to avoid the bitter memory of Vietnam was one of the major reasons the United States was so unprepared for counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th.
Unfortunately, those who do not remember their past are doomed to repeat it, and our Army had to painfully relearn how to conduct counterinsurgency 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War—lessons codified in the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual of 2006 that replaced one last updated at the end of the Vietnam War. It is essential that we not yet again forget those lessons and have to pay for them again in blood.
Q: You’re now serving as headmaster of the Haverford School near Philadelphia. How are you enjoying that, and what similarities and differences do you see compared with your previous responsibilities?
A: I feel enormously fortunate to be serving as the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School, where every day I work with 250 faculty and staff to prepare 1000 boys for life.
I enjoy managing a large enterprise and building a climate that encourages constant improvement and the creation of a culture of learning. I am pleased to be back in the classroom and on the lecture circuit, teaching and learning about American foreign policy. Most of all, I enjoy working with young people, helping them think about the purpose of their lives and how to best employ their considerable talents.
Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?
A: I’m currently running at a pace of a book every 20 years! Right now I’m enjoying being a part of discussions about American security policy at a number of great schools across America; I’ve spoken recently at West Point and Annapolis and am scheduled to visit Harvard, Tufts, Notre Dame, Duke, UVA, and Cal-Berkeley over the next few months. I think my next book may be about being a Headmaster—watch for it in 2034!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The most important choices our nation makes are those concerning war and peace. We must learn from the mistakes of the past decade of war and ensure that we follow the instruction of Saint Augustine to never again fight a war without a plan to build a better peace in the aftermath.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on www.hauntinglegacy.com.