Nagl, a career officer and leading advocate for the Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, delivers a lively memoir that combines battlefield experiences with military politics.
A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, the author studied international relations before commanding a tank platoon during the 1991 Gulf War. “The rest of the world had seen the ease with which America’s conventional military forces cut through the Iraqi military,” he writes. “They would have been crazy to fight us that way again.” Sadly, American military leaders hated their experience fighting the Viet Cong and continued to train forces to fight conventional, World War II–type campaigns. Nagl returned to Oxford, earning a doctorate with a thesis comparing how Britain and America handled insurgencies in Malaya and Vietnam. Deployed to Iraq in 2003, he describes his brutal education in the realities of counterinsurgency. His military writing and thesis—published in 2002 as Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife—earned him appointment as military assistant in the Department of Defense, where he joined a team led by Gen. David Petraeus, who wrote the landmark 2007 counterinsurgency field manual. Its enthusiastic reception did nothing for Nagl’s career, however, and he retired in 2008 to join the Center for a New America, an influential Washington think tank where he continues to speak out on security issues. Insurgents win when opponents grow tired of the struggle, he notes, and Americans are clearly in that category. “If Iraq was the midterm,” writes the author, “Afghanistan is the final exam. It’s a lot harder than the midterm.” Nagl warns that our lack of patience means that Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s futures remain uncertain—and readers will note that he wrote this book before the current meltdown in Iraq.
A thoughtful, lucid, not-terribly-optimistic autobiography of a scholarly soldier.