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BOOK REVIEW: KNIFE FIGHTS: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

November 12, 2014

KNIFE FIGHTS: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, Penguin Group, 2014, 269 pp

This past weekend, while perusing the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I stumbled across a book written by a professor who was stationed at West Point when I was a cadet, John Nagl.

Knife Fights is a memoir written by a Rhodes Scholar who led a tank platoon in the 1st Cavalry Division during the first Gulf War, returned to Oxford to study counterinsurgency, and then found himself back in Iraq as an Operations Officer, fighting insurgents.

The book starts off with Nagl reporting to his first unit in Fort Hood, Texas after having just completed remedial tank training at Fort Knox and two years of drinking warm beer at Oxford. Shortly after arriving, Iraq invades Kuwait and Nagl quickly finds himself preparing his platoon for combat.

Professor Nagl humorously writes, “President Hussein clearly didn’t realize that the mighty Lieutenant Nagl had earned his master’s degree and been assigned to the storied First Cavalry Division; had Saddam possessed better intelligence, none of this might have happened.”

But after a dominant performance in Iraq, Nagl finds himself mulling over a very important formative experience that he had at the National Training Center where the OPFOR (Opposing Force during a combat simulation and war game scenarios) used stealth and insurgent tactics to strike his force and defeat a technologically superior unit.

Nagl also briefly discusses different schools of counterinsurgency, provides some historical context (e.g., the British in Malaya, Vietnam , El Salvador, etc.), captures many of the lessons learned of previous campaigns, and evaluates the thinking done to date.

Many of the lessons learned of Vietnam are largely summed up in the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine, which states that the US should not commit troops unless several conditions are met such as strong public support, clearly defined objectives, a well-defined exit strategy, and a clear intention of winning.

Contrary to what many others thought after Vietnam, however, Nagl was convinced that counterinsurgency wasn’t going away and that the military had better learn (or relearn) how to do it well. So Nagl pursued his degree at Oxford and focused on counterinsurgency.  Nagl’s dissertation compared the British and American militaries approaches in Malaya and Vietnam.

Regarding his opportunity to return to West Point to teach, Nagl states, “I was fully aware of my good fortune in earning an assignment to teach at West Point and deeply gratified by the assessment of the Military Academy’s Faculty that I probably needed a refresher course in intellectual pursuits after five years of tanking in Iraq, Texas, California, and Germany.”

The most interesting part of the book, though, is Nagl’s tour in Iraq in the early part of the war (2003 and 2004) as Nagl does what he does best: reflect on those years of study and attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Nagl writes, for example, that “An old counterinsurgency aphorism teaches that the insurgent is winning if he isn’t losing, but the counterinsurgent is losing if he isn’t winning, and this was another lesson starting to make sense.”

Nagl also notes that “a counterinsurgent has to defend everywhere, all of the time, while the insurgent can choose his target and his time, always slipping away to fight another day if the conditions aren’t exactly right.”

I particularly appreciated this quote, where Nagl opines that “The US had, through its failure to understand the cultures and power dynamics in the Arab world accomplished the seemingly impossible: it had united all of Iraq behind a common cause. Unfortunately, that common cause was killing Americans.”

And that is arguably where we are now.

This book is written by one of the Army’s most influential thought leaders. Although Nagl’s sense of humor is a little quirky at times, this book did make me laugh. I found myself nodding my head in agreement more than once because I recall having similar experiences. However, I had hoped that Nagl would raise more new questions.  Despite that, I found the book to be an enjoyable and insightful read.

Featured image from Shutterstock

Ryan Peckyno

Ryan graduated from West Point (BS) and Penn State, Main Campus (MBA). He worked for P&G, Lockheed Martin, the United States Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Motley Fool, Pinnacle Consulting, and various nonprofits.

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Categories: Book Review, Military Technology

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