John Nagl’s distinguished military past is the subject of his acclaimed new book.
John Nagl doesn’t wear the bracelet often. But when he does, its power is overwhelming. On it are the names of 23 men—his men—whom he believes died unnecessarily in Iraq. Nagl can be funny, flippant and irreverent. He’s most always thoughtful and certainly intelligent. But when it comes to those men, he’s downright angry.
A former tank commander and operations officer in Iraq, Nagl served as an aide to Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush. He helped pen the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, and he might just know more about how to combat the ISIS threat than anyone in the country.
“These are young men who died in a war that didn’t need to be fought and wasn’t fought as well as it should’ve been,” says Nagl, now in his second year as headmaster at the Haverford School. “They’ll never have the chance to see their kids graduate high school, play in a football game or in the band, or get married. Would that their ghosts could visit politicians and make sure that, before they go to war, they do it only when it’s absolutely necessary—and that they have a plan for when it ends.”
Nagl’s new book, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice (Penguin Press, 288 pages), traces his Army career, with a particular focus on Iraq and the battle with the insurgents who’ve since become emboldened after the United States began to lessen its presence there. It’s written by someone with the knowledge that things could have been much different, had the U.S. learned its lessons from previous wars—dating back to Vietnam—and made the proper preparations to finish the job in Iraq. Nagl writes from an insider’s perspective, and his experiences in the field and in the Pentagon give him the moral and strategic authority to cover this ground with a sense of outrage. “We still have troops in Italy and Japan [from World War II],” he says. “If we’re going to commit to spill American blood, we have to be ready to keep troops in place for generations.”
Nagl is no simple hawk, demanding the blacktopping of Middle Eastern countries. He graduated from West Point and earned his Ph.D. from St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. He’s an intellectual, and his approach on the martial world is one that blends considerable experience with deep thought. When he speaks of the current situation in Iraq, he does so as a soldier who’s seen good men die—and escaped a few close calls himself.
Clearly, Nagl doesn’t appreciate what he considers the halfway attitude toward the war’s conclusion. The best way to combat insurgents, he contends, is with a multi-pronged approach that combines training and advising the country’s military forces to handle any attacks or uprisings that occur, building relationships with the population—particularly law enforcement—to learn the locations and strategies of the insurgents, and creating a sense that America will be providing aid for a long time to come.
Not that Nagl is completely down on U.S. efforts. “In some ways, we’ve accomplished a great deal,” he says. “We have the most experienced counterinsurgency force in the planet’s history. We’re pretty sophisticated in understanding this kind of war—but it’s come at such a cost.”
And it’s not over yet. “Some of my friends are going to fight again and bleed again,” says Nagl, who is particularly incensed by the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria in the form of the Islamic State. Granted, Iraqi soldiers will do most of the work, says Nagl, with embedded American advisors providing guidance and our pilots flying missions against the insurgents. “We can effectively get out of Iraq,” he says. “Syria is a different situation.”
Handling Syria will require one of two paths, Nagl believes. The first option is to accommodate its president, Bashar al-Assad, against whom we took a stand beginning last year by aiding rebels fighting against his government. Otherwise, we must oust al-Assad and undertake a full occupation. Nagl believes the current administration “can’t stomach” either choice. So we’ll take care of Iraq now and hope that Syria doesn’t get too far out of control.
“We need to decide who we want to rule Syria,” he says.
When he was preparing for his new position at Haverford, John Nagl researched whether it would be possible for him to zip-line his way on stage from the back of the school’s Centennial Hall auditorium. Fiscal sanity eventually prevailed, and he settled for a ceremony that included a live band of teachers and students (his son, Jack, sat in on drums), along with “walk-on music” for just about all the participants, including the school’s chairman of the board. When one student heard Nagl speak before he took over, he remarked, “He’s way overqualified for this job.”
Nagl is gregarious and quick to smile, but he’s also quite serious about the business of running a school during what he calls the “third revolution” in society’s history—the technological age. He has to play a variety of roles at Haverford, largely because his constituent base is so varied.
Though he retired six years ago, it’s clear the experiences he endured while in the military remain close to the surface. In his book, he describes the aftermath of an explosion that took the lives of two of his men. Nagl came upon the scene and immediately took charge, despite the horrific tableau he encountered. Some were surprised at the lack of emotion he displayed, but Nagl explains that there was no time for sentiment—especially from him. “I had to have a flat affect,” he says. “I was doing a job. I am a senior officer, and I had to put my stuff in a box at that time. My job is to accomplish the mission. I’ve got a job to do, and I had to do it every day. If I didn’t do my job, people got killed.”
Obviously, his job at Haverford is important. But it lacks the life-and-death urgency he experienced in Iraq. In Knife Fights, he describes a pair of close calls. The memory of his time there fuels his anger toward the inadequate long-term planning that’s helped perpetuate such uncertainty. He ponders the future trouble that an emboldened al-Qaida and ISIS could wreak. But he’s more focused on the men in danger in the Middle East and what could happen to them and any others sent into the fray.
“I don’t think of what I went through nearly as often as I do the soldiers I lost,” Nagl says. “I knew I was at risk, but, to be honest, I was a major, a high-ranking officer—I wasn’t exposed to danger as often as the guys were in my command.”
The bracelet is a tangible reminder of those men’s lives—and their deaths. But Nagl doesn’t really need the bracelet. After all, he was there.