Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military

He gives us a clear and appealing vision, but one that is deadly wrong IMO.  Only a first rate mind could have conceived it something so attractive and yet destructive.

In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield; in fact, there may not be a uniformed enemy to fight at all. Instead, a war is only won when the conditions that spawned armed conflict have been changed.  Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world. Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.

John Nagl (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired), in his review of Brian McAllister Linn’s book, The Echo of Battle – The Army’s Way of War, RUSI Journal (April 2008).  Note:  the link to his review is at the Small Wars Journal, posted courtesy of the RUSI Journal.

In my opinion this is flawed strategic doctrine, on multiple levels.  The tone and language are colonialist.  “We protect its people…”  We “allow them to control their territory…”  The problem with these is not bad marketing or a trivial issue of semantics.  Formulating our goals in these way starts us down the wrong path.

First, this arrogates to ourselves the dominate role in foreign lands.  We protect.  We allow them to control.   We decide who is the insurgent and who the legitimate government.  Nationalism has been one of the world’s most powerful social forces for several centuries, and this formula puts us in opposition to it.  It will sound terrible to them, because it is inimical to their control over their land and society. 

Who decides what are the “norms of the civilized world?  The local people?  The UN?  Or us?

Second, any government that accepts our help under this doctrine puts its legitimacy at risk — and it probably already has low legitimacy or they would not need our help.  Soldiers operating with this doctrine wil likely have an attitude of casual contempt towards the local government (often seen in Iraq, right up to the highest levels of the US government). 

No matter how noble our original intentions (unlike Iraq, with our interest in bases and oil), such a strategic view risks polluting our thinking.  Even Kilcullen, to some extent inoculated against this by his training in political anthropology, often exhibits neo-colonial attitudes.  Note these excerpts from his slides at a September 2007 presentation (see the link to my October 2007 post for a more detailed analysis).

The fundamental problem is CONTROL – of people, terrain and information. (Slide 14)

Control over the population (through a combination of coercion and consent) is the goal of both government and insurgent – “The Population is the Prize” (FM 3-24 / Galula) (Slide 19)

Third, this puts on us the burden of structuring these foreign polities.  I have said this many times, in many ways, so here will quote Lexington Green:

Also, we need to be more humble than Nagl seems to be. We don’t even know how to create fully viable, lawful societies in Roxbury, Massachusetts or the West Side of Chicago or East LA. Africa, Andean South America or Central Asia are much tougher nuts to crack. Set the ambitions small enough to succeed, case by case.


(1)  Hat tip on this to Zenpundit, who often sees valuable insights in things I have deeply buried in my reading pile.  I wish I knew how he does this.

(2) This analysis looks only at one paragraph Nagl writes, in a book review. This hardly reflects his full vision about these things.

(3)  For more on this, see Chet Richard’s latest book If We Can Keep it, a must-read for anyone seeking to understand our grand strategic options in the 21st century.

(4) Nagl’s bio, from the Small Wars Journal:

John Nagl is a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A retired US Army officer, his last assignment was as Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 34th Armor at Fort Riley, Kansas. He led a tank platoon in Operation Desert Storm and served as the operations officer of a tank battalion task force in Operation Iraqi Freedom. A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Nagl earned his doctorate from Oxford University, taught national security studies at West Point, and served as a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. He is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the writing team that produced the Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information about US COIN doctrines

  1. Kilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War  (6 October 2007) — Neocolonism in theory and practice.
  2. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24  (19 March 2008)
  3. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual  (20 March 2008)

13 thoughts on “Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military”

  1. Robert Petersen

    I think you have to keep in mind Nagl is a part of all this. He wrote about COIN before the invasion of Iraq and served in Iraq himself. He has to believe in what he was doing served a purpose.

    I don’t really think you can wage COIN much differently than he describes. But every COIN waged by a foreign occupying force should have the “Malayan solution” as its strategic objective: Total independence. I am refering to the Malayan Emergency, where the British succesfully destroyed a communist insurgency with minimal force. Strategically they won because they made it perfectly clear they didnt want to stay, so the population supported them.

    The point: Get in, do what you want to do for a couple of years and then get the hell out.

    Unfortunately that is exactly what the United States doesn’t intend to do in Iraq. They want to keep bases, have American firms drilling after oil etc. This is a receipt for trouble. Strangely enough even neocon Paul Wolfowitz realized that: Back in 2003 he said that one of the great things about the invasion of Iraq was the United States could now remove their deeply unpopular bases in Saudi-Arabia which had caused so much trouble. Well, he was right – removing the bases in Saudi-Arabia and replacing them with Iraqi bases made everything become honky dory.

    Anyway: Any occupation is a race against time and when you get out stay out. Of course there is a catch: Getting out fast might also mean you don’t get the job done.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly agree. This is the commonly overlooked aspect of the success in the Malayan Emergency: there was a legitimate government in place, and the UK had committed to withdrawal. That makes it a powerful lesson, but of limited applicability in places lacking these conditions.

    Also questionable is the formulation “the Brits won in Malaysia.” Martin van Creveld said “Who says the British won in Malaysia? It was a victory, but not for British arms. British propaganda convinced everyone they had won.” (private communication). He expands upon this conclusion in his new book, The Changing Face of War.

  2. Your post doesn’t seem to include any actual criticisms, rather statements of facts using words with negative connotations.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We are in serious trouble, worse than I imagined. To recap, I say that Nagl’s strategy (based on this one paragraph) is

    (1) neocolonial in view, putting us in opposition to a major tend in post-WWII history,
    (2) puts us in opposition to local nationalists (ditto),
    (3) weakens the legitimacy of the government we are attempting to help, in violation of a major theme of FM 3-24, and
    (4) takes on the burden of structuring foreign polities, at which we will likely fail.

    Having to explain why these are bad things should be unnecessary. When intelligent Americans see these things as fine attributes of a policy — not criticisms, just statements of fact using harsh words — then we are doomed. How fortunate that it is Sunday morning, for prayer is our only recourse.

  3. Nicholas Weaver

    “What is needed is not forcing someone to do what you want, but arranging things so you understand what they want, use what they want to shape what they want so they want whan you want.” (A bastardization of the definition of soft power).

    And if you can’t do the last part, shape things so they want what you want, you have to get the hell out because staying won’t make them want what you want any more likely.

    Some 230 years ago, our nation showed the abject failure of colonialism, and the policies Fabius Maximus identified in 1-4. We seem intent on doing it again.

  4. The critical weakness in all of this isn’t even the language of empire. What if we establish control, bring legitimacy, allow them to control their territory, and then they still decide they don’t like us? In that case, we will have lost lots of live, money, and equipment for nothing.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No matter how bleak my analysis, someone always comes along with one even darker!

  5. Nagl’s view is something like Emmanuel Todd’s, the French demographer, in End of Empire. There he observes that America has blustered a great deal militarily, but has failed to occupy any country in the last fifty years (other than Germany and Japan, which are special cases.) He also observes, with Rome in mind, that an empire must provide not only protection against foreign enemies, but a system of law and a believable, attractive ideology and culture. America once had an attractive ideology — democracy — but its own practices, both foreign and domestic, have discredited those ideals.

    I agree with Fabius’ original viewpoint, and the consensus against any kind of colonialism — soft or hard — in the other commenters. But something is missing in those comments. Before there was military imperialism, there was economic imperialism, and that means that our relations with Latin America, Africa and much of Asia have been ones of inequality, where we want what they have, or want it in a way that is not in their larger populations’ best interest.

    Wherever there are relations of inequality, there will be resistance. Finally, I think we have to confront the fact that our dominant economic power (and our way of life) are disfunctional in the present world. There’s no clean or smart or certainly military way to maintain it.

    My second point would be that the era of our overweening military power is over. We have it on paper, but there’s almost no way we can use it. Iraq is a great case in point. Our attempt to use it there may end up costing us the whole strategic goal we hoped to gain by using it.

  6. “Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world. Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.”

    This sounds more like a recipe for dealing with gang violence in Los Angeles than counterinsurgency warfare. In former case, the “we” and “the people” are cuturally relatively similar (and “we” don’t have access to indirect fire and close-in air support), in the latter…

  7. So if it’s acceptable for Fabius to label Nagle as a colonialist/neo-colonialist, and thereby dismiss him, can I label plato’s cave as a Marxist/neo-Marxist, and thereby dismiss him?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Absolutely! But be careful — when the revolution comes, we will all be visiting Plato’s Cave … begging for references!

    More seriously, I believe I did more than just “dismiss” Nagl’s viewpoint (given his distinguished record, that would be insane). There were three specific reasons given. They might be cogent or foolish (I’ve been on both sides of that spectrum), but what more would make my words qualify in your eyes as “analysis”?

  8. but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world
    After Nixon took office in 1969, thru to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the USA was slowly succeeding at this in S. Vietnam, while still supporting a non-democratic General/dictator in S. Korea. Had the veto-proof majority Dem Party been willing to support our S. Viet allies/ not-quite puppets, with air attacks against the N. Viet aggressors and with cash, the S. Vietnamese could have stopped the commie blitzkrieg.

    The Malays were NOT receiving the level of Soviet support that the N. Viet were getting.

    The US military occupation means the US has a veto on which local leader runs the country. As we see with Pakistan’s Mussharif (or the Shah of ’79), being too closely allied with the US while not having fully civilized behavior is becoming unacceptable.

    Having a veto in Iraq, against al Sadr for instance, does not necessarily make us dominant. Any more than the US Federal Gov’t is really dominant in SE LA (Watts, Compton) (next to my hometown of SouthGate). The US military presence means the US chosen/agreed to enemy can NOT establish military control. Which local wins the power grabbing was not determined by the US — the US did not choose Maliki, nor will it choose the next Iraqi or Pakistani leaders. The veto/ alliance/ working with US allows America-bashers, including Western media, to claim the local leaders are just poodles (as the French claimed about Blair, for instance). But such a claim doesn’t make it so.

    The Anbar Tribes seem to have an alliance of convenience with the Americans. What’s not clear on the bases is how much the Iraqi politician anti-Americanism is merely bargaining to get a better a deal. The amount of cash spent in building up the bases is likely to be seen as a mediocre investment in the future — unless they are needed and used, due to other Iraqi failures.

    Like Robert, I think Nagl is correctly describing COIN. Unlike most here, I think this strategic goal is the best the US can do to minimize the risk of a nuke being used on a populated city (esp. Tel Aviv). At least, until backstop technology allows an gas making-substitute to be produced at about $40 / barrel.

  9. Iraq today for all of its imperfections is a vastly better place than it was in the last fifty years and better than most Arab countries. Iran and Syria are to Iraq the China/Soviet Union and Laos/Cambodia to South Vietnam. Remove them from the picture and the war in Iraq is essentially over, a mopping up campaign. And we can remove Iran and Syria if we really want to and we can do so without much cost to us if we are prepared to be bit brutal. All the cards are in our hands and neither of those countries or the rest of the world can do anything about it if we choose to do so. The only restraint on us is ourselves. It is by not acting that we invite more and more trouble as we become perceived by our adversaries and enemies as weak minded and foolish.It does not take much of an imagination if we were to blockade all the ports that supply Syria and Iran, blast their air defenses and key Army units as well as key transportation hubs, electrical grids and most of all their political troops those regimes would collapse in a few months from hunger if nothing else. Remember that starvation was ultimately what caused the Germans to give up in WW1 along with the prospect of their army finally coming on the verge of being crushed and Germany occupied. In the end the second world war had to be fought to that bitter end since we failed to be insufficiently brutal in the first world war to convince the Germans to truly surrender. Instead we had a 20 year truce and gave the enemy time to rearm and rebuild. May 8th 1945 stripped the Germans of all their illusions but at a cost of many millions of dead and the rise of communism that could have been avoided by crushing Germany in 1918.

    In the end W.T. Sherman was right. War is cruelty and the quickest way to end it is inflict the maximum amount of cruelty to the enemy to convince them the cost of continuing to fight is worst than the cost of defeat and surrender.

    Iraq does not have to been overly friendly with us in the future. All they have to do is not aid our enemies or be overtly hostile to us. Indeed as long as the Iranians continue along the path they are on, Iraq will want and need our presence there. Indeed if not for our presence most likely Israel might have reminded the Arabs of Sharon’s adage “they may have the oil but we have the matches”. Saudi Arabia exist solely at our sufferance. Our Army in Iraq is a not too subtle reminder that we will tolerate a lot of pain but not unlimited pain. Oil is indispensable but Arabs are not. Saddam Hussein became intolerable and had to go. If Iran continues in the current direction, that regime will also become intolerable and will have to go and we have the power to do so. The lesson of the hanging of Saddam Hussein to the rest of the Arab world and to Iran is do not make yourselves intolerable to us. Europe, China,Russia and the UN will not save you. God will not save you.

    The British Empire lasted a long time and on the whole was rather cheap to maintain for most of its history. The Roman Empire lasted far longer and could have gone on for several centuries more if not for incompetence and corruption. We can drill for oil at home and in a decade or two make ourselves largely non dependent on imports and completely independent of Arab oil. However we will be in Iraq for at least 20 years and probably longer just to make sure the neighborhood stays fairly quiet even if we become self sufficient in energy because the cost of intolerable behavior by those countries exceeds the costs of staying.

  10. Pingback: A reply to COIN and Nation Building skeptics: Part I, defending Nagl with ethical Nation Building « Stephen Pampinella

  11. Indigenous agency – what the Iraqis want and can do; what the Vietnamese wanted and could/would do – often goes unremarked upon or unconsidered Iraq is not Vietnam but this does not mean that comparisons do not have value in the proper context. Leaving out the paramount role of the indig’ is a serious analytical and stragetic flaw.
    American arms and aid could not “win” a non-communist government, create a semblence of an equitable society and economy, nor defeat the adaptable insurgency and assault of the NLF and DRV. When occupation in Iraq gave way to an multifaceted insurgency, it became critical for an Iraqi capability to govern and fight to develop.

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