Academic journal article Military Review

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

Academic journal article Military Review

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

Article excerpt

KNIFE FIGHTS: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice John Nagl, Penguin Press, New York, 2014, 288 Pages

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John Nagl describes his memoir, Knife Fights, as "an intellectual coming of age" story, but the book is only briefly that. Nagl came of age so quickly, solidifying his belief in the importance of counterinsurgency (COIN) in American warfighting doctrine, that the majority of Nagl's memoir chronicles his advocacy of COIN--not the intellectual struggle that brought him there.

Counterinsurgency proponents will read Knife Fights as a history of counterinsurgency's golden era and lament that myopic politicians weren't willing to fully implement its principles. Detractors of COIN will find Knife Fights anachronistic and arrogant in the face of muddled outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. But instead of using Knife Fights to argue the efficacy of COIN--a question better answered by an academic study or military history--Nagl's memoir is better read to understand the military community's increasingly cohesive narrative of its relationship with politicians--and who bears more fault for the failures of the last decade.

The author spent the years before Iraq and Afghanistan preparing for a time when asymmetric threats were seen as relevant to military affairs. Knife Fights recounts these formative years with a deft, if somewhat hurried, pen. The bulk of the book focuses on the now familiar "Global War on Terrorism"

After September 11, the military was slow to adapt to low-tech threats. During this time, Nagl and a small but influential cadre built a case for applying counterinsurgency techniques from colonial-era wars. The COIN proponents waged their own insurgency, bringing in academics, journalists, and think-tankers to convince the Army to change its strategy. The military's acceptance of COIN principles coincided with a dramatic decline in violence in Iraq, vindicating COIN in the eyes of some. COIN advocates were rewarded with greater influence in Washington, D.C. For Nagl, this meant a move from tanker to think-tanker at the Center for New American Security and finally on to The Haverford School. …

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