John Nagl's memories of Vietnam are vague, at best. He was, after all, only two years old during the 1968 Tet offensive and was in grade school in Omaha, Nebraska, during the fall of Saigon. It is perhaps for this reason that Nagl, a former tank commander turned military strategist, does not see Vietnam as a symbol of dishonor, the way older military officers do. Rather, the Vietnam War is a subject to be studied: Nagl's acclaimed book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, explores lessons from the American experience in fighting an insurgency in Vietnam. He's been one of the foremost proponents of applying those same techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Vietnam War, he writes, shows the importance of understanding tribal loyalties, working to improve the lives of civilians, and training local forces. Many of these lessons were forgotten in the decades following Vietnam. Nagl believes this is an oversight, and he has worked harder than almost anyone to bring these fundamental tenets of counterinsurgency into the military mainstream. Indeed, he has helped turn things around so dramatically that now counterinsurgency not only is seen as a legitimate and honorable pursuit but has become the guiding doctrine of the U.S. military.
Nagl (pronounced like "boggle," he says), who led a tank platoon in the first Gulf War and fought in Anbar Province in 2003 and 2004 (23 soldiers from his unit were killed), retired from the military this summer and is a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security. The 42-yearold Rhodes scholar is armed with missionary zeal, an arsenal of quotations about military strategy, and Red Bull-ish energy on the conference circuit. He is constantly tapping his feet, twirling his pen, and slamming his hand on tables when he talks. (An admitted self-Googler, he is adept at self-promotion.)
Nagl has so successfully popularized counterinsurgency in the military and the general public that he is known as the doctrine's Johnny Appleseed. One Pentagon insider says his achievements can be attributed "solely" to his ability to flirt. But, sitting at an outdoor patio table above Pennsylvania Avenue on a late summer morning, Nagl denies the charge. "I am shocked, shocked," he says, jokingly explaining that he finds it "appalling and demeaning and absolutely untrue." Then he leans back in his chair, takes off his glasses, and shakes his head slowly. "A man's got to do what a man's got to do," he says.
To that end, Nagl has helped rewrite the U.S. Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, which is currently being used in Iraq. He believes that a new-and-improved counterinsurgency strategy will lead the United States to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan--and will ensure peace and stability in those countries and elsewhere in the world. In different venues, ranging from television studios to meetings with government officials, he has outlined tactics and reviewed his own battle-tested strategies of counterinsurgency, and he is widely recognized as one of the main reasons that the doctrine holds sway in Baghdad, Ramadi, and, most importantly, in Washington.
Counterinsurgency means, more or less, an attempt to defeat guerilla fighters who hide among a civilian population over an extended period of time (the word "guerilla" comes from the Spanish term for "small war"). These types of "low-intensity conflicts," as they are known, were fought by the French in Algeria, the British in Malaysia, and the Soviets in Afghanistan. The current U.S. strategy includes a heady mix of politics and military might and is based on French and English doctrine from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as lessons from Vietnam. Counterinsurgency has a special allure for liberal writers and thinkers because it offers a holistic approach, emphasizing efforts to win the hearts and minds of local people, and attempts to transform formerly autocratic governments into ones that respect human rights, women's education, and the rule of law. …