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

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9780143127765: Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

From one of the most important Army officers of his generation, a memoir of the military’s revolution in counterinsurgency warfare

Delivering a profound education in modern warfare, John Nagl’s Knife Fights is essential reading for anyone who cares about the fate of America’s soldiers and the purposes for which their lives are put at risk.

As an army tank commander in the first Gulf War, Nagl was an early convert to the view that America’s greatest future threats would come from asymmetric warfare—guerrillas, terrorists, and insurgents. His Oxford thesis on the lessons of Vietnam—eventually published as a book called Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife—became the bible of the counterinsurgency movement. But it would take 9/11 and the botched aftermath of the Iraq invasion to give his ideas contemporary relevance. After a year’s hard fighting in Iraq’s Anbar Province, where Nagl served as operations officer of a tank battalion in the 1st Infantry Division, he was asked by General David Petraeus to coauthor the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual—rewriting core doctrine that would change the course of two wars and the thinking of an army. Knife Fights is the definitive account of counterinsurgency and its consequences by the man who was the doctrine’s leading architect.

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About the Author:

John A. Nagl is a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army. A graduate of West Point and a Rhodes Scholar, he received his PhD from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the former president of the Center for a New American Security and the ninth headmaster of the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

This is a book about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women. It is a tale of wars that needed to be fought and wars that were not necessary but that happened nonetheless, at enormous cost in blood and treasure. It is also an intellectual coming-of-age story, that of both the author and the institution to which he devoted most of his adult life, the American military. It is a book about counterinsurgency and its journey from the far periphery of U.S. military doctrine to its center, for better and, some would argue, for worse. It is also, then, a book about America’s role in the world, and specifically about when and how we use military force abroad in the name of national security.

The book largely takes the form of a memoir, which feels somewhat self-indulgent to me—I was very much more shaped by than shaper of the events this book relates. But my hope is that following the arc of my own learning curve will be the easiest way for a reader to understand the broader story of the American military’s radical adaptation to a world of threats very different from those involving nuclear weapons and Soviet tanks massed at the Fulda Gap that I studied at West Point a generation ago. Following that arc will also help to explain why, after decades of responsibility for the lives of American soldiers, I have recently shouldered the responsibility to prepare another generation of young men for a life of service far from the battlefield, in the classrooms and on the playing fields of friendly strife as the ninth headmaster of The Haverford School.

The U.S. military changed quickly after 9/11—not quickly enough from the perspective of those we lost and had injured, but quickly indeed by the standards of very large, hierarchical institutions. Some say the military in fact has changed too quickly, embracing counterinsurgency with a fervor that has had unforeseen negative consequences. I do not take that view. This book is not a pep rally, not a victory lap around counterinsurgency’s successes in Iraq, and certainly not in Afghanistan, where they have been thinner on the ground. But as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., liked to say, the right question is often “Compared to what?” Any intellectually serious reckoning with America’s post-9/11 wars has to contend with what the alternatives were once the decision to invade Iraq had been too hastily made and too poorly implemented. In the wake of mistakes there are sometimes no good choices; in both Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency was the least bad option available.

I had the rare opportunity to be involved in both the theory and the practice of war, helping write doctrine and also living with the consequences of implementing doctrine in the field as an officer responsible for the lives of America’s sons and daughters. The bulk of my combat experience was in Iraq, and Iraq is central to the story this book tells. But the shadow of Afghanistan hangs over all of it, even the Iraq story.

The first post-9/11 consequence of the American military’s pre-9/11 focus on large, conventional combat operations wasn’t the failure to see the Iraq War for what it was. First there was the Afghan campaign of the fall of 2001, a campaign conceived of and initiated by the CIA because the American military had no plan on the shelf that spoke to such a situation. The Afghan campaign’s initial success at scattering America’s enemies allowed us to make the mistake of immediately pivoting to Iraq, sinking us into the morass of two ground wars in Asia when one would have been more than enough.

Focusing on Iraq meant taking our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and gain strength, blinding us to the true nature of the situation there until it was almost too late.

If Iraq was the midterm, Afghanistan is the final exam. It’s a lot harder than the midterm. And while we eked out a passing grade on the midterm, after a horrible start, the final grade remains in doubt, an incomplete. We’re unlikely to know the answer for some years to come, but the Afghan end state is important for the future of the region and for America’s place in the world—a world that is likely to be roiled by insurgency and counterinsurgency for decades to come.

The story begins in a very different place and time, a time when the Soviet Union had just been tossed into the dustbin of history, its internal contradictions rendered unbearable after its own painful war in Afghanistan. America stood unchallenged as the world’s only superpower for the first time in history, but Saddam Hussein had misread American determination to enforce the international security regime it had created in the wake of the Second World War. For the first time since Vietnam, the United States deployed the full weight of American power abroad. It was a heady and unsettling time for a young man who had studied war but never seen it.

1.
Ghostriders in the Storm

When do you want to meet the men, Lieutenant?” The Puerto Rican accent was always thick, but it got thicker when he was mad. We’d goad him on purpose, pretending not to be able to understand him, until Sergeant Claudio got so frustrated that he’d throw his hat onto the hot sand and stomp off spouting unintelligible Puerto Rican expletives. It never got old.

But that came later, after I’d met the men. “Um, now, I guess,” was my answer, sounding a bit more like the soft graduate student of international relations I’d recently been and less like the gruff, hardened first lieutenant of armor I hoped to project to my troops.

I’d just left Oxford in the summer of 1990. After allowing me to read books and drink warm English beer for two years, the Army had ordered me to remedial tank training at Fort Knox before an assignment to Fort Hood, Texas, the largest army post in the free world. While in Kentucky, I took the opportunity to invite my British girlfriend on her first trip to the States, but our planned leisurely drive across the country was cut short by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. 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.

Susi ended up spending a week in Fort Hood’s appropriately named Poxon House during the annual summer cricket invasion as I prepared for deployment as a combat replacement. She carefully picked up the crickets that came under the door, trying to keep their legs attached as she returned them to their friends outside, but cricket legs are surprisingly poorly connected to their abdomens. Her failures staggered in endless, helpless circles outside our door, wounded veterans of an invasion that didn’t have to happen. An alternative strategy was a thick kill zone of Raid sprayed outside the hotel door mantel, designed to deter invasion of the homeland. This chemical warfare only ensured that the survivors who made it through the kill zone into the objective of our hotel room died slowly and noisily during the night.

I hoped that the experience of the crickets was not an omen as I sweated through the bedsheets after a series of predeployment immunizations and packed my own chemical gear for deployment. My job would be to replace the first tank platoon leader in the First Cavalry Division’s second “Blackjack” brigade to meet an untimely end.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for bullets to start flying to get my chance. A young officer facing severe personal difficulties decided, on the very October day that he led his platoon from the port of Dammam into the Saudi desert as part of Operation Desert Shield, that tanking wasn’t going to be his thing. Stuff got real for him when the tank treads first met the sand. I could have kissed the guy, but the Army wasn’t amused. It made him the assistant division post exchange officer and then sentenced him to take a boat back to Texas with the tanks after the war. I got four tanks of my own, along with Sergeant Pablo Claudio and fourteen other tankers—the “Red Aces,” which I thought was a pretty cool name. The tank company of which we were a part was also well named; for reasons that are lost to history, Alpha Company, First Battalion, 32nd Armor, was known for its radio call sign “Ghostriders.”

The soldiers of Ghostriders’ Red Platoon were sprawled against and on top of a tank when Claudio and I walked up, and they stayed comfortable when he introduced me. The First Cav was operating under field conditions, dispensing with salutes and other parade-ground niceties. When a soldier did salute an officer in the field, he invariably said “Sniper check, sir!” Smart officers learned to render salutes first so that any snipers in the area would shoot the soldier instead. This passes for humor in a combat zone.

There were no snipers in the area, or at least none who made their presence felt as the sun went down behind Claudio’s tank and I introduced myself to the men. All was well until I asked if there were any questions. Every platoon in the Army has one smart-aleck specialist. Mine said that yes, he had a question: had I been told that I was getting the worst platoon in the battalion, or in the entire brigade?

Years of West Point honor code training kicked in, and I answered truthfully, “They said this was the worst platoon in the brigade.” I let that sink in for a second, then added with as much hope as conviction, “And that just changed.”

Thus ended the welcome session. A little bit of bravado is a good thing for any tank officer to have, but it’s especially useful when taking command of a dispirited unit on the verge of combat. We headed off to the Tent, General Purpose–Medium (GP Medium, for short) that would be home for the next few months, Sergeant Claudio and I walking behind the tankers.

They were a motley crew. My wingman was a very large African- American staff sergeant, Sergeant Harrison, known for his rule breaking in garrison and his extraordinary ability in the field. He had been hurt by the battalion commander’s quip that he should be stored in a glass case engraved with the phrase “Break glass in case of war.” It was hard to imagine a more competent tanker to have on your wing, and I would rely heavily on Sergeant Harrison as I learned my trade over the next six months. He was known by his call sign as “Red Deuce” or simply “Deuce.”

Claudio’s wingman was Sergeant Jim Kebble, a graduate of the Army’s notoriously difficult tank master gunner course. He knew more about the M1 Abrams than anyone in the company, including the mechanics. Sergeant Kebble was pretty gross even among tankers, who regularly appear in coveralls encrusted with grease and hydraulic fluid. Claudio and I would sometimes have to order him to take a tanker shower from a five-gallon water can suspended from his tank’s gun tube. Sergeant Kebble was Red Three, Claudio’s wingman, and also served as the company’s master gunner in charge of gunnery training exercises.

Each tank had a four-man crew: the tank commander, an officer or senior sergeant; the gunner, generally a junior sergeant, who controlled the weapons systems; the loader, who fed the main gun with fifty-pound shells in seconds, over and over again in a firefight; and the driver, isolated in the hull rather than in the turret, who kept the tank running and pointed in the right direction. My own gunner was Sergeant Ted Shoemaker, a thirteen-year Army veteran from West Virginia who had been reduced in rank, or “busted,” when his then-wife was found to be dealing drugs from their military quarters in Germany. “Shoe” had been oblivious to her double life but was punished regardless because his battalion commander felt that he should have known what his wife was doing when he wasn’t around.

It was a tough break for Shoe but a bonus for me, as he would otherwise have had a tank of his own instead of then being sentenced to teach a new lieutenant the ropes. Sergeant Shoemaker was close to Specialist Jud Davis, our driver, another good old boy from Kentucky. John “Mac” McAllister, our loader, was wiry, strong, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. We would become a crew over the next six months, able to do amazing things with our tank. Just as well—amazing things would need doing. Shoe inked an ace of spades on my combat vehicle crewman helmet, which I proudly display in the only remaining photograph of our crew.

Specialist Jud Davis, Sergeant Shoe, me, and Specialist Mac in Wadi Al Batin during Operation Desert Shield, 1990.

A GP–Medium was just the right size for a tank platoon. Each soldier had a cot, with his two duffel bags stored underneath it. Tank commanders took the four places closest to the tent’s two doors so that they had humanity close on only one side. Rank has its privileges, even if it’s only a bit of canvas on which to string some cord to hang sweaty clothes. Stifling in the summer, the tent got cold enough in the winter that we’d sometimes pull up a tank to the flap doors first thing in the morning to warm it up with engine exhaust, as the turbine didn’t create carbon monoxide like an ordinary internal combustion engine. It did make everything in the tent smell more like diesel fuel, but that was better than most of the other smells that occupied it.

The days quickly developed a battle rhythm consisting of physical training—calisthenics followed by long runs over the desert sand—hasty wash-ups in the gravity-fed shower enclosures when the water truck had come the day before to fill them up, and then tank maintenance or training exercises. Breakfast and dinner were prepared by the cooks at battalion and trucked out to our company location, with brown bag “Meals, Ready to Eat” (or excrete, depending on the variety) for lunch.

Mealtimes were when the company officers would get together to plan training, discuss personnel issues, or just gossip. Ghostrider Six, the company commander, was a thin, vain, handsome captain with a short temper. His second-in-command, “Five,” Executive Officer and First Lieutenant Scott Riggs, was a Texan with a real gift for leadership who had served as a tank platoon leader in Korea before joining the First Cav. Scott—or “Turtle,” from the way he looked when wearing his helmet—would become a source of endless wisdom to the other lieutenants in the unit. Other than me, his charges included Buffy, a fraternity boy still locked in college attitudes who led the second “White” platoon, and Pete Johnson, a natural sportsman from California who could hit anything with a rifle or shotgun but couldn’t qualify a tank to save his life. Pete, or “Blue One,” became my best friend in the unit over dozens of games of chess that he invariably lost. He would later become one of the few Army chaplains to sport a Ranger tab, signifying his graduation from the elite infantryman’s school.

We were stationed on a strategic patch of ground just south of the Saudi Arabian border with Iraq in a dry riverbed, or wadi, that ran from northeast to southwest and was named after the Saudi town of Al Batin. The arrival of the First Cavalry Division’s tanks, artillery pieces, and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles here in Wadi al Batin marked the success of Operation Desert Shield. Saddam Hussein’s Army stood little chance of breaking through the Cav and continuing his assault into Saudi Arabia unless he used chemical weapons to disable us first, which would have caused some of us to die slowly and agonizingly but mostly would have limited our ability to operate our weapons effectively. That, President George H. W. Bush had promised, would result in the strongest possible reaction from the United S...

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