Small Wars Journal

Nagl to Leave Army

Wed, 01/16/2008 - 8:37am

High-Profile Officer Nagl to Leave Army, Join Think Tank - Tom Ricks, Washington Post

"One of the Army's most prominent younger officers, whose writings have influenced the conduct of the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, said he has decided to leave the service to study strategic issues full time at a new Washington think tank."

"Lt. Col. John Nagl, 41, is a co-author of the Army's new manual on counterinsurgency operations, which has been used heavily by U.S. forces carrying out the strategy of moving off big bases, living among the population and making the protection of civilians their top priority."

"A Rhodes Scholar, Nagl first achieved prominence for his Oxford University doctoral dissertation, which was published in 2002 as a book titled "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam." The introduction to a recent edition of the book was written by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, at the time the Army's chief of staff..."

LTC Nagl will be joining the staff at the Center for a New American Security.


Abu Muqawama

Abu Muqawama here, weighing in on this issue between sessions of a conference he's attending. On the one hand, it's easy to see Nagl's retirement as yet another scrap of evidence pointing toward both an Army going down the drain and the best and brightest packing up and leaving the service. On the other hand, though, a guy like John Nagl -- friend and mentor to both of your humble bloggers -- has been swamped with great opportunities outside the Army for some time now. He's more of a rock star in DC policy circles -- and among Daily Show viewers -- than he is in the active duty military. So is it a loss for the Army? Yes. T.X. (Hammes) is correct. But might John Nagl better serve the country in a position outside the military? Abu Muqawama certainly thinks so. So this isn't a "bad news" story. The U.S. Army could have better used and supported John Nagl, sure, but if he winds up as an Assistant Secretary of Defense in a few years, he'll be in a better position to affect policy and "fight" the good fight there than he would on some J staff in the Pentagon. Now if we can only rope Nagl into a guest spot on

Intel Dump

The Army is poorer for his loss. Nagl is one of this country's leading soldier-scholars. He was a likely candidate for general's stars and high command, because he had a rare combination of brilliant intellect and operational excellence as a commander. He was also one of the Army's best public intellectuals...

However, I have every confidence that Lt. Col. Nagl will continue to serve in his new role, and continue his push for change from the outside. As he told the Post: "It's not the strain of repeated deployments," he said, but "a belief that I can contribute perhaps on a different level — and my family wants me to leave." I respect him for listening to his family, and look forward to the contribution that Mister Nagl can make in his next career.

Kings of War

The Army's loss. But insofar as the Centre for New American Security is a think-tank with the purpose of aligning talent with major policy positions should we have a Democratic presidency perhaps the nation's gain. Nagl's a huge figure in the COIN field. No doubt the blogosphere will be abuzz about his contributions past and future. Here's one that maybe you'll not hear elsewhere. Nagl's Law (as conveyed to me somewhat drunkenly in the bar of Cumberland Lodge outside Windsor): when you are drinking with friends and are speaking positively of one who is absent pick up your phone, call and say 'hey we're having a great time wish you were here.' There you go. John Nagl, COIN guru (which you knew); and really great guy (which maybe you didn't). Good luck John!

Time Magazine's Swampland

... This continues a trend--the best and brightest, especially those associated with formulating the Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual--are either being passed over for promotion (as Colonel H.R. McMaster was) or simply leaving for a variety of reasons that almost always add up to frustration with a bureacracy still controlled by the unsuccessful and the unimaginative...


The early retirement of a lieutenant colonel ordinarily wouldn't merit the slightest mention. But today's news that Lt. Col. John Nagl is leaving the Army is a big deal.

It's another sign, more alarming than most, that the U.S. military is losing its allure for a growing number of its most creative young officers. More than that, it's a sign that one of the Army's most farsighted reforms—a program that some senior officials regard as essential—may be on the verge of getting whacked...

The Atlantic

... Petraeus, as is obvious, has been greeted as a savior by politicians of both parties. The striking thing that Nagl's resignation illustrates is that younger officers in the Petraeus model and, like Nagl, around Petraeus himself are faring nowhere near as well. The other most famous case, too resonant and complicated to do more than mention at the moment, involves Col. H.R. McMaster: author of Dereliction of Duty, a book that has had tremendous influence within the military. (More on McMaster here.) He has been a successful combat leader in Iraq but, as every serving officer knows, he has twice been "passed over" for promotion to general. Unfortunately there are a lot of other examples, involving not just Petraeus's own coterie but promising-yet-stifled officers more generally...

NPR Interview

Daily Show Interview

LTC John Nagl SWJ Homepage


Schmedlap (not verified)

Sat, 01/19/2008 - 12:22pm

I think that Abu Muqawama got it right. LTC Nagl is a big name in DC policy circles. Were it not for that, this would not make news. The loss of any good officer is a loss for the Army, but the media grossly misinterprets it.

Reactions from the media about a "trend" or gloom and doom assessments are foolish.

Time says, "... This continues a trend--the best and brightest, especially those associated with formulating the Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual--are either being passed over for promotion (as Colonel H.R. McMaster was) or simply leaving for a variety of reasons that almost always add up to frustration with a bureacracy still controlled by the unsuccessful and the unimaginative..."

Where did THAT come from? Are we to conclude that because LTC Nagl and COL McMaster are the best known that they are, therefore, the best and brightest? I don't think so.

And Slate...

"It's another sign, more alarming than most, that the U.S. military is losing its allure for a growing number of its most creative young officers."

Again, most well-known does not mean most creative.


Thu, 01/17/2008 - 10:06am

Generally I don't take issue with the way the MSM frames things -- I think all this carping about how reporters report is sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing -- but in this instance I have to say the "oh, the poor Army" meme is really overdone.

Okay, Nagl's a smart guy who decided his long-term interests lie outside of Mother Green. Not the first time it's happened, won't be the last. Let's face it -- at the end of the day, the Army isn't the most hospitable place for Rhodes Scholars and Ph.D.s to hang their hats, "sure-fire" promotions to General Officer or not.

And Nagl is surely smart enough to know that, at some point in the not-too-far distant future, COIN is going to be yesterday's doctrinal news -- what's worse, leaving at the top of your game, or winding up the DCG of TRADOC or something?

liontooth (not verified)

Thu, 01/17/2008 - 5:15am

It's disappointing to see John Nagl leave, and I wish him well.

<i>"A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking being done by cowards and its fighting by fools."
- Thucydides</i>

Rob Thornton

Wed, 01/16/2008 - 1:37pm

I appreciate the hard work that LTC Nagl has done - being a plank owner in an important effort or new organization is a real challenge. Im sure he will continue to contribute to the community at large as well as critical thinking regarding national security issues in his new role.

I do think the quote Tom Ricks reports T.X. Hammes to have said might be off the mark a bit regarding the state of the Army in terms of leaders with the right qualifications. Since its Tom Ricks reporting on what somebody else said, it might be loseing context and Hammes may have t have meant those exact qualifications - hard to say. I think it is important to point out that there are more and more incredibly talented US Army (and in the other services) Company, Field Grade, 06s and GOs that are working in these areas - every day I meet a few more - when a leader leaves - any leader - it does not break the bank. Many of these leaders out there are the unsung folks pouring over new documents, making sense out of their OIF and OEF experiences, standing up new organizations and finding ways to put that experience and knowledge back into the Army or effort so that others will have it just a bit better then they did - the goal is to make it better for all, make it so we dont have to keep relearning the more painful lessons. It is not unusual that one leader may start something, and another may pick it up and carry it further down the field - that is how most things happen - its more evolutionary then revolutionary.

I do look forward to the new ways in which LTC Nagl can contribute to the effort as someone engaged from a think tank - those centers have proven very valuable in addressing tough issues, and helping new ideas get traction. However, were used to new folks having to take one leaders work and effort and continue on - we do it with changes of command and whenever good leaders get promoted, reassigned, PCS or retire - its a way of life for us - and sooner or later everyone takes the uniform off. Change is what we do, and there are some very smart, energetic and passionate folks out there on LTC Nagls scale who will carry on - and I think were growing more every day. My apologies to T.X. Hammes if he was misquoted, or if the context was different then the article implied.

Best Regards, Rob