A Soldier Reports: The Education of John Nagl

Daniel R. Green
Foreign Policy

When the last combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan passes away due to old age and the final memoir has been published, how those wars will be remembered will shift as the direct, vivid memories of veterans are replaced with stolid histories, short catchphrases, and iconic photos summarizing a conflict for generations yet to come.  Some expressions are associated with strategies used at the time, others convey a sense of place, a method of warfare, or a political view but they all contain some essence of the conflict.  Words such as "trenches," "blitzkrieg," "search and destroy," "domino theory," and "quagmire" evoke strong images of the wars they represent and, while it will take many years for our most recent conflicts to shift to this realm of remembrance, a few phrases are already taking hold.  Who can forget the opening rhetorical rounds of "shock and awe," the struggle to define the wars as "insurgencies," the great hope of the Iraq and Afghanistan "surges," and the solid logic of "clear, hold, and build."

It is this last phrase though, describing a set of steps military units must undertake to defeat an insurgency, which proved the most difficult for our civilian and military leaders to grasp -- that they learned it at all is due in no small measure to former Army officer John Nagl's strenuous advocacy on its behalf, efforts that helped to change the course of two wars.  Nagl's counterinsurgency concepts of "clear, hold, and build" did not spring whole cloth from his mind, but were a rediscovered strategy of warfare that had been forgotten after Vietnam, particularly by the U.S. Army's conventional forces.  As Nagl chronicles in his invaluable memoir of service, Knife Fights: An Education in Modern War, the great challenges of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not just in making the U.S. Army a learning institution, helping it adapt to the unique problem-set of counter-insurgency warfare, but also helping civilian leaders better understand the wars our military were undertaking. 

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