Cover image for Knife fights : a memoir of modern war in theory and practice
Knife fights : a memoir of modern war in theory and practice
Nagl, John A., 1966-
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Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Press, 2014.
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269 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
An influential Army officer traces the Gulf War experiences that shaped his perspectives on the changing nature of conventional combat and his then-discounted views about terrorism, citing his role in coauthoring the military's new counterinsurgency field manual.
Ghostriders in the storm -- A counterinsurgent at Oxford and West Point -- Back to Iraq -- The first Washington fight: Iraq -- Clear, hold, and build -- Proof of concept -- The second Washington fight: Afghanistan -- Counterinsurgency revisited.
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U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
U241 .N34 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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John Nagl is one of the US s most important army officers. He is not blind to the consequences of counterinsurgency. When it comes to war, there are only bad choices; the question is, which ones are better and which worse. His memoir is a profound education in modern war, and essential reading for anyone who cares about the fate of allied soldiers and the purposes for which their lives are put at risk.

Author Notes

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 Ph.D. from St. Antony's College, Oxford, where he wrote his thesis on counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam. Nagl served as the military assistant to deputy secretaries of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Gordon England, where he coauthored the U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual with generals David Petraeus and James M. Mattis. He is the former president of the Center for a New American Security and the ninth headmaster of the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002) is now considered an indispensable text on the techniques of counterinsurgency. But when he wrote the book, he was widely criticized for saying that many of the American military's key procedures and tactics would not serve them well in future wars. Here, he shows how the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere demonstrated that, as he had predicted, American forces were unprepared for the sort of wars they were now fighting, wars involving small pockets of enemy insurgents and localized dissidents. After many years in combat this book is, in part, a combat memoir the author was reassigned to the Pentagon, where he was tasked with rewriting the long-standing military principles of making war in the modern era. It was an exhilarating assignment, turning his once-criticized theories into reality, but Nagl soon discovered that the battles he would need to fight inside the walls of the Pentagon could be as dirty as those he fought in combat. An essential addition to military-history collections.--Pitt, David Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Nagl (Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife), a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, was one of the U.S. military's sharpest thinkers during his 20-year (1988-2008) Army career. Nagl commanded a tank platoon in the first Gulf War; earned a Ph.D. at Oxford; lead a tank battalion in the second war in Iraq; and served at the Pentagon as a counterinsurgency specialist (He also taught at West Point and Annapolis). This work is both a memoir and a treatise on American war strategy in the post-9/11 world; Nagl writes evocatively about his wartime experiences, clearly explaining his theories of waging asymmetric warfare. A critic of the Iraq war ("a war that did not need to be fought"¿), Nagl offers perceptive critiques of the serious mistakes made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the military's general officer corps. The latter, he says, "failed to prepare the army for the war it was actually going to have to fight,"¿ and also failed "to rapidly adapt when the conventional army they had built was required to conduct counterinsurgency."¿ Nagl makes a strong case that the next war the U.S. engages in will require stronger counterinsurgency planning than Pentagon policy makers currently anticipate. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

In this memoir, retired lieutenant colonel Nagl (headmaster, Haverford Sch.; Learning To Eat Soup with a Knife) recounts his experiences serving in the military at a time when threats facing the United States were rapidly changing. After graduating from West Point and Oxford, Nagl led a tank company in Iraq during Operation Desert Shield. Upon returning home, he became convinced that, unlike more traditional battles encountered in the Gulf War, future combat would be unpredictable and unconventional. With this in mind, Nagl went on to study counterinsurgency, a move that eventually brought him to the Pentagon where he coauthored a revolutionary counterinsurgency military field manual that would have a profound impact on our approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. VERDICT While not as broadly appealing as Robert Gates's Duty, nor as gritty as its title seems to suggest (much of the book is more analysis than narrative), this account is nonetheless an honest and informative glimpse into both the past and the future of the ongoing war on terror. Military buffs, policy wonks, and anyone wishing to learn more about America's role in the world should find Nagl's work an alluring and important read.-Laura Marcus, Odenton, MD (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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 States (a clear threat to use nuclear weapons in response to a chem strike), but we spent a lot of time practicing tasks in our chemical suits in case the threat of nuclear retaliation didn't work. Our gas masks went with us everywhere. I used mine as a pillow when I slept on top of the tank during exercises away from base camp. One night a soldier on radio watch sounded the chemical alarm after hearing a report of "Gas! Gas! Gas!" on the radio. I scrambled inside the tank to my duty position, abandoning my fart sack, or sleeping bag, but putting my mask on before closing my tank commander's hatch with a clang to seal out the invading chemical cloud. I looked down to see Sergeant Shoe sitting in his gunner's seat with the saddest expression I'd ever seen on his generally jolly face, which was unprotected by a mask. He'd left it up top while scrambling into the confines of the gunner's hole. He pointed mournfully at the hatch. For a long moment I looked into his sad eyes, then steeled myself, reopened the hatch, and exposed myself and my crew to chemical annihilation to fetch Shoe's mask. He'd have done anything for me after that, even if the whole thing had been a false alarm. Shoe never left his mask behind again. We expected chemical weapons to be delivered by SCUD missiles--unguided projectiles with sufficient range to hit our positions from their bases inside Iraq, but so inaccurate that a high-explosive warhead was unlikely to do much damage. Late in the war one conventionally armed SCUD would hit a logistics unit in the Saudi port of Dammam, killing more than a dozen soldiers in the most damaging attack of the entire fight for the United States; but the one that came closest to me cost me only a cheeseburger. In the town of Al Batin, the First Cav had set up a shower point--GP--Mediums with hot water sprayed at pressure, rather than the cold water trickling down from the gravity-fed showers we used on a daily basis (except for Sergeant Kebble) after our morning workouts. My turn to visit the fabled shower point came up one day, and I was lucky enough to share the trip with Lieutenant Gray Cockerham, from our battalion's Charlie Company. An infantryman, Gray was short and powerful, so strongly built that he was unable to fit into the cramped turret of his Bradley fighting vehicle while wearing a heavy Vietnam-era flak jacket. Gray was also very smart--and, unfortunately for him, hungry that day. When we arrived at the shower point, he headed straight for the grill to grab a cheeseburger, while I decided to eat after I was clean. Having taken more than my share of hot water, I was happily scrubbed and standing in the burger line when a SCUD suddenly landed in the vacant lot across the street, blowing out the lights and power in the burger stand--and cutting off water in the shower just as Gray was about to lather up. Unsure whether the SCUD had included a chemical warhead with the high explosive, we put on our protective masks--even Gray, for whom a mask was the only thing he was wearing. He dressed quickly, just in time to jump into the back of the Humvee as it roared away, taking us back to our tanks and Brads in case the SCUD marked the start of an Iraqi attack on our positions. It didn't. Instead, the next move was ours. President Bush, who had previously stated firmly that the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait "would not stand," made the critical decision to continue sending U.S. Army units to Saudi Arabia after sufficient forces were already in place to preclude an Iraqi attack. The additional tanks were intended to send Saddam Hussein the message that we would attack to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty if he refused to yield in the biggest American military operation since the Vietnam War. The move was greeted with great relief by soldiers who were already growing tired of the desert and who could see in front of them an endless future of beerless, yearlong tours defending Saudi Arabia. A cartoon of Bart Simpson wearing a Kevlar helmet appeared in our tent with the inscription "I'm not waiting here for a year without beer, dude." We increased the tempo of our training, switching our focus from practicing the defense of battle positions to the more complicated task of attacking prepared positions, and were delighted that the Army decided to give us a Christmas present prior to kicking off the assault that appeared increasingly likely to be in our future. The M1 Abrams tank was an aggressive design that incorporated a 1500-horsepower gas turbine engine and room for a 120mm main gun, although the initial version carried a smaller rifled 105. The smoothbore 120, a German weapon, featured greater range and killing power and a combustible shell casing, most of which burned up inside the gun tube, leaving behind only a small stub that was much prized by tankers as an ashtray. This ensured that the tank didn't fill up with two-foot-long brass shells that tended toward the hot side of the temperature spectrum. Tankers wore boots with leather straps instead of bootlaces because the shells had a history of burning through cotton or nylon. The First Cav, for all its history and bold horsehead-on-a-Norman-shield patch, was still equipped with worn-out "slick" M1 tanks with 105mm guns in 1990. But just before Christmas, we received new M1A1 tanks with the bigger 120mm main gun, then had the chance to fire practice rounds from our new toys at a range that the division master gunner had carved out of the desert. It was hard to imagine a more explicit indication that we were going to war, but just as hard not to feel more confident about the prospect in the new M1A1, which rocked like a bronco when the 120mm main gun fired its load. We were lucky that Mac was as strong as he was skinny. The 120 round was both heavier and harder to maneuver in the tight confines of the tank's crew compartment than the smaller, shorter 105. Mac was able to load them repeatedly within three seconds, even the heavy high-explosive antitank (HEAT) rounds, designed to be used against armored personnel carriers or, as we would soon demonstrate, infantry fighting positions. The new year featured a series of artillery raids and practice attacks on the border posts that marked the line in the sand between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Conducted with live rounds and against manned positions, they were designed to convince the Iraqi military that the First Cav would lead the main American attack, "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle," along Wadi al Batin into the teeth of the prepared Iraqi defenses. This had, in fact, been the initial war plan, but a new technology of which Saddam was unaware had opened up a different option to the United States and her allies. Nascent global positioning system receivers drew on satellites in geosynchronous orbits to precisely identify the location of friendly tank units and enabled the famous "left hook" around Saddam's defenses through what otherwise would have been unnavigable empty desert. Meanwhile, even as this attack was being prepared many miles to the west, the Cav blew tank-size holes through the ten-foot sand berms that marked the border just north of our positions and shelled the guard towers that protected the border. We were working to convince the Iraqis of something they already believed--that we were planning to attack them following the established contours of the wadi, the historical invasion route. It is always easier to convince an enemy that you are going to do just what he thinks you're planning to do anyway, and the deception plan worked marvelously on the operational level of war. There was, however, a price to be paid for making the deception believable. The day after I fired my first tank round in anger, destroying one of the guard towers along the berm so that our engineers could blow attack lanes through the protective barriers, was Valentine's Day 1991. The next day our sister battalion, the Black Knights of 1-5 Cavalry, passed through the lanes we had constructed in the berms and attacked into what we thought was the enemy's soft underbelly in their Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. We couldn't know that it was the other side's turn to draw blood. The Black Knights ran into an ambush--T-100 antitank guns dug in on the flanks of the wadi. Tanks were invulnerable to fire from T-100s, at least along their heavily armored frontal arc, but Bradleys were not as well protected. Several American soldiers in Bradleys were killed, and 1-5 was forced to withdraw. Our crusty company motor sergeant, Sergeant First Class Cunningham, helped with the recovery of the disabled vehicles and the cleanup of the remains of the fallen soldiers. It was a subdued dinner that night, as for the first time the cost of war impressed itself on a unit composed almost entirely of soldiers who had never seen combat before. Of the eighty or so soldiers in Ghostrider Company, only our well-worn first sergeant was a Vietnam veteran. When the company came under mortar fire, the rest of us hunkered down and took it, trusting in luck, our armor, and the minimal skills of our enemy to protect us. Having been on the receiving end of mortar rounds before, he headed away from the enemy as fast as his armored personnel carrier would go. Like the first sergeant, the Ghostriders had now seen a glimpse of the elephant, in the wonderful Civil War phrase for combat, and we weren't sure we liked what we had seen. There is much to be said about going to war for the first time. Life is heightened, more intense and intensely focused, like having sex, but with a real death rather than what the French call the little death at the end. Rhodes scholar Karl Marlantes, who earned the Navy Cross in Vietnam after departing Oxford early to serve as a Marine infantry officer, has written a marvelous book about the experience, titled What It Is Like to Go to War . In short, if no one close to you gets killed, and if you don't get too close to those you kill, it is exhilarating and vivid and intoxicating, every minute an adventure. But when you lose people you love, when the vengeful war gods consume the young flesh on which they thrive, it is unspeakably terrible. The ghosts of the departed on both sides haunt many of those who fight for the rest of their lives. Though I knew none of the young men killed in Operation Knight Strike, their loss was close enough to peel back a translucent corner on the window into the true horror of war, although I would not see clearly into the depths of hell until another decade had passed. We paused briefly after the attack, but we didn't have long to lick our wounds. The deadline Washington had given Saddam Hussein to get out of Kuwait approached rapidly, and on February 24 we again attacked through the berm and up Wadi al Batin, covering the opening swing of VII Corps's "left hook" far to our west with our own assault straight up the middle. Quickly overwhelming the T-100 fighting positions that had stymied the Black Knights ten days before, the entire brigade came on line, running headfirst into prepared defensive positions of an Iraqi infantry division. For the first time in my life, I was shooting at someone who was shooting real bullets back at me. Honestly, it wasn't much of a fight. The Iraqi soldiers, demoralized by weeks of U.S. Air Force bombing, fired mortars and machine guns at us to little effect, not that the first sergeant stuck around to find out. Their defense hinged on trenches filled with oil that they set afire to establish a smoke screen. It was not particularly effective--oil is hard to set on fire unless it is under pressure, and the Iraqi infantry had few weapons that could put a serious dent in an M1A1 Abrams tank. I can clearly remember firing a HEAT round into a mortar position that was the closest thing to a threat we faced. It disappeared in a satisfying explosion that would probably have given me nightmares if I'd seen the results up close. I didn't get the chance. By this point, other elements of VII Corps had already advanced through lanes in the border berm farther west, cleared by the famed First Infantry Division, the Big Red One. We had accomplished our objective of convincing Iraqi Republican Guard tank divisions that we were the main attack, and we now received orders to pull back and join the left hook, the real main attack. Many Republican Guard tanks were still facing south in our direction, ready to meet the phantom First Cav attack, when they were shot in the flank or rear by our friends in VII Corps who were now bearing down on them from the west, traveling through the trackless desert with the aid of global positioning system satellites. We scrambled to join them, withdrawing south after our feint and then moving fast to the west, passing through the Big Red One's passage lanes and turning north. Over the next three days the First Cavalry Division had a plausible claim to have moved faster through enemy territory than had any division in military history, although we had the great advantage of following in VII Corps's tracks. After some ninety-six hours of nearly continuous movement, we pulled up into a lager outside of Basra around midnight on February 27. Bleary from exhaustion, I kicked Sergeant Shoe in the head to wake him up. He was well rested. The tank gunner, wedged into his hole like a passenger in coach on a transatlantic flight, generally sleeps during road marches. I gave Shoe command of the tank while I curled up behind my hatch on top of the turret in my beloved poncho liner, falling immediately into an exhausted sleep. I didn't hear the sound of a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) pulling into positions behind our tanks, and I knew nothing of the Washington negotiations on ending the war after one hundred hours of ground fighting. The Army interpreted the "cease fire at dawn" order that emanated from the national security decision-making machine as a good reason to do as much damage as possible to remaining Iraqi units, and the MLRS rockets had the range and lethality to make a mark. They certainly made a mark on me. I was jerked awake by a sound like jet engines igniting on my chest as the rocket motors lit a dark night on fire. Convinced that the end of the world had arrived, I made the completely illogical decision that I wanted to die on the ground, rolling off the tank turret into a ten-foot drop onto hard sand. With my arms wrapped inside my poncho liner, I couldn't break my fall and performed an ignominious face plant that brought me fully awake and conscious. Unrolling myself, I climbed painfully into the turret, shaking uncontrollably for some time, as Shoe laughed and laughed while the MLRS fire turned the night into a fiery and very intense day. They eventually ran out of missiles, and actual daylight found all of us alive and thrilled with the news that the United States had declared a cease-fire. It was my twenty-fifth birthday, a fact that I made the mistake of mentioning to Shoe. The platoon celebrated by spanking me in a small celebration of being alive, a ritual softened somewhat by the charcoal chemical suit that I, like all the rest of us, was wearing in case of chemical attack. It was very, very good to be young and alive and combat veterans of a war that had gone far better than any of us had expected. Shoe decided that our combat experience together meant that military courtesies could now be disregarded, and he began calling me John when the two of us talked. Much as I loved him, I couldn't let this pass. I ordered Shoe to come to the position of attention in the sand next to the tank and then had him write himself a counseling statement in which he agreed that if he committed the offense of calling me by my first name again, he would be subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There were tears in his eyes when he handed me the scrawled counseling statement, which I promptly rolled into a ball and told him to eat. He didn't call me John quite as often after that. Not everyone who saw dawn break that morning had similar opportunities to begin telling war stories, sadly. Small bomblets from previous MLRS and air strikes littered the battlefield and proved irresistible even to artillerymen who should have known better; several were killed picking them up from the desert sands. Despite these losses, the experience of Desert Storm had been extraordinary. The U.S. military, still struggling to overcome the lingering shadow of Vietnam, had turned the fourth-largest army in the world into the second-largest army in Iraq in a mere one hundred hours of ground combat. President George H. W. Bush, thrilled with the flush of victory, proclaimed, "By God, we've licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" Officers in the Pentagon, still haunted by specters of that earlier war, hung a sign that informed the world, "We only do deserts." The reaction back at Fort Hood, Texas--now mercifully free of crickets--was out of all proportion to the fighting we'd experienced.For weeks after our return, it was difficult to pay for meals in the local eating establishments, as veterans of earlier wars--especially Vietnam--picked up the tab, and M1A1 tanks rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue led by General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. America simultaneously celebrated the end of the Cold War, the defeat of Saddam Hussein, and the exorcism of the ghosts of Vietnam in a unipolar moment that would stretch for a decade. Chaplain Peter Johnson in 2008, at my retirement parade. He was thinner in Desert Storm. So was I. Pete Johnson and I rented a two-bedroom apartment in Killeen, in a complex on New Bacon Ranch Road that featured a pool and a lot of people our age. A religious man, he engaged in long debates on the Bible and the nature of God with secular Susi, my British girlfriend, when she returned to Killeen for part of the summer after the war. They ultimately agreed to disagree on most things spiritual. Coming from Bedfordshire, familiar with centuries-old designations like New London Road and Kingston Road , Susi was amused by the name New Bacon Ranch Road , wondering about the provenance of Old Bacon Ranch Road. She was hugely impressed by the giant wolf spider we caught in my bedroom and kept in a terrarium in the kitchen. I named it after her and regularly fed crickets to Susi the Spider, releasing her back to the wild only when she became with spiderlets just before the Ghostriders deployed to the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California, for a monthlong exercise in February 1992, almost exactly a year after our fight in Desert Storm. Turtle became the battalion motor officer, responsible for keeping all the forty-four tanks, fourteen Bradley fighting vehicles, and numerous trucks and armored personnel carriers up and running, and I replaced him as Ghostrider 5, the Alpha Company second in command. Life centered on fixing everything that we'd broken in the Iraqi desert and getting ready for the rotation through the NTC, slated to occur exactly a year after Desert Storm. The NTC simulated fights between visiting American units and an American opposing force (OPFOR), which used Soviet tactics and visually modified American equipment in a high-tech game of "laser tag." NTC rotations were the toughest challenge faced by Army units in the United States. The NTC was the crown jewel of the Army's training revolution of the 1980s, designed by Vietnam veterans who wanted to ensure that the next time their army had to fight, their successors would experience the traumas of their "first battle" against weapons that hurt nothing but their pride. Combat is hard, and those fighting for the first time make many mistakes--crazy things like troops shooting themselves accidentally with their own weapons, and hard things like not maintaining security in 360 degrees all night long, a mistake the Ghostriders would fall prey to at the NTC despite our recent experience of real combat. The NTC intentionally presented more difficult challenges than Army forces could expect to see on a real battlefield. The three-week NTC deployment in February 1992 was as difficult as promised. The fight was a home game for the OPFOR; they knew the ground like the backs of their hands, which, given the time they spent in the desert every year, themselves resembled high plains desert. Hundreds of miles away from anything that resembles civilization, the only pleasure the OPFOR gets on a regular basis is beating up on conventional Army units that rotate through fights in the desert sands to learn combat tactics, techniques, and procedures. The OPFOR was particularly grumpy at the time we visited, unimpressed by the jaunty First Cavalry Division combat patches we were sporting to indicate our service in Desert Storm. These soldiers had missed the war, remaining at Fort Irwin to train National Guard units for the fight, and had something of a chip on their combat-patchless shoulders. The OPFOR intended to show the Ghostriders what it was like fighting a well-trained, well-led enemy rather than the ragtag Iraqi army we had sliced through a year before. As an experienced combat unit, we expected to have a relatively easy time of it but were quickly disabused of that notion. Our rotation was made even more difficult by the addition of an Alaska National Guard infantry company that augmented the OPFOR's understrength infantry units. The Nanooks, as we called them, didn't all speak understandable English--they were particularly hard for Puerto Rican Claudio to comprehend--but they did delight in shouting "Woop! Woop! Woop!" to imitate the sounds the laser-tag Military Integrated Laser Engagement System on our tanks made when hit with a simulated anti- tank guided missile. Twenty years later I still sometimes wake up from NTC nightmares with cheerful Nanook shouts of "Woop! Woop! Woop!" echoing in my ears. This is not as crazy as it sounds. An old friend of mine, a graduate of the Army's incredibly challenging Ranger school as well as two tours in Vietnam, used to wake up in Southeast Asia in a cold sweat, calming himself down by repeating the mantra "It's only Vietnam, not Ranger School." Excerpted from Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice by John A. Nagl All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 1
1 Ghostriders in the Stormp. 5
2 Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: A Counterinsurgent at Oxford and West Pointp. 29
3 Back to Iraq: At Anbar 2003-2004p. 55
4 The First Washington Fight: Iraqp. 107
5 Clear, Hold, and Buildp. 129
6 Proof of Concept: Iraq 2007-2008p. 151
7 The Second Washington Fight: Afghanistanp. 185
8 Counterinsurgency Revisited: Learning from Our Mistakesp. 211
Epilogue: Good-bye to All Thatp. 243
Acknowledgmentsp. 255
Notesp. 257
Further Readingp. 259
Indexp. 263