Weekend Reader: The Insurgents: David Petraeus And The Plot To Change The American Way Of War

The following is excerpted from Fred Kaplan’s new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. You can purchase it here.

“What We Need Is an Officer with Three Heads”

A few days shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, John Nagl saw his future disappear.

The first tremors came at dawn, on February 24, 1991, as he revved up the engine of his M-1 tank and plowed across the Saudi Arabian border into the flat, endless sands of southern Iraq. For the previous month, American warplanes had bombarded Saddam Hussein’s military machine to the point of exhaustion. Now the ground-war phase of Operation Desert Storm—the largest armored offensive since the Second World War— roared forth in full force, pushing Iraq’s occupying army out of Kuwait.

Lieutenant Nagl was a platoon leader in the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, which, on that morning, mounted the crucial feint along the route where Saddam’s commanders were expecting an invasion. While Nagl and the rest of the 1st Cav pinned down the Iraqi troops with a barrage of bullets, shells, and missiles, the offensive’s main force—a massive armada of American soldiers, nearly a quarter million strong, along with their armored vehicles, artillery rockets, and a fleet of gunship helicopters overhead—swept across the desert landscape from the west in a surprise left-hook assault, enveloping Saddam’s troops and crushing them into submission after a mere one hundred hours of astonishingly lopsided fighting.

Nagl had graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point two and a half years earlier, near the top of his class, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. Highly ranked cadets got their pick of Army assignments, and Nagl chose the armor branch. Tanks would be the spearhead of the big war for which the Army was ceaselessly preparing—the titanic clash between the United States and the Soviet Union across the East-West German border—and so, tank commanders were prime candidates for fast promotion through the ranks. Nagl even studied German while at West Point and became fluent in the language, figuring that Germany was where he’d be spending the bulk of his career.

Then, not quite a year before he deployed to the Gulf, the Berlin Wall fell, the two Germanys merged, the Cold War ended—and now, right before his eyes, the Iraqi army, the fourth largest army in the world, was crumbling on contact.

It was a moment of unaccustomed triumph for the US military, still haunted by the defeat in Vietnam. But to Nagl, it also signaled the end of the era that made the triumph possible. Tank-on-tank combat had been the defining mode of warfare for a modern superpower; now it teetered on the verge of obsolescence. The Soviet Union and Iraq had been the last two foes that possessed giant tank armies. With the former gone up in smoke and the latter crushed so easily on the battlefield, it seemed implausible that any foreign power would again dare challenge the United States in a head-on contest of strength. The premise of all Nagl’s plans—to say nothing of the rationale for his beloved Army’s doctrines, budgets, and weapons programs—seemed suddenly, alarmingly irrelevant.

Nagl didn’t think that any of this necessarily meant the coming of world peace. If “major combat operations” (the official name for big tank wars) were no longer likely, there was still plenty of room for minor ones, especially the “shadow wars” mounted along the peripheries of vital interests by insurgents, guerrillas, or terrorists. Nagl didn’t know much about these kinds of wars. Neither did the Army. He hadn’t learned about them as a cadet at West Point. Nor had he since read about them in Army field manuals or practiced fighting them in officers’ training drills.

There was a reason for this gap in his education. In the mid-1970s, after the debacle of Vietnam, the Army’s top generals said “Never again” to the notion of fighting guerrillas in the jungle (or anyplace else). Instead, they turned their gaze once more to the prospect of a big war against the Soviet Union on the wide-open plains of Europe—a war that would play to America’s traditional strengths of amassing men and metal—and they threw out the book (literally: they threw out the official manuals and curricula) on anything related to what were once called “irregular wars,” “asymmetric wars,” “low-intensity conflicts,” or “counterinsurgency campaigns.” To the extent that these types of wars were contemplated at all, the message went out that there was nothing distinctive about them. For decades, Army doctrine had held that wars were won by superior firepower. This idea was taken as gospel, whether the war was large or small, whether the enemy was a nation-state or a rogue guerrilla. As one adage put it, if you can lick the cat, you can lick the kitten. Or, in the words of another: war is war is war.

But Nagl suspected that, like it or not, America might find itself drawn into fighting these “small wars” again; that if the Army had a future, these wars would play a key part in it; and (though he didn’t grasp this idea at first) that these wars were different from large wars in ways other than mere size and, therefore, had to be fought in different ways by soldiers trained in different skills.