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Kelly Vlahos Spoons John Nagl Over COIN

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

There is quite a buzz going in mil and defense blogger circles over the recent op-ed savaging in The American Conservative by Kelley Vlahos regarding Dr. John Nagl and COIN. Unfortunately for Vlahos, little of it that I have seen online or privately is favorable – including from some people who I know are less than well-disposed toward COIN or the COINdinistas.

Speaking as someone who was one of the earlier voices to remark that the political moment of pop-centric COIN had passed, I found Vlahos’ post to largely be ill-tempered, context-distorting, schadenfreude.

But hey, judge for yourself. My comments will be in normal text:

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon 

….Then Tom Ricks, Washington Post correspondent-court scribe, conducted a full-blown high school popularity contest, literally ranking the “brains behind counterinsurgency’s rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world’s most powerful military.” In this cringe-worthy “top ten” published in Foreign Policy in December 2009, Ricks places “King David” Petraeus at Number 1, and then Nagl, whose Oxford dissertation-turned-Barnes-and-Noble-bestseller Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife made him a counterinsurgency “scholar,” among other bright lights of the time. Nagl, Ricks predicted, would be “in a top Pentagon slot within a year or two.”

That was just three years ago. Today, there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan than this week’s news that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School, a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Hmmmm. I guess General Petraeus as CIA Director and General Mattis as Combatant Commander of CENTCOM are therefore examples of a rare form of career failure.

And really, only a subpar military officer would involve himself in educating young people. Shame on you, John Nagl, for joining such a shady group of misfits.

….That’s right — Nagl, once called the Johnny Appleseed of COIN, who reveled in his role as face man, tutoring reporters with practiced bookish charm on the “the new way of war,”  and burnishing his personal story to convince everyone that he was a counter-insurgent before his time — a modern T.E. Lawrence — is packing up for good. Turns out that despite all the high hopes, the COINdinistas hit the brass ceiling with a smack, especially once it became clear that the magic they sold was a bag of beans….

Again, most of the COINdinistas, so-called, have not hit some kind of brass ceiling  nor are they secretly running the Army or the administration. Most are  in perfectly respectable but unremarkable ranks, institutional positions or jobs in the private sector. HR McMaster is now a brigadier major general, Con Crane is a director at the US Army Military History Institute, Kalev Sepp is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, Montgomery McFate holds the Minerva Chair at NWC,  General Jack Keane sits on several corporate boards, Fred Kagan is still at AEI,  Andrew Exum is at CNAS, David Kilcullen is the  CEO at Caerus Associates and so on.

By Washington standards, this is a relatively modest level of policy influence or promotion (Petraeus and Mattis excepted). If you want to look at rapid advancement through political connections, consider Al Haig rising like a rocket from LTC to full general and NATO Supreme Commander due to his proximity to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Or the unusually gilded career path of Colin Powell.

That said, there are many grounds, theoretical and practical, to find fault with pop-centric COIN theory and FM 3-24, from an anti-empirical legacy assumption of a Maoist model of insurgency, to a fundamental confusion of tactics and operational art with strategy to the hardening of COIN from a fairly flexible emergent doctrine in Iraq into a rigid, micromanaging, ROE dogma in Afghanistan. COIN is ripe for revision, not excision and substantive, informed, critiques of the wars of the past decade are sorely needed by scholars, military officers and defense intellectuals. Irregular conflict is never going away any more than war will go away.

Unfortunately, Vlahos was too busy with gossipy smears on Nagl’s character to make any substantive points of that nature which would have made her column something more than ad hominem rubbish.


Sunday, December 21st, 2008


 Need a last minute gift idea for….yourself?  Some highly recommended books that I’ve perused in the past year or so:
Great Powers: America and the World After Bush by Thomas P.M. Barnett 

Having read an advanced copy, this is easily Tom’s best work, surpassing his bestselling The Pentagon’s New Map in sweep and historical depth. A book with a provocative analysis that is definitely going to challenge the comfortable assumptions of the defense and foreign policy establishments and enrage not a few partisans. I will have a full review in mid-January after I see the “final edit” version.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy, a British military historian, gives Julius Caesar the same comprehensive and magisterial treatment that Alan Schom rendered with his landmark biography of Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte, incidentally, was an admirer of Hannibal, not Caesar) A biography and work of military history that is a page turner.

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze

Dan from Madison at Chicago Boyz has reviewed Wages of Destruction, which led me to pick up a copy recently and start reading. Like Niall Ferguson, Tooze puts economic history into a dramatic explanatory context. If you have doubts, pick up a copy and flip to the chapter entitled “The Grand Strategy of Racial War” and read. You’ll walk out of the store with it.

The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War by Mark Safranski, Daniel Abbott, Chet Richards, Shane Deichman, Thomas Wade, Frans Osinga, Adam Elkus and Frank Hoffman. Foreword by Thomas P.M. Barnett

A refinement and extension of the online roundtable at Chicago Boyz dedicated to reviewing Science, Strategy and War by Col. Frans Osinga (see below) and debating the ideas of the late strategic theorist Colonel John Boyd. Great for both the “Boyd expert” and those wanting a quick primer before tackling Osinga’s monumental work of strategic studies and intellectual history [ Full Disclosure: for newer readers who may not be aware, I was the editor and I’m shamelessly self-promoting here  🙂 ] 

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Strategy and History)  by Frans Osinga

Dr.Osinga has delivered a meticulously researched tome that William Lind called “the book Boyd would have written” that explains Colonel John Boyd as “the first postmodern strategist”. Osinga walks the reader through Boyd’s intellectual journey into fields as far removed from classical military studies as cybernetics, knowledge theory and the work of mathematician Kurt Godel and explains how Boyd distilled a strategic worldview on the nature of conflict and competition.


The Culture of War by Martin van Creveld

Eminent and controversial Dutch-Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld expands upon his body of work that is often described as “prophetic” these days in order to argue the intrinsic cultural value of war.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This was the “must read” book of the blogosphere in 2007- 2008, widely cited (though perhaps first by John Robb) for the Black Swan concept itself. Taleb is an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging, writer interested in counterintuitive perspectives and is deeply skeptical of the validity of existing epistemological methodologies. Parts of the book will be of interest only to those with advanced backgrounds in probabalistic analysis and mathematics but there is much else that is intriguing and entertaining along the way while Taleb explains the characteristics of Extremistan and Mediocristan. A friend who moves among quite a few “thought leaders” described Taleb to me as “arrogant” but with something of value to say. Agreed.

On War (Oxford World’s Classics) by Carl von Clausewitz

Pick up a copy and join us during the Clausewitz Roundtable in January!!

Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations by Fred C. Ikle

Ikle, a senior Defense Department official in the Reagan administration tackles apocalyptic threat scenarios including the one coming from our own best efforts to avoid them. A gloomy but thought-provoking read.

The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis

Gaddis intended to write a book for the college undergraduate or layman that concisely explains the Cold War and the “why ?” of the victory of the West and generally does a superb job of it.  The undercurrent or background that may not be obvious to the layman is that Gaddis is sticking a thumb in the collective eye of the revisionist diplomatic historians of the New Left – notably Walter LaFeber, Lloyd Gardner, Gabriel Kolko and Robert Buzzanco and others descending at least vaguely from the school of thought founded by William Appleman Williams.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

A brilliant example of Soviet studies scholarship. I’ve read innumerable books on Stalin and the USSR and I still learned things from  Montefiore. Highly recommended.

The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 by Richard J. Evans

The second book in his trilogy on the history of Nazism, Evans looks at the Nazi state and party apparatus and German society during the years of peace. Evans, along with Michael Burleigh, Ian Kershaw and Adam Tooze are revising our understanding of the Third Reich and illuminating that as evil as Hitler’s regime was in fact, it ultimately was intended to be several orders of magnitude worse had Germany won the Second World War.

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek

A deeply partisan work of history, Dallek makes little effort to be fair (especially in the first half of the text) to either Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger, both whom he characterizes as mentally and emotionally unstable, if highly intelligent, personalities and makes an argument that Nixon’s mental state during the Watergate crisis required his removal from office under the 25th amendment. It’s difficult to imagine Dallek treating Bill Clinton or LBJ in similar fashion, regardless of their personal behavior or abuses of power because seldom does Nixon ever get the benefit of the doubt ( in comparison Richard Reeves’ devastating profile, Nixon: Alone in the White House is a work of hagiography).

Why read Nixon and Kissinger then ? Because Dallek, despite his biases, has done an outstanding job in presenting new sources and evidence and his delving into the China Opening and Nixon and Kissinger’s very complicated personal relationship, remains a first-rate work of scholarship. Therefore, I say “Read it” ( just do not let it be the only book you read on Richard Nixon).

That’s it!


DNI Liveblogging Boyd ’08 !

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

Dr. Chet Richards is (semi) liveblogging Boyd ’08  At the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Tight working group this year, featuring John Robb as the keynote speaker and Robert Paterson as a driving force behind the Boyd 2008 conference and master of ceremonies.

I could not make it out this year unfortunately, but Chet has updates !:

Sun Tzu is Alive and Well

Sun Tzu in Charlottetown

Live from Boyd 2008

Boyd 2008: Community resources

Robb on resilience

John Robb is on

Boyd 2008 Has Started

Other Links:

Robert PatersonBoyd 2008 Conference Dec 6-7 Making sense of “Interesting Times” The Agenda 

Global DashboardThe Boyd Conference 2008

Official Website:

The Boyd 2008 Conference

It’s Gates

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Obama’s New Deputy Chief of Staff a Former Blogger

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

More than that, but it is a sign of changing times and the mainstreaming of blogging.

Mona Sutphen, a former diplomat, Clinton NSC aide and Rahm Emanuel’s Chief of Staff, has been named White House Deputy Chief of Staff – a powerful, albeit very “insider”, post. Until last February, Sutphen was also briefly a foreign policy blogger at The Next American Century , which was a short-lived vehicle to promote  The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise
 a book Sutphen co-authored with Nina Hachigian.

I have not read their book ( nor heard of it  before today, to be frank) but from listening to Sutphen and Hachigan opine on their infomercial video (see below) The Next American Century sounds more or less as a breezy and happy version of the themes in Thomas P. M. Barnett’s yet to be released Great Powers: America and the World After Bush that I’m reading, minus the sharp elbows thrown by Tom and the latter book’s deep dive into historical and strategic drivers for the 21st century. Otherwise, there’s a lot of big picture congruency going on – no wonder Tom’s so happy about the incoming Obama administration; it seems like it will have at least some personnel in high places who are predisposed toward his strategic views.

Be interesting if anyone out there has a copy of the Sutphen-Hachigan book to see if they cited PNM or BFA in the footnotes or index.

A final point, that Obama is moving such relatively young faces, like Mona Sutphen, to high posts is a good sign. Regardless of how my more liberal readers and fellow FP/mil/Intel/security bloggers may feel, the Democratic bench in these areas range from fair to decidely weak with a shortage of “stars” in the critical late 40’s to middle 50’s age band that normally fill the first through second tier appointive posts (of course, that deficit partly comes from liberal activist hostility toward more conservative Democrats like Sam Nunn or Lee Hamilton who are always shortlisted but never appointed). Normally, you need a talent pool at least 2-3 deep at each position to handle the burnout, transience and delay in confirmation hearings that every administration faces. The Democrats have to build up that pool instead of relying on ancient Carter and aging Boomer, Clinton retreads ( even so, look to seeing a lot of familiar GOP faces seatwarming in the first year in the bureaucracy, unless the Senate rushes through every Obama appointment in record time).

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