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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.

An end-timely reminder

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]


I spend a fair amount of effort as you know, trying to monitor the various forms of end-times religion manifesting in the Abrahamic faiths, so it came as a shock to me to find a seam of material on Sunni Mahdism that I hadn’t previously run across, now a year old, from over on my old side of the pond of all places…

Look what happens to London:


And if that isn’t graphic enough for you — and it really isn’t very graphic — look at what happens to New York


The End of Time… A New Beginning…


The first image comes from a poster for a tour of Ireland in October of last year — though why the good people of Ireland should be so worried if London is consumed in sulphurous fog and flame is a little hard for me to understand — while the second graphic advertises a conference in London — though why the good people of London should be so concerned if the city of New York… no, I won’t go there, there’s the Special Relationship, isn’t there?  Is there?

I missed both events, alas, living quietly here in the United States, or I might have heard, in Ireland:

a clear description about life in the grave, the trials of the last day, the major and minor signs leading to the last hour and the day of resurrection including Imam Mahdi, The Dajjal and many more.

I could have taken notes, and published them here on Zenpundit. After all, as the advertisements advertised:

On the Day of Judgment those who pass the test will be rewarded with Paradise.

Cliff’s Notes for Judgement Day — a sure best seller!


Not to worry, I can still study up on the January 2009 London conference, at which Anwar al-Awlaki reportedly hosted a live video question-and-answer session, presumably beaming in from Yemen — even though tickets are no longer available

If I can just get hold of the DVDs…


Sadly, though, they’re out of stock


Okay seriously now — three points:

This is associated with al-Awlaki.  This has slick PR, intercontinental video feeds, and DVDs.  And this is Sunni Mahdism.


Books and Bookish Things in 2009

Monday, December 21st, 2009

The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman – just arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Flipped through it today and scanned the index; it looks like a book that would appeal to both “political” bloggers, including Nixon aficianados and the security-defense-foreign policy types who compose a large segment of the readership here.

This year I decided to keep track of all the books I read and see what conclusions I could draw from that experience. I learned a number of interesting things.

First, I did not read nearly as many books cover to cover that I thought I would, though in fairness some of them were a) large and b) ‘hard”. Those I had to read for a grad program were also tedious in the sense of often being composed in the worst kind of academic jargon being overused to convey relatively simple arguments. That said, I could probably have read more than I did. Partly, the problem was a tight schedule and partly it was a case of my reading time being taken consumed more by blogs, PDFs, email, listservs, e-zines and news. All useful but not the same thing as deep reading provided by books.

Secondly, the variety of reading material was not as diverse as I’d have liked, though that is unfortunately the nature of formal programs of study. By definition they are narrow and drill down. I need to add more science and more literature to my repetoire.

Without further ado, my list:


Classics and Ancient History:

The Anabasis of Cyrus by Xenophon ( Wayne Ambler, trans.).    
On War by Carl von Clausewitz (Michael Howard, Peter Paret, trans.)
Caesar’s Commentaries On The Gallic War by Julius Caesar
Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge
How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy

War, National Security, Military History and Strategy (Modern):

Great Powers: America and the World After Bush by Thomas P.M. Barnett
Threats in the Age of Obama by Michael Tanji (ed.)
The Culture of War by Martin van Creveld
Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P.W. Singer
The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant T. Hammond
Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton
The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer
The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War Against America by Douglas E. Schoen
This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang by Samuel Logan

Islamic World:

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole
The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr

Society, Arts, Literature and Science:

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
Fatal Revenant: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World by Wendy Smith

Educational Theory, Learning and Schools:

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray
Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith
What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action by Robert J. Marzano
Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement by Richard Strong
Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work by Robert E. Eaker
Getting Results With Curriculum Mapping by Heidi Hayes Jacobs
SuperVision and Instructional Leadership: A Developmental Approach by Carl D. Glickman
Pretending to Be Normal: Living With Asperger’s Syndrome by Liane Holliday Willey
Dealing with Difficult Parents by Todd Whitaker
The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
School, Family, and Community Partnerships : Preparing Educators and Improving Schools by Joyce Levy Epstein
American Public School Finance by William A. Owings
Ethics Of School Administration by Kenneth Strike
Ethical Leadership in Schools: Creating Community in an Environment of Accountability by Kenneth Strike
Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues by James Noll
Teachers and the Law by Louis Fischer
Practicing the Art of Leadership: A Problem-Based Approach to Implementing the ISLLC Standards by Reginald Leon Green
On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities by Roland S. Barth
Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan
Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching by Carol A. Tomlinson
Studying Educational and Social Policy: Theoretical Concepts and Research Methods by Ronald H. Heck
Data Analysis 2nd by Victoria L. Bernhardt

Currently Reading Now:

The Call of Nepal: My Life In the Himalayan Homeland of Britain’s Gurkha Soldiers by J.P. Cross
Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count by Richard E. Nisbett
The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism by Howard Bloom


I also make use of a Kindle            


President Obama on Afghanistan

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009


I’ll be frank, as I am short for time until Dec. 7th, so I riffed this straight from SWJ Blog  which also posted a critique by Robert Haddick here.

My reader’s digest take – the president split the difference between the myriad factions in the national security community in a way that ultimately leaves his options open. A cautious, calculating, choice unless he gave General McChrystal carte blanche on new black ops inside Pakistan. That would not be unimportant – al Qaida safe houses in Quetta and rural Baluchistan blowing up would not be insignificant.

For what it is worth, in terms of domestic politics, President Obama is well to the right of the Democratic Party on Afghanistan, at least in terms of the activist base. The self-described “progressives” are not happy tonight.

That was my two cents. Fire at will in comments section….


Will there be a “Revolt of the Progressives?” Here is one reaction to the speech from an important leftwing blog.

The End of Defense and the National Interest

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Dr. Chet Richards announced that DNI is set to adjourn sine die.

DNI set to close 

 Probably on Monday, November 23, depending on how my travels work out. Please go ahead and download any thing you’d like to keep — I’d particularly recommend Boyd’s briefings and the 4GW manuals. I have great faith in the growing number of bloggers and commentators who cover many of the same subjects we did – check out a few of them in the “Blogs” and “Other Sites” sections on the right.

DNI started in March 1999 with a grant from Danielle Brian and the folks at the Project on Government Oversight. Its original purpose was to house the growing collection of Chuck Spinney’s commentaries on the foibles of our defense program (when you read these, keep in mind this was during the Clinton era.  We were not associated with any political party).  If you’re interested in strengthening our position in 4GW, I’d suggest a generous donation to POGO.  You could also run for office.

I’d like to thank Danielle, Chuck, Marcus Corbin (our original project officer at POGO and the person who commissioned A Swift, Elusive Sword), Ginger Richards (who designed and operated all the various versions of the site), Bill Lind and all of our other contributors, and all who have taken the time to compose comments.

Chet Richards,


This is a shame, but everything has its time.

DNI served as an important counterpoint to the “conventional wisdom” in military affairs long before the growth of the now influential  defense/.mil/intel/COIN/national security blogosphere. In addition to hosting the entertaining jeremiads of William Lind, Dr. Richards was the steward of the legacy of the great American strategist Colonel John Boyd and the benefactor of the 4GW School of strategic analysis. DNI was not only a resource for scholars and strategists interested in Boyd’s theories, it was a forum for vigorous debate at a time when unconventional views on military reform were unpopular as well as obscure.

Personally, I have learned much from both DNI and from Dr. Richards whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2007, at the Boyd Conference at Quantico ( where I met other blogfriends and readers including Shane DeichmanDan TDAXPShlok VaidyaJohn RobbAdam ElkusDave Dilegge, Frank HoffmanDon VandergriffFrans Osinga, Ski, Isaac and Morgan). This event subsequently led to much good reading, writing, discussion and still more new friends now too numerous to mention here.  The keynote speaker that day was Col. Frans Osinga, whose magnum opus  Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd is still the most comprehensive and detailed text on John Boyd’s strategic thought that we are ever likely to see.

Consequently, as a regular reader, I would like to thank Chet both for his hard work over the years as editor of DNI and for his occasional advice and contributions to various projects and discussions that have occurred in this section of the blogosphere. Dr. Richards appears to be very busy with his business consulting these days and I wish him the very best in his future endeavors.

DNI will soon be gone, but it will not be forgotten.


Joseph Fouche is a step ahead on the Boyd downloads

Here are the 4GW manuals (temp).


James Fallows on Chet Richards and DNI

Planet Russell on John Boyd and DNI

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