Knife Fights

Knife Fights

A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice

Additional Formats
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781594204982
  • 288 Pages
  • Penguin Press
  • Adult


From one of the most important army officers of his generation, a memoir of the revolution in warfare he helped lead, in combat and in Washington

When John Nagl was an army tank commander in the first Gulf War of 1991, fresh out of West Point and Oxford, he could already see that America’s military superiority meant that the age of conventional combat was nearing an end. Nagl was an early convert to the view that America’s greatest future threats would come from asymmetric warfare—guerrillas, terrorists, and insurgents. But that made him an outsider within the army; and as if to double down on his dissidence, he scorned the conventional path to a general’s stars and got the military to send him back to Oxford to study the history of counterinsurgency in earnest, searching for guideposts for America. The result would become the bible of the counterinsurgency movement, a book called Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.

But it would take the events of 9/11 and the botched aftermath of the Iraq invasion to give counterinsurgency urgent contemporary relevance. John Nagl’s ideas finally met their war. But even as his book began ricocheting around the Pentagon, Nagl, now operations officer of a tank battalion of the 1st Infantry Division, deployed to a particularly unsettled quadrant of Iraq. Here theory met practice, violently. No one knew how messy even the most successful counterinsurgency campaign is better than Nagl, and his experience in Anbar Province cemented his view. After a year’s hard fighting, Nagl was sent to the Pentagon to work for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, where he was tapped by General David Petraeus to coauthor the new army and marine counterinsurgency field manual, rewriting core army doctrine in the middle of two bloody land wars and helping the new ideas win acceptance in one of the planet’s most conservative bureaucracies. That doctrine changed the course of two wars and the thinking of an army.

Nagl is not blind to the costs or consequences of counterinsurgency, a policy he compared to “eating soup with a knife.” The men who died under his command in Iraq will haunt him to his grave. When it comes to war, there are only bad choices; the question is only which ones are better and which worse. Nagl’s memoir is a profound education in modern war—in theory, in practice, and in the often tortured relationship between the two. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about the fate of America’s soldiers and the purposes for which their lives are put at risk.
Knife Fights

Knife Fights

John A. Nagl


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The Washington Post
“Nagl’s implicit warning is clear: If the U.S. military cannot find a way to become more self-reflective and adaptive, it will continue to draw only the most superficial and misleading lessons from the conflicts in which it finds itself…Knife Fights is a cri de coeur: In an uncertain, dangerous and ever-changing world, the U.S. military stands at a crossroads. It can focus on becoming a genuine learning organization — one that’s flexible, agile and tolerant of ambiguity — or it can stay as it is, continuing to oscillate self-destructively from fad to fad.”

Foreign Policy:
“[An] invaluable memoir of service…[KNIFE FIGHTS] is also a cautionary tale of how the U.S. Army became an ‘un-learning’ institution, ‘over-learning’ the lessons from Vietnam that were most convenient to its bureaucratic interests and ‘under-learning’ those lessons most central to victory in this type of warfare…Nagl’s exceptional memoir chronicles an important period in the wars of insurgency the United States waged following 9/11; it is also a story of how one professional soldier received a brutal education not just in war but in the harsh reality of politics.”

 Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Nagl, steeped in both the theory and practice of modern war, speaks authoritatively… This distinguished soldier-scholar continues to render valuable service with this thoughtful, important book.”

Harper’s Magazine:
“Nagl devoted the next twenty years to teaching the Pentagon table manners. ‘Eating Soup with a Knife’ inspired the title of his dissertation and his intellectual rallying cry. KNIFE FIGHTS is the story of [Nagl’s] career and an intellectual genealogy of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine… A window into how the Pentagon thinks and, crucially, how it—slowly—changes its mind.”

Foreign Affairs:
“This engaging book exhibits droll humor and a sharp grasp of the limits and possibilities of the U.S. Army as a learning organization.”

Washington Times:
“Writing a book about formulating military doctrine for a general audience is no easy task, but Nagl has mastered the challenge. His memoir, KNIFE FIGHTS, revolves around the writing of the American doctrine for counter-insurgency, and his wry wit and writing skill make it a good read, even for casual readers.”

Library Journal:
“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.”

Kirkus Reviews:
“A lively memoir that combines battlefield experiences with military politics…A thoughtful, lucid, not-terribly-optimistic autobiography of a scholarly soldier.”

Publishers Weekly:
“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… 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.”

“An essential addition to military history collections.”

General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army (Ret.), commander of the surge in Iraq:
“A wonderfully readable and strikingly forthright memoir by a brilliant Army officer turned think tank leader who achieved an exceptional record on the battlefield, in the academic arena, in a high-powered job in the Pentagon, and as one of the so-called ‘insurgents’ who helped transform the way the U.S. military thought about, prepared for, and conducted the wars of the post-9/11 era.”

General Jim Mattis, U.S. Marines (Ret.):
“John Nagl’s illuminating journey as a combat Soldier-Leader-Thinker provides a refreshing perspective of the changing character of today’s security challenges. To those searching for a relevant and historically grounded understanding of today’s erupting realities, his book is uniquely enlightening.”

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), Supreme Allied Commander at NATO 2009-2013 and current Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University:
“In Knife Fights, John Nagl takes the reader from the halls of the Pentagon to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and illuminates the modern battlefields – both in Washington and overseas – in harsh and vivid light. His work on counterinsurgency is deep and profound, and this book is the essential back story both of the intellectual process that underpins it and the personal journey that formed it. A powerful and meaningful memoir that will resonate in today’s Army and tomorrow’s society.”

Peter R. Mansoor, Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.); author, Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War:
“A magnificent memoir from one of the most brilliant officers of his generation. Knife Fights details John Nagl’s journey from the halls of West Point and Oxford to the battlefields of Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as his struggles and triumphs among Washington’s power elite. Highly recommended for those who seek to understand how the Army overcame its initial dysfunction to wage the messy counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

F. G. Hoffman, National Defense University, Washington DC:
“There are many books from veterans of America’s costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few will combine the intellectual heft, emotional power, and exemplary moral courage of John Nagl’s Knife Fights. It traces the development of the author from his early days as a cadet at West Point to the darkest days of fighting in Al Anbar province in Iraq and beyond. This book will stand on its own special shelf as a personal memoir of a soldier/scholar, a warrior and a great teacher. Highly recommended for all military students, and anyone interested in the journey of an institutional insurgent and patriot who followed his own path.”

Robert D. Kaplan:
“Brimming with poignancy and integrity, John Nagl’s book is an instant classic of America’s decade of war in the Greater Middle East. Its core argument, moreover, is undeniable: that insurgency and counterinsurgency have been part of the history of war since antiquity and thus will be part of its future. May the United States Army and Marine Corps hold close the lessons of this book!”

David E. Johnson, senior researcher at the RAND Corporation; inaugural director of the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group; author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, and The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat:
“John Nagl’s Knife Fights is a brave book by a soldier – scholar who has always put himself out there for the right reasons. John’s remarkable memoir is a directed telescope into how the U.S. Army changed its doctrinal paradigm for the first time since World War I from ‘closing with and destroying the enemy’ to ‘protecting the population.’ Readers will also see that he was a key intellectual force in this shift and how difficult these changes are for the institutions – and for the catalytic advocates like John.”

Peter Maass, author of Love Thy Neighbor:
“John Nagl has written an exceptional book that shows in words the type of bravery he exhibited on the battlefield. Nagl deftly reveals what worked and didn’t work in Washington, Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. His critique of Donald Rumsfeld is uniquely powerful because he writes from the vantage point of an Army officer who waged war in the Sunni Triangle and afterwards served in the defense secretary’s office. Knife Fights is essential reading – the rare memoir of war that integrates ideas, combat and politics. It is an invaluable addition to the literature of wars that we are still trying to comprehend.”
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