An Officer and a Family Man
Why is the Army losing so many talented midlevel officers?
Not only does this describe what Nagl has been doing; it recites, nearly verbatim, the first sentence of an essay that Nagl himself wrote in June for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, in which he argued that the Army should create a specialized advisory corps.
However, Nagl also wrote that soldiers have been posted to his battalion "on an ad hoc basis" and that few of the officers assigned to train them have ever been advisers or trainers themselves.
Some slow progress has subsequently been made on this front. But it's fair to say that the institutional Army has treated this battalion as something less than a high priority. It's also worth noting that Fort Riley is the home of the 1st Infantry Division—the "Big Red One"—and several generals with fond sentiments toward its legacy don't want its mission to veer away from direct combat.
Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story of Nagl's retirement, quotes Nagl as saying that he's leaving the Army because his family wants to settle down and because working at the Center for a New American Security will allow him to stay focused on the work that he loves. Nagl told me the same thing in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon and emphasized that, contrary to some rumors floating around, he is not leaving out of anger or disgruntlement.
Still, some officers who are sympathetic with Nagl's views say they find it discouraging that the Army can't find some way to hang on to a soldier of his caliber. For one reason or another, junior and midlevel officers—lieutenants, captains, and lieutenant colonels—are leaving the Army in droves.
West Point cadets are obligated to stay in the Army for five years after graduating. Typically, one-quarter to one-third of them decide not to sign on for a second term. In 2003, when the Class of 1998 faced that decision, just 18 percent of them quit the force; memories of Sept. 11 were still strong; the war in Iraq was underway; duty called. But in 2006, when the 905 officers from the Class of 2001 had to decide to stay or leave, 44 percent quit the Army—the service's highest loss rate in three decades.
The prolonged and repeated tours in Iraq were among the reasons for the trend. This is not the case for Nagl. But he represents another problem that the all-volunteer military is facing—the growing influence of the modern soldier's family. It's not that more soldiers have families than was once the case; in fact, the numbers are about the same as they were 30 years ago. But it is the case that more men in the military are married to professional women. In the past, many, if not most, officers married women who had grown up in military families. (Gen. Petraeus married the daughter of West Point's superintendent.) They knew what the gig was when they took it—the endless rotations, the life of never settling down in one place, of a career officer. Now, many officers' wives (or, in the case of female officers, their husbands) have their own careers; they don't want to spend years in Fort Riley, Kan., then a few years more in Fort Hood, Texas. And at some point in the trade-off between private and professional lives, the officer gives in to his or her spouse, takes a stable job, buys a house, and gets out of the service.
The Army is so desperate to retain good captains that it's offering $35,000 bonuses if they stay in the service for another term. For many officers, that's not enough; money isn't really the issue, and if it were, they could make much more on the outside. Can't the Army come up with another incentive to officers like John Nagl—maybe offer them the lure of a stable life?
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Lt. Col. John Nagl by the U.S. Navy.