Why is the Army losing so many talented midlevel officers?

Military analysis.
Jan. 16 2008 5:56 PM

An Officer and a Family Man

Why is the Army losing so many talented midlevel officers?

John Nagl
Lt. Col. John Nagl

The early retirement of a lieutenant colonel ordinarily wouldn't merit the slightest mention. But today's news that Lt. Col. John Nagl is leaving the Army is a big deal.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It's another sign, more alarming than most, that the U.S. military is losing its allure for a growing number of its most creative young officers. More than that, it's a sign that one of the Army's most farsighted reforms—a program that some senior officials regard as essential—may be on the verge of getting whacked.

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Nagl, 41, has been one of the Army's most outspoken officers in recent years. (This is a huge point against him, careerwise; the brass look askance at officers, especially those without stars, who draw attention to themselves.) He played a substantial role in drafting the Army's recent field manual on counterinsurgency. His 2002 book, Learning To Eat Soup With a Knife, based on his doctoral dissertation at Oxford (another point against him in some circles), is widely hailed as a seminal book on CI warfare. (It was after reading the book that Gen. David Petraeus asked Nagl to join the panel that produced the field manual.) From 2003-2004, he served as the operations officer of a battalion in Iraq's Anbar province, where he tried to put his ideas into action (and, in the process, became the subject of a 9,200-word New York Times Magazine profile by Peter Maass, titled "Professor Nagl's War"). And since then, he's written thoughtful, if provocative, articles for Military Review and the "Small Wars Journal" Web site.

In short, Nagl was precisely the sort of officer whose cultivation and promotion has been encouraged by the likes of Gen. Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a dedicated warfighter who also thinks strategically.

After his tour of duty in Iraq and a brief spell in the Pentagon, Nagl took over command of a battalion in Fort Riley, Kan. The battalion had once specialized in armored combat, but Nagl was sent there to give it a new mission—to train and advise foreign armies, like the Iraqi army.

This was, on paper, a vital mission. The long-term goal of U.S. policy in Iraq, after all, was, and still is, to transfer responsibilities for security to the Iraqis—to "stand down as they stand up." The Iraqis would need training and advice to step into this role. The trainers and the advisers would come from Nagl's battalion.

Secretary Gates has publicly endorsed this mission. In two speeches—in October before the Association of the United States Army and the following month at Kansas State University—Gates said:

[A]rguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.