“What We Need Is an Officer with Three Heads”
A few days shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, John Nagl saw his future disappear.
The first tremors came at dawn, on February 24, 1991, as he revved up the engine of his M-1 tank and plowed across the Saudi Arabian border into the flat, endless sands of southern Iraq. For the previous month, American warplanes had bombarded Saddam Hussein’s military machine to the point of exhaustion. Now the ground-war phase of Operation Desert Storm—the largest armored offensive since the Second World War— roared forth in full force, pushing Iraq’s occupying army out of Kuwait.
Lieutenant Nagl was a platoon leader in the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, which, on that morning, mounted the crucial feint along the route where Saddam’s commanders were expecting an invasion. While Nagl and the rest of the 1st Cav pinned down the Iraqi troops with a barrage of bullets, shells, and missiles, the offensive’s main force—a massive armada of American soldiers, nearly a quarter million strong, along with their armored vehicles, artillery rockets, and a fleet of gunship helicopters overhead—swept across the desert landscape from the west in a surprise left-hook assault, enveloping Saddam’s troops and crushing them into submission after a mere one hundred hours of astonishingly lopsided fighting.
Nagl had graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point two-and-a-half years earlier, near the top of his class, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. Highly ranked cadets got their pick of Army assignments, and Nagl chose the armor branch. Tanks would be the spearhead of the big war for which the Army was ceaselessly preparing—the titanic clash between the United States and the Soviet Union across the East-West German border—and so, tank commanders were prime candidates for fast promotion through the ranks. Nagl even studied German while at West Point and became fluent in the language, figuring that Germany was where he’d be spending the bulk of his career.
Then, not quite a year before he deployed to the Gulf, the Berlin Wall fell, the two Germanys merged, the Cold War ended—and now, right before his eyes, the Iraqi army, the fourth-largest army in the world, was crumbling on contact.
It was a moment of unaccustomed triumph for the US military, still haunted by the defeat in Vietnam. But to Nagl, it also signaled the end of the era that made the triumph possible. Tank-on-tank combat had been the defining mode of warfare for a modern superpower; now it teetered on the verge of obsolescence. The Soviet Union and Iraq had been the last two foes that possessed giant tank armies. With the former gone up in smoke and the latter crushed so easily on the battlefield, it seemed implausible that any foreign power would again dare challenge the United States in a head-on contest of strength. The premise of all Nagl’s plans—to say nothing of the rationale for his beloved Army’s doctrines, budgets, and weapons programs—seemed suddenly, alarmingly irrelevant.
Nagl didn’t think that any of this necessarily meant the coming of world peace. If “major combat operations” (the official name for big tank wars) were no longer likely, there was still plenty of room for minor ones, especially the “shadow wars” mounted along the peripheries of vital interests by insurgents, guerrillas, or terrorists. Nagl didn’t know much about these kinds of wars. Neither did the Army. He hadn’t learned about them as a cadet at West Point. Nor had he since read about them in Army field manuals or practiced fighting them in officers’ training drills.
There was a reason for this gap in his education. In the mid-1970s, after the debacle of Vietnam, the Army’s top generals said “Never again” to the notion of fighting guerrillas in the jungle (or anyplace else). Instead, they turned their gaze once more to the prospect of a big war against the Soviet Union on the wide-open plains of Europe—a war that would play to America’s traditional strengths of amassing men and metal—and they threw out the book (literally: theythrew out the official manuals and curricula) on anything related to what were once called “irregular wars,” “asymmetric wars,” “low-intensity conflicts,” or “counterinsurgency campaigns.” To the extent that these types of wars were contemplated at all, the message went out that there was nothing distinctive about them. For decades, Army doctrine had held that wars were won by superior firepower. This idea was taken as gospel, whether the war was large or small, whether the enemy was a nation-state or a rogue guerrilla. As one adage put it, if you can lick the cat, you can lick the kitten. Or, in the words of another: war is war is war.
But Nagl suspected that, like it or not, America might find itself drawn into fighting these “small wars” again; that if the Army had a future, these wars would play a key part in it; and (though he didn’t grasp this idea at first) that these wars were different from large wars in ways other than mere size and, therefore, had to be fought in different ways by soldiers trained in different skills.
Not long after Desert Storm, Nagl persuaded the Army to send him back to Oxford for graduate school, where he embarked on a historical study of these kinds of wars. The study evolved into a doctoral dissertation, which he published as a book, which he then hoisted as a weapon—an intellectual weapon—in a policy war back home. He sought and found a cadre of allies to fight this war with him: mainly fellow Army officers, along with a few marines and civilian defense analysts, who were reaching similar conclusions through their own experiences, and who, once they grew aware of one another’s existence, formed a community—a “cabal” or “mafia,” some frankly called it—dedicated to the cause of reviving counterinsurgency doctrine and making it a major strand, even the centerpiece, of American military strategy.
To pull off this feat, they had to act like insurgents: subversive rebels within their own military establishment, armed not with weapons but with ideas and, in some cases, a mastery of bureaucratic maneuvering.
Most of them fully grasped the irony, and the stakes, of what they were doing. One of these rebels would title a PowerPoint briefing about this community’s emergence, and his role in it, “An Insurgent Within the COIN Revolution.”
Critics derided them as “COINdinistas,” a wordplay that combined the abbreviation for counterinsurgency (COIN) with the name of the leftist insurgency that seized power in Nicaragua in the late 1970s (Sandinistas). The COIN rebels took to the name, invoking it with a self-aware smirk and a missionary pride. For it was a serious struggle they were waging: a campaign to overhaul the institutional culture of the US military establishment—the way it groomed new leaders, adapted to new settings, and adopted new ideas.
A few years into the twenty-first century, a second American war in Iraq—this time an outright invasion for the purpose of “regime change”— triggered the rise of sectarian militias. Simultaneously, Islamist insurgents renewed a fight for power in Afghanistan. And the battle of ideas between the COINdinistas and the traditionalists took on an urgent intensity. The stakes were suddenly very high. It was no longer an esoteric quarrel over history and theory, but a struggle whose outcome meant life or death, victory or defeat—not only in those two wars but possibly in other theaters of conflict for years or decades to come. It was a battle for how the Pentagon does business and how America goes to war.
At first the rebels would win the battle. A cultural upheaval would seize the military at its core. A new kind of officer would rise through the ranks. And the Army would shift from a static garrison establishment to a flexible fighting force, more adaptable to the dangers and conflicts of the post–Cold War era.
Yet, as often happens with revolutions, the new doctrine, enshrined in the first flush of victory, would harden into dogma. And its enthusiasts, emboldened in their confidence, would—often with good intentions—lure the nation more deeply into another war that it lacked the ability or appetite to win.
The seeds of the COIN revolt first sprouted in the Army’s own hothouse: the military academy at West Point, the gleaming granite fortress overlooking the Hudson River, fifty miles north of New York City, where cadets had been molded into officers since the early years of the republic. A reverence for tradition was carved into its foundations, piped into its air. West Point was where, in 1778, General George Washington built the Continental Army’s most critical strategic fortress. It had remained an Army holding ever since—the oldest continuously occupied military post in North America. President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill establishing the United States Military Academy on West Point’s land in 1802. Fifteen years later, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, one of the academy’s early superintendents, issued its first curriculum and honor code, which survived so many otherwise tumultuous eras that one cadet, in the mid-twentieth century, scribbled out a proposed new motto: “Two Hundred Years of Tradition, Unhindered by Progress.”
Some on the faculty read it as a benediction, not a joke.
The COIN rebellion was fomented by a subculture within the academy, composed of officers who venerated tradition but also embraced strands of progress. They saw themselves as apart from (some would say above) the rest of West Point. They were the faculty and students of its Social Sciences Department, known to members and detractors alike as “Sosh.”
Sosh was the brainchild of George Arthur Lincoln, who graduated from West Point in 1929, ranking fourth in his class. There were no majors or even electives at the academy in those days; everyone took the same courses, most of them in engineering. (Throughout the nineteenth century, West Point alumni had played a leading role in constructing the nation’s rail lines, bridges, harbors, and interstate roads.) Lincoln, nicknamed Abe by his friends, won a Rhodes Scholarship after graduating and spent the next three years at Oxford, studying philosophy, politics, and economics. It was a heady experience for the son of a farmer from Harbor Beach, Michigan, a small town on the shore of Lake Huron. Afterward, he came back to West Point to teach.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Lincoln was assigned to a high-level staff job in London, where he planned the logistics for the Normandy invasion. His talents were quickly recognized, and in the spring of 1943, he was ordered back to Washington to serve as deputy chief of the Strategy and Policy Group, the US Army’s brain trust, located on the third floor of the Pentagon, next to the office of the chief of staff, General George Marshall. In the fall of 1944, at age thirty-seven, Lincoln was promoted to brigadier general—making him the Army’s youngest general officer—and took over as the S&P Group’s chief. He coordinated operations for every major military campaign in the war’s final year and advised Marshall on a daily basis, accompanying him to the conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, where he had a hand in drafting the treaties that shaped the political map of postwar Europe.
By the end of the war, Lincoln had earned enough plaudits to win whatever plum assignment a one-star general might want. He stayed on with the S&P Group for another year, helping Marshall’s replacement, General Dwight Eisenhower, organize the newly created Department of Defense. But what he really wanted to do was to go back to West Point and start a new department that combined the study of history, government, international politics, and economics—a department of social sciences.
While working with Marshall at the various Allied planning conferences, Lincoln had noticed that much of the crucial staff work was performed by just a handful of military officers and that nearly all of them had been, like him, Rhodes Scholars. He calculated that West Point had produced a total of thirteen Rhodes Scholars in its history. Of the six still alive, four were currently holding senior policy-making positions. Throughout the war, those four had planned several major military operations—crossing the English Channel and the Rhine, attacking the islands off Shanghai, arranging the surrenders of Germany and Japan—and now, in the war’s unsettled aftermath, they were working out the terms of peace treaties, arms accords, and international boundaries. Emerging as a global power with global responsibilities, the United States would need leaders—or at least staff officers advising the leaders—who were well versed in politics, diplomacy, economics, and military strategy. But few such people existed, in or out of the military.
West Point, Lincoln mused, was good at training mess officers and battalion commanders, and maybe that was enough for an earlier time. But the commanders and chiefs of the postwar American Army would have to be “very broad-gauged individuals,” as he put it to one colleague. The problem was that by the time officers were promoted to such a high position, it was “a little late to start instilling the broad approach.” Their education had to begin much sooner.
On May 20, 1945, less than two weeks after the war in Europe ended, Lincoln wrote to Colonel Herman Beukema, one of his former mentors back at West Point: “I am beginning to think that what we need is a type of staff officer with at least three heads—one political, one economic, and one military.” Over the next year, the two officers struck up a correspondence, pondering the role that West Point might play in breeding this new type of officer for a new Army in a new world.
In one letter, Lincoln proposed “baptizing practically all officers” with a “sprinkling” of education in politics, history, and economics, while taking “certain selected” officers and “dunking” them in those waters much more deeply.
Beukema agreed. The sorts of challenges that Lincoln had described confronting during the war made it clear, Beukema wrote, “that the Army can no longer afford to depend on the fortuitous assembly of Rhodes Scholars . . . There must be an integrated system of high-level training if Army policy and national policy are properly to be served, a system which begins here at West Point.”
And so was hatched the idea of starting the Department of Social Sciences. In August 1945, soon after Japan’s surrender, West Point’s superintendent announced that the academy would soon resume its four-year course of study, which had been suspended during the war while most of the cadets and instructors had gone off to fight. In June 1946, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the academy’s faculty. In July, Lincoln told Beukema that he might be interested in coming back to West Point.
Beukema was sixteen years older than Lincoln, so he would be the Sosh department’s first chairman, but Lincoln would be his deputy—for all practical purposes, running its operations—and formally succeed him when he retired.
There was one hitch. By Army regulations, a department chair or deputy chair at West Point was to be filled by a colonel, not a general. But Lincoln thought this was the most important thing he could do, so he requested a demotion—an almost unheard-of move, which carried a cut in authority and pay.
Lincoln started his new job on September 1, 1947. Another seven years would pass before Beukema retired and Lincoln rose to chairman; meanwhile, together they set about turning their vision into reality. Before Lincoln returned, West Point’s curriculum had been very thin in the social sciences. It had offered several full-year courses in engineering, math, chemistry, physics, military tactics, even military bridges, but only a semester each in military history and political science, and only a half semester in economics. Lincoln and Beukema created courses in history, government, foreign affairs, geography, national-security economics, and international relations. (There were no college-level American textbooks on international politics, so Lincoln wrote one, which also wound up being assigned at several civilian colleges across the country.)
From the beginning, there was something clearly different about the Sosh department. A few months before coming back to West Point, Lin-coln had written to Beukema, “I am certain that we must make strenuous efforts . . . to improve the so-called Army mind.” This would mean, above all, “impressing the student with the fact that the basic requirement is to learn to think—sometimes a very painful process.” So, unlike most of the departments, where instructors recited hard facts in straight lectures, Sosh courses were taught more like seminars, allowing, even encouraging, questions, discussion, to some degree dissent. There was no major in Social
Sciences just yet; there were no majors of any sort. (They wouldn’t come to West Point until the reforms of the mid-1980s.) All cadets took the same core courses. But a few of the core courses were now Sosh courses, and cadets could sign up for a handful of electives. Those who took Sosh electives felt a sense of separate space for critical inquiry, more like what students at a liberal-arts college were experiencing. It was something that cadets and faculty in other departments at West Point viewed with a little distrust, resentment, envy, or all three.
The act of asking questions and talking back was itself a cause for suspicion in the Army, an institution that, by nature, demanded obedience to authority, especially in a time when American society and culture rewarded conformity. Sosh students and faculty were commonly derided as “communists,” sometimes in jest, sometimes not. As late as 1991, when General Norman Schwarzkopf, the hero-commander of Operation Desert Storm, came back to West Point to deliver a rousing victory speech, he reminisced about his own days as a cadet and, at one point, poked fun at the crazy ideas advanced by “a couple of left-wing pinko Social Science instructors.” He was joking, sort of, but the laughter and applause from the audience reflected at least a lingering trace of the stereotype.
In a move that only intensified this sense of an elite enclave, Lincoln established a rule allowing cadets who did especially well in Sosh courses to go study at a civilian graduate school, with West Point paying the tuition. In exchange, these cadets, after earning their doctorate degrees, would come back and teach in the Sosh department for at least three years. Once they fulfilled that obligation, Lincoln would use his still-considerable connections in Washington to get them choice assignments in the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, a foreign embassy, or a prestigious command post.
The idea of all this was to boost the quality of education at West Point, to create an esprit de corps within the Sosh department in particular, and, from that, to cultivate an elite within the Army’s officer corps, the new type of officer that Lincoln envisioned in his letter to Beukema just after the war: the “staff officer with at least three heads,” instilled with a knowledge of political, economic, and military matters, at a level of breadth and depth that the nation would demand of its top officers in an age of global reach and rivalry.
Lincoln would later articulate a philosophy of personnel policy: “Pick good people, pick them young before other pickers get into the competition, help them to grow, keep in touch, exploit excellence.”
Over the years, a network of Lincoln’s acolytes—and the acolytes of those acolytes—emerged and expanded. They called themselves the “Lincoln Brigade” (an inside joke on their left-wing stereotype, referring to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group of American leftists who, in the 1930s, had gone off to fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War). Over the years, when these alumni-officers were appointed to high-level positions, they’d usually phone Colonel Lincoln—or, later on, his successors as department chairmen—and ask for the new crop of top Sosh cadets, or the most promising junior faculty members, to come work as their assistants.
When John Nagl passed through the gates of West Point in the fall of 1983, as a visiting high school senior who’d applied for admission the following year, he knew right away that this was where he wanted to be.
His father, a retired Navy officer who worked at a nuclear power plant, had driven him all the way from their home in Omaha, Nebraska, where John was an honors student at Creighton Prep, an all-boys’ Jesuit school. John had grown up in a conservative Catholic family, the oldest of five children, four of them boys, each named after a Gospel in the New Testament ( John, Matthew, Luke, and Mark). His hometown served as the base for the Strategic Air Command and was thus America’s most likely ground zero—the Kremlin’s number-one target—in the event of nuclear war. At the time of Nagl’s West Point visit, the Cold War was heating up, and President Ronald Reagan was pouring tens of billions of dollars into a new generation of major Army weapons: M-1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Apache helicopters, and the Multiple Launch Rocket System. It was a logical fit for Nagl to go to one of the military academies; the Army seemed right for the time.
He was dazzled by the grandeur of the buildings and the grounds, the vista views of the Hudson, the hallowed history all around him. Nearly every prominent Army general had walked these grounds as a cadet, and Nagl fully expected to join their ranks.
He wouldn’t make it that far; he’d wind up retiring from the Army before making even full colonel. But along the way, he made a deeper mark, and garnered more fame, than most generals ever had in their lifetimes. And he did this while climbing through the ranks of the Lincoln Brigade—initially as a cadet, then as an acolyte, and finally as a network-builder himself. His first and pivotal mentor in this fraternal order of soldier-scholars was an Army major named David Howell Petraeus.