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.
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.
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.
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?