As you might notice when you read it, I enjoy giving academia a good kicking whenever I get the opportunity. Particularly my alma martyred, the University of Texas at Austin. My latest encounter with them was yesterday, when John Nagl, author of the counterinsurgency tomes du jour, spoke at the Strauss Center at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The LBJ School–I’ve never been impressed with the level of talent there, either students, who mostly all were unimaginative unread drones, or professors, who mostly were second-rate second-tier National Security Geopoliticostrategico wonkapologists (Hereafter abbreviated, in best acronym-happy-military fashion, as G-W’s.) in either retirement in the hinterlands, or marking time in the hinterlands until they can get back to Versailles, I mean DC. I’ve had others who either taught there, or attended there, say the same thing, and they point out that the degree is mostly an entree to an assistant city manager’s job in a 50,000 population size town here in Texas.
I didn’t think much of what Nagl had to say. Seemed like a nice enough fellow, but there didn’t seem to be an excess of brainpower on display, PHD from Oxford notwithstanding. He did draw an excellent sized audience–pushing 200, which is much better than the average attendance for similar speakers. Generally, unless you are bringing in some media star like Petraeus, speakers on the wars are audience death, have been for quite a while. Nagl has some understanding that an insurgency is a failure of government, but he didn’t pay attention to what Bernard Fall said that every single insurgency in the world shows that the government is being outgoverned. True enough; but Fall, for all his talent and ability, so sadly lost too soon to us, neglected of course the moral issues, the fires in the hearts of men that compel them to toss their lot in with death for some greater cause in the future. More than our failures to set up reasonably functioning satrapies, (And how can a failed democracy and a failing society like ours be expected to, using our crudest tool, the Army?) our failure in our wars is our so continually offending the inhabitants of the regions to where they will take up arms against the world’s most formidable mass killing machinery.
Audience was the typical bunch of ill-reads and sitters-on-of-hands types that make up most university audiences these days, combined with the affluent white retirees who have some brains and sense of civic engagement and the time on their hands who attend the LBJ events. Nagl was struggling a piece there talking about Boyd and the ooda loop and how in Korea we had the 9:1 (sheeyit Nagl aint been keeping up with the latest research on the numbers, eh?) kill ratio fighting Mig-15’s with, with, I’m knowing it wasn’t F-105 Thunderchiefs but I can’t remember, can’t… I yelled out F-86’s, and he caught it, and gave me a nod of thanks, showing a bit of true grace in the process. Got to wonder how many people in the audience there knew that fact nowadays. I’d bet not many.
So the Q&A came up. Generally I’m pretty good at getting selected for a question, being physically large has its uses many. I knew for sure that I’d be picked–shooting an answer out in a time of need ensures you get picked, which is good, because I think I’m getting known at the LBJ school and not known favorably by the inhabitants therein. Probably sooner or later they will start coming up to me and suggesting that I take myself somewhere else than their little circus, please, and then they will stop using the please, and will start getting the UT rent-a-cops involved, and no doubt the corrupt servile local judiciary will sign off on some sort of restraining order, and hell it will be time to move elsewhere. But until then, I’m showing up and showing them up when I do with my questions, hard questions that they don’t like and won’t answer.
My question was, and I confess, I put on more of a DI voice than I should have, can’t help it when I speak to officers, sorry:
“Colonel Nagl, back in ’67 or ’68 Jim Gavin got an invite to the LBJ White House to get some PSA pinned on him by LBJ Himself. Gavin took advantage of the opportunity to ask President Johnson just what exactly was General Westmoreland’s mission in South Viet Nam. LBJ gave some lengthy self-pitying monolog-harangue about how nobody understood him, and then ended the meeting. Gavin was Persona Non Grata at the White House for the rest of his life afterwards.” Nagl grinned at this part.
“So Colonel Nagl, you are high up enough on the food chain to be asked this question and have an answer for it. Just what are our political objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan? What are our war objectives? And why is the US Army the appropriate instrument for achieving them? And how have these objectives changed over time, and has their changing been caused by our opponents’ success on the battlefield?”
The professoriat visible took noticeable ire at my question–such impertinence towards one of the anointed is most unapproved, you know. Nagl took the question in stride, and talked about how our objectives were the establishment of a stable democratic blah blah blah in Iraq. He had snap, and integrity, enough to tell how the US Army was caught quite flatfooted by what to do once Iraq was conquered and occupied and Saddam deposed. He told the story of how the CG of the 3d Inf frankly asked higher authorities what do we do next? Nagl did not have it in him, at least not in public, to ask just what it meant that the US Army, and the Bush administration, didn’t think to answer that question prior to launching the war. A failure of that scale is obvious, as are the appropriate conclusions that must be drawn from it. That was the answer for Iraq, and before he could get to Afghanistan the lead G-W from the school stepped up and cut Nagl off and went to pick the next question, over my objections. Nagl saw that, and to his credit, wasn’t entirely pleased by it. Nagl tried to answer the Afghanistan question later, when answering someone else’s question. Decent, and professional, of him, that.
Nagl got half a dozen questions thrown at him, none really any good, which is to be expected from LBJ School students. I stopped by and made some time with the resident LBJ Faculty hottie, who actually seems to have some brains, and who is amused in general I think by my naiive impertinence at the events and by my continued sniffing her out, both. Conversation she was having with some G-W was about how ultimately the military is in a fight with Social Security and they are likely to lose, they both agreed. I interrupted to disagree, to point out that an organized force in a budget fight is going to beat a larger unorganized force, any time. Just look at how the Police and Fire Departments here in Austin between them suck up fully 2/3rds of the Austin municipal budget. You think the US Military Establishment can’t do that well on the federal level? They hadn’t considered the argument before, and didn’t consider it there then, I don’t think, either.
I wandered over to where Nagl was talking with the eight or so audience members who’d wandered up to talk to him. I didn’t have any more questions for him, and was interested in hearing what other people were asking him and what his responses were. He was in the middle of being hustled out of there by the hosts to go to lunch but as soon as he finished answering his current questioner he turned to me and said that I had a good question and was I ever in the military and here’s my card and lets get in touch. Shoot if I had the time I could have levered my way into his lunch entourage, which I would have enjoyed and would have enjoyed thereby putting out the same G-W who cut my answer off, but as it was, I had to help haul my dying mother off to another useless doctor’s appointment that afternoon. I guess if I were really on the make, really one of the future G-W’s of America like what the LBJ School thinks it makes, hell I’d have let my mother miss her appointment and gone to lunch with the famous and powerful and influential instead. Nope, I aint; nope, I didn’t.
This story, attached, is if not true, at least as truthfully remembered as I can recollect as recounted to me this many years on. It doesn’t reflect well on LBJ, and it doesn’t reflect on us, in our nowadays, either, I’m afraid. [see And All of a Sudden, She Understood In a Way She Would Never Forget by Daniel N. White]
Nagl is the author of the Petraeus counterinsurgency manual– FM-3-24. He is also the author of Eating Soup With A Knife, which is generally considered in elite Washington the book on counterinsurgency. It aint, but it isn’t bad. War of the Flea is a lot better book, particularly for the general reader. More and better history, and a wonderful critical attitude that just aint found in the career military hardly ever.
John Boyd, Colonel, USAF, headed what was nicknamed the Fighter Mafia inside the Pentagon Air Force. He was responsible for the creation and production of the F-16 and the A-10, and Chuck Spinney was also a member of this cabal, and shares credit for these two outstanding designs. Boyd is becoming considered, as more time passes, as the only original thinker ever in military matters in US history. The biography of him, Boyd–The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram, is quite good to excellent. Jim Gavin, USMA ’29, CG, 82nd Airborne Division, 1943-46, was, along with his predecessor in command of the 82nd, Matthew Ridgeway, about the only really outstanding fighting general the US Army produced in the 20th Century. His autobiography, On to Berlin, is a pretty good book, but the general reader interested in him is advised towards the brief biography of him in Max Hastings’ truly excellent book Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield. Hastings, no fan of the US Army general officer corps, quite gives Gavin his fair due.
Asking Nagl the question framed in terms of Jim Gavin is, to the militarily knowledgeable, to some degree slapping him across the face with the example of Jim Gavin, soldier par excellence, principled and forthright opponent of the Vietnam War. I doubt much of the audience caught this fact, because I doubt that much of the UT audience, no more than 5% of those there, knew of F-86’s over the Yalu, and who Jim Gavin was, and what John Boyd did. That goes for the LBJ School professoriat, and probably for most of the ROTC types there, too.