In Iraq, Tactical Theory Put Into Practice Lt. Col. John Nagl wrote the textbook on counterinsurgency — literally. Nagl was part of the team that drafted a U.S. Army field manual on counterinsurgency. Having completed his tour in Iraq, Nagl talks about how military theory was put into practice in the region.
NPR logo

In Iraq, Tactical Theory Put Into Practice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Iraq, Tactical Theory Put Into Practice

In Iraq, Tactical Theory Put Into Practice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The war the Bush administration says we need to win in Iraq is not the war we intended to fight. Quote, "The sad fact is that when an insurgency began in Iraq in the summer of late 2003, the Army was unprepared to fight it. The American Army was organized, designed, trained and equipped to defeat another conventional army." Unquote. That quote comes from Lt. Col. John Nagl's introduction to the US Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was written to remedy the situation and was published in 2006.

Nagl was on the team that wrote and edited the manual. Before that, he was one of the first military leaders in Iraq to practice counterinsurgency tactics. He was the operations officer of a tank battalion task force that was deployed to Anbar province - in the Sunni Triangle - in 2003 and '4. After Iraq, he went to Fort Riley, where he trained teams of combat advisers preparing for Iraq. He's also the author of "Learning To Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam," which he wrote before serving in Iraq. He recently retired from the military and is on terminal leave. He's now affiliated with the new think tank the Center for a New American Security.

Col. Nagl, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What would you advise the next president to do regarding how and when to leave Iraq?

JOHN NAGL: Well, it's going to be a phase transition, Terry. And we're seeing signs, really, I think, of what this is going to look like. So the number of American combat brigades will gradually withdraw. I think the Iraqis are becoming far more capable. They're exerting signs of sovereignty, which in some ways complicates our planning. But this is absolutely, I think, on balance a good thing. But they are going to continue to need an American advisory effort for a number of years, and I think those advisory teams are going to have to become larger as the American brigades become fewer in number and more widely dispersed. Currently our advisory teams are very small. They average about 11 soldiers. And those are going to have to be built up to probably 25 soldier teams, which will embed with Iraqi units and continue to provide the air power, the length stayer power, the training support, the logistics support and advice that is so essential to the Iraqi units becoming increasingly capable and increasingly able to stand on their own.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that now that there's a sovereign government in Iraq, that's a good thing, but on the other hand it poses certain problems for the United States. Example number one, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, Saturday in the German publication Der Spiegel was quoted as saying that he basically supported Barack Obama's plan to withdraw American troops. And, you know, the Iraqi government and the Bush administration are now negotiating for a new contract, a new plan stipulating the United States' responsibilities in Iraq.

NAGL: We're working on a status of forces agreement.

GROSS: Thank you, status of forces agreement. Yes, because...

NAGL: Status of forces agreement.

GROSS: Because the U.N. Security Council resolution that officially authorizes the American military presence in Iraq expires at the end of the year. So what was your reaction when you heard al-Maliki's comment?

NAGL: Al-Maliki is practicing domestic politics, of course. So any time a politician says anything, you have to think about all of the different constituencies that he's addressing that to; and Maliki has, after a number of months, I think, found his legs and exerted some command presence and command authority, made some good decisions, I think, in a lot of cases with American advice, and is now trying to appeal to the nationalism of the Iraqi people, who do not enjoy universally an American presence in Iraq, or certainly the American presence in Iraq as it has been constituted to this point. So I think he is doing absolutely understandable play to his domestic audience.

That said, I think that there is some truth to what he says. I do think that we can continue to withdraw American troops from the direct counterinsurgency role, as we've been doing now for a number of months. And the last of the surge brigades, I believe, will be withdrawn this month. And General Petraeus then has asked for some 45 days to make a determination as he rearranges his forces, and as he looks at the battlefield geometry and at the state of both the Sunni insurgency, the status of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shia militias, as he balances all of those things out, the capability and competence of the Iraqi government and its security forces. He's asked for about 45 days to evaluate all that.

I hope to see him next week. I assume he will run me into the ground, as he usually does when he sees me. And on that run, if I'm able to breathe, I will ask him some of these questions. But I assume that, to the extent that he is able, he will continue to draw American forces down and increase only - rely on American advisers to help the increasingly competent Iraqi security forces fight that counterinsurgency fight themselves.

GROSS: You're on terminal leave with the military now, but you are retired. Now that you are retired, can you give us your opinion about whether you think we should have fought the war in Iraq in the first place?

NAGL: That's an enormously difficult question to answer because I didn't have access to all of the intelligence that was available to the decision-makers at the time. And I think those decisions have to be evaluated in light of what the decision-makers knew at the time, and in light of their concern about preventing another attack. I am very cognizant of the costs of war, the dangers of war, and the fact that once you start a war, you never know where it's going to end. It has its own grammar and its own logic, and it writes its own story. So it strikes me that we have to be enormously careful when we fight wars to ensure that it truly is the last course of action available to us, to ensure the deterrents can't work.

And as a student of international relations, I have respect for the theory of deterrence and for the understanding that states can be deterred, that nonstate actors cannot. For nonstate actors, for terrorist groups to do truly society-altering damage with chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, they would probably have to have state sponsorship. They would certainly have to have a safe haven in a state. It strikes me that there are things we can do in international law to hold states responsible for the security of those things and for what happens inside their borders.

So it's hard for me to say whether the decision to invade Iraq was the right one in 2003. It is pretty clear to me that we didn't fully think through what we were going to do after Saddam was toppled from power.

GROSS: Do you think that the military leaders had some idea that there might be an insurgency, even though the Bush administration did not? In other words, I'm wondering if you know if military leaders advised the Bush administration, advised then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that things weren't going to be as smooth as they were telling the American public it would be?

NAGL: There were certainly people who thought that an insurgency was likely to emerge in the wake of an invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of those, interestingly, was Dr. Conrad Crane, another retired Army lieutenant colonel and a lead author of the counterinsurgency field manual. He published a paper with Andrew Terrill before the invasion of Iraq, in 2002, that suggested that insurgency was likely and that the hard part of the war in Iraq was likely not to be defeating the Iraqi army, deposing Saddam Hussein's government, but what came afterwards, creating security and stability in that country.

Gen. Shinseki, of course, made an estimate that several hundred thousand troops would be required to maintain security and stability in Iraq after Saddam's government was toppled. And General Shinseki did that based on what he had seen in Bosnia with a number of troops, the percentage of troops to the population required to maintain security and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina after his operations there.

GROSS: Well, in fact, Gen. Shinseki was forced out after he said we needed more troops than we'd be providing. So I'm wondering if you think...

NAGL: Gen. Shinseki actually retired on time, but was pretty severely chastised, as I understand it, for his statements that several hundred thousand troops would be required, which was far more than the administration believed at that time would in fact be required.

GROSS: Do you think that there was, in any way, a climate of fear that developed in the military regarding criticisms of the Bush administration?

NAGL: A climate of fear. Hm.

GROSS: Or reluctance?

NAGL: You mean reluctance to speak out?

GROSS: You know, a lot of people - reluctance to speak out in the sense that a lot of people have said, people both who worked in the Bush administration and journalists who've covered it, that if you disagreed with the highest placed people within the administration, you'd either be ignored or condemned.

NAGL: There is a strong tradition of civilian control of the military in this country, and I'm a big fan of the Constitution of the United States and I support that fully. That said, I believe that military officers do have a responsibility to give their unvarnished advice to high level decision-makers when asked for it. I think that that can happen behind closed doors and doesn't always have to happen in public. I am confident that there will be additional bright young captains and majors writing doctoral dissertations - I'm sure it's happening now - on just these questions you talk about. I haven't done the specific research. I'm not sure exactly what happened. I have a lot of faith in our military leadership; but there can be, I think, there's something we have to think about as a military profession, what is our responsibility as military officers when we give our best military advice and it is not accepted by our civilian decision-makers? And what should we do then? And I don't think the profession has a full answer to that.

GROSS: And that's the position you think a lot of military leaders were in, of giving their best advice and feeling that that wasn't heeded?

NAGL: I know that that was the case for Marine Lieutenant General Greg Newbold, for instance, disagreed strongly with the invasion plan and ultimately retired from the military, although he was the director of operations on the Joint Staff, a position that often leads to further promotions. But he disagreed strongly and retired, but retired quietly and then came public several years later. So is that the right thing to do when military officers disagree with civilian policymakers? Should they retire publicly, should they retire privately? There is no consensus in the profession about this, and I think that as my generation and the generation beneath me, who came of age on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, as they rise to positions of senior leadership, they will be looking hard at these questions; and I think the military profession will come to a new understanding of what it means to disagree respectfully, and of how to balance the competing responsibilities that are inherent in civilian command of the military and providing best military advice to civilian decision-makers.

GROSS: My guest is Lt. Col. John Nagl. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is retired Lt. Col. John Nagl. He was a leader of a tank battalion in Iraq's Anbar province and is an expert on counterinsurgency tactics.

When you co-wrote the US Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and...

NAGL: I was the managing editor and mascot of that particular project.

GROSS: What's it mean to be the mascot?

NAGL: I became, justly or unjustly, I became in a lot of ways the public face of that project.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

NAGL: Which was written by literally dozens of people. Conrad Crane was the lead guy and I was his managing editor. I helped bring in chapter authors. We, Con and I, outlined it together. But my most important role, I think, was in popularizing it and in making it - helping the American people understand the kind of war we were fighting and showing them that we were getting smarter as an organization in how to fight it.

GROSS: One of the things the manual emphasizes is the ambiguous environment of counterinsurgency, and it says that counterinsurgency places a premium on leadership at every level, from sergeant to general, because of the ambiguous environment. Can you give us an example from your experience of the kind of ambiguity and difficult decisions you had to make in a leadership position?

NAGL: I remember very clearly a particular improvised explosive device strike on a dismounted patrol that killed a lieutenant, his radio telegraph operator and later severely wounded an Iraqi interpreter, one of our interpreters who I helped put on a stretcher and carry to medevac. He didn't make it. That IED was placed inside a guard rail, and so it was a high IED, which is why it was able to do so much damage. The IEDs buried underground, the ground obviously absorbs some of it, some of the explosive impact. This one was up high and did enormous damage. And it was right downtown, right in the heart of downtown Chaldea, which was a tough little town in between Ramadi and Fallujah.

And it was clear to me when I got on the scene that people in a crowd gathered - an Iraqi policeman was also killed in that fight. This was one of the best signs. We'd worked hard to get the Iraqi police to work with us. Police are absolutely essential in defeating an insurgency. They're the folks on the ground. They're the beat cops. And we worked really hard, and then there was a car bomb attack on the police station that killed 30 or 40 cops. And despite that, they came back, and the cops were on patrol with us, and one of the cops was killed, the Iraqi police was killed, and his buddy stood with us and helped us do the cordon and talk to people and try to interview witnesses. And it was clear to me that there were people there in that crowd standing around looking who knew who it was who had done it, but I couldn't get that information out of them, and it was all I could do to restrain.

They'd killed an enormously popular platoon leader, a great young officer. He's very popular radio telephone operator at that - an interpreter which was like gold for us, and a very brave Iraqi policeman, and I knew there were people there who knew what had happened. It was all I could do to keep from just breaking down in rage and screaming, and instead we cordoned it off and we pulled out all our interpreters, and we did as much intelligence gathering as we could.

But that's the kind of conflict, of ethical dilemma that faces every leader in a counterinsurgency campaign, because the war is among the people. You don't know who your enemy is, and literally the person you're having tea with could be the person who set the improvised explosive device. You just can't know. And that's one of the things that's so debilitating and so difficult and so hard about this kind of war. The strain is immense because you don't know who your friends are.

GROSS: And as the counterinsurgency manual points out, and as you just said, ethics become very complicated because it's hard to tell who's a friend and who's the enemy. And that must make it hard to tell, too, when it's appropriate to fire and when it's not. Can you tell us about a difficult judgment call you had to make about whether or not to fire on individuals or on a crowd?

NAGL: Absolutely. I was - interestingly, you interviewed Peter Moss some years back. Peter embedded with my unit, and...

GROSS: And that's what our interview was about, about embedding with you, and the article's all about you.

NAGL: Mm-hmm. And Peter was a good sport and a brave man, not a great Frisbee football player, almost as bad as I am. But in one particular episode when Peter was with us, this was the day after Saddam was captured and we got stuck in downtown Ramadi, which was not a good place to be stuck. My boss's humvee was high-centered, and a crowd was approaching in protest of the capture of Saddam Hussein the previous day. There were thousands. The shop owners were shuttering their shops, which is never a good sign. There were people rioting, demonstrating at least, on the rooftops. They held the high ground, and we were pinned down.

And the question of keeping fire discipline, of firing only when you saw a clear and identifiable threat to us was evident, present in all of our minds. And we talked to the soldiers behind the 50-caliber machine guns, who could've evaporated the crowd, but at enormous cost to our counterinsurgency campaign in Ramadi. And we exercised very good fire discipline, I'm proud to say, in that particular episode.

In another episode, when we were similarly pinned down, this was after the car bomb attack on a police station, there were a large number of funerals that day, and I happened to be still at the police station when a funeral procession came by and the funeral procession turned angry and violent, and we retreated behind barbed wire, and the crowd stood outside the barbed wire and stared at us and shook their fists at us and showed us the soles of their shoes, a very severe insult in the Iraqi and the Arabic culture. And in both of those cases, my soldiers exercised the kind of fire discipline that makes me so proud to have been an American soldier.

GROSS: Were you ever in a position where the troops withheld fire in a volatile situation and then were fired on, and you lost soldiers because of it?

NAGL: No, because it really isn't that kind of a war. The number of direct fire casualties we took was actually relatively low. The majority of our casualties were improvised explosive devices; and in those cases, what happens, in sort of a picture of the complexity of this kind of war, is you do social network analysis, and you try to figure out who the IED, the improvised explosive device, cell maker is. And you build an intelligence picture, and you develop sources, and you correlate intelligence sources and you try to figure out who's telling the truth and who has a personal vendetta against somebody. And you build the intelligence picture, and you figure out who the guy is. And you map - you build an event database and figure out what his modus operandi is. And sometimes you are able, with lots of hard work and with a little bit of luck, inshalla, you're able to bring the guy in, and then you have to do a legal packet on this individual that will stand up in an Iraqi court of law, and it is enormously frustrating.

What did happen to me is, in some cases we did not do the legal packet well enough, or we didn't have all of the information we needed to be absolutely convincing to an Iraqi judge and an Iraqi court of law. And I sympathize with American policemen, who I know have these same feelings. And we knew that there were designated bad guys, absolute bad guys who were released from detention and who came back and got into the fight. And I do wonder sometimes if some of those folks came back and attacked us again because we didn't either build the justice system at the high levels or implement justice procedures at my level as well as we possibly could have.

GROSS: Lt. Col. John Nagl will be back in the second half of the show. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about the moral and ethical dilemmas of the American counterinsurgency in Iraq. My guest is retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, an expert in counterinsurgency tactics. He was the operations officer of a tank battalion in Iraq's Anbar province in 2003 and '4. After returning to the States, he was on the team that wrote and edited the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. He also trained teams of combat advisers at Fort Riley before they were sent to Iraq. He's recently retired from the military and is on terminal leave. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

In the introduction to the counterinsurgency manual - and again, you were on the team that wrote and edited the manual - Sarah Sewall writes in that introduction, "Counterinsurgency can bring out the worst in the best regular armies. Even when counterinsurgency forces explicitly reject insurgent tacts, they often came to imitate them. In particular, the insurgents' invisibility often tempts counterinsurgents to erase the all-important distinctions between combatants and noncombatants." Was that difficult with you and your troops, that because you couldn't tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, that it was sometimes tempting to just assume the worst and either shoot and arrest or whatever?

NAGL: We rarely assumed the worst and shot, I'm proud to say. I'm sure there were cases where it happened. We did often, I'm afraid, assume the worst and arrest. And I am confident, and I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm confident that it's true, that some of the innocent people we arrested and who lingered in Abu Ghraib and other prisons for long periods of time, became disenchanted, became in some cases, probably, committed to removing the American presence from Iraq because of the way they were treated. And I'm pleased and proud to say that we've done a much better job recently of being more precise in our targeting and in whom we arrest, better in the legal procedures that we use to keep them under custody. And in particular, we've started practicing what we call counterinsurgency inside the wire, which Marine Major General Stone was responsible for this at Abu Ghraib, and his deputy was my old friend Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling. Paul is still there doing this.

We practiced counterinsurgency by setting up job programs inside the detention facilities, by getting better at releasing the people we didn't have firm evidence on. And so we've learned and adapted as an organization and become better at that important part of counterinsurgency, that is treating detainees with respect. This is something H.R. McMaster did when he was in command of the 3rd ACR. When he released people from his detention facility, he set up a program he called Ask the Customer, so he asked them how they were treated and asked them for recommendations on how to do it better, how to perform detention operations better. That's something we've institutionalized now as an Army, as a Marine Corps on the ground in Iraq. We've got Air Force and Navy folks helping us guard these prisons, so it's a true DOD effort.

And we've gotten far better at something that I don't think my own organization or all of us at the time back early in the war did very well, and that is understand that the way you treat the people you detain can influence whether they come back speaking well of you or shooting at you. It matters.

GROSS: And your point is, it's in our best interest to do that.

NAGL: It is absolutely in our best interest to do that. Every person we convince not to fight against us is somebody else we don't have to kill, and is somebody else who may not kill one of us, or more of us. And that's one of the really frustrating things about this kind of war. The number of actively committed insurgents fighting against is actually relatively small. I had a sector of about 60,000 people I was responsible for between Ramadi and Fallujah. Of those 60,000, as near as we could tell about 300, about 1/2 of 1 percent of that population was actively dedicated to killing me and my guys. So everyone matters.

And if you can turn one of them, if you can turn a leader and he brings his 10-man cell with him, you've made a huge impact. And even better, if he turns hard and he's going to tell you who the other cells are and provide you with some of that information, and even better, if he's able to bring a number of cells with him and says, `I'm no longer going to fight against you, Americans. These al-Qaeda guys, these are bad people.'

GROSS: You mentioned that you fear that some of the people who you detained ended up in Abu Ghraib. When you were...

NAGL: I know they ended up in Abu Ghraib.

GROSS: You know they did. OK, so...

NAGL: And some of them should have, and some of them should still be there. Some of them were very, very bad people. What I'm afraid of is that, first, some of them I sent there I shouldn't have sent there, or they weren't treated as well there as they could have been. We weren't as advanced in our counterinsurgency inside the wire. But I'm also concerned that some of them were released because of problems in the justice system, perhaps starting at my level. Right? We're making this up as we went along, and we didn't get great training in how to prepare a legal package on an Iraqi detainee. We developed these systems as we went. So I'm concerned both that we imprisoned some of the wrong people and that we released some of the people we shouldn't have released, and we paid the price for that on both sides.

GROSS: At the time that you were in Iraq, in 2003 and '4, did you have any idea what was going on in Abu Ghraib?

NAGL: Not until that was publicly released. What I did know was that we didn't have a good program for sorting the wheat from the chaff, the bad apples from the good, and that system wasn't as well developed as it could have been, and that we didn't have a good rehabilitation program inside Abu Ghraib so that people coming out of Abu Ghraib at least were no more opposed to the United States' presence in Iraq than they were when they went in. So I didn't know about the Lynndie England stuff until everybody, until the world knew about it. What I did know was that...

GROSS: Were you still in Iraq then?

NAGL: Yes, I was. That was discouraging.

GROSS: What impact did it have on the ground level? Because like, quoting the counterinsurgency manual again, it says the abuse of detained persons is immoral, illegal and unprofessional.

NAGL: Yeah, we felt pretty strongly about that, as a matter of fact, in the manual. And we continue to do so, obviously.

GROSS: Oh, and I can't remember if it's the manual or something you personally said, but the quote is, "Lose moral legitimacy, lose the war."

NAGL: Lose the war.

GROSS: Yeah.

NAGL: Lose the war. I think that's Conrad Crane's phrase, and that's exactly right.

GROSS: My guest is Lieutenant John Nagl. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is retired Lt. Col. John Nagl. He was a leader of a tank battalion in Iraq's Anbar province and is an expert on counterinsurgency tactics.

Can you reflect a little bit about what it was like for you either in Fallujah or any other part of Iraq, to be engaged in a battle that you thought was misguided, knowing that you were likely to lose men in it?

NAGL: I was certainly in a situation where - I don't think any of the battles we fought were misguided, although some of them started for - so the battle of Fallujah, for instance, where I didn't lose guys, but my sister battalion did, and I lost a number of friends there and had some friends severely hurt in the November 2004 fight for Fallujah. You have to have great faith as an Army officer or as a soldier in the people above you and in the people around you, and I was very, very fortunate in that the levels of command around me and on my sides, I had enormous confidence in, and ultimately you're fighting, when you're down in the dirt fighting, you're doing it for them, and you're trying to take care of your buddy and perform as admirably as you can under enormously difficult conditions. And so that's what you think about.

And the question of what it all added up to and what it meant comes later. They ran a five-kilometer road race in downtown Ramadi, which was the epicenter of the insurgency when I was there, and I saw the pictures of folks running with numbers. It looked, you know, like a 5K through the world of "WALL-E," right, this incredibly desolate, damaged society, but shops open and people cheering on the streets and the capital of al-Anbar coming back, and I wept with joy. I couldn't help myself. I sat at my desk in Fort Riley and I cried, because that meant that the soldiers from my task force who fell in Ramadi and in that area, fighting against Sunni insurgents and against al-Qaeda in Iraq, have accomplished something. Right? We have, particularly with the help of the Sunnis, with the help of The Awakening, we have pushed al-Qaeda essentially out of Iraq. It's essentially, inshallah, it is no longer operationally effective, it can still blow some things up, it can still do enormous and horrific damage, but it is no longer a threat to the stability of Iraq as a whole. The Sunni insurgency has largely decided no longer to fight. And so my soldiers who rest at Arlington and in other places around America, I think, can rest in some degree of peace, knowing that they have done something that matters.

GROSS: Maybe this is a good time to bring up a review that you wrote of a book of poetry.

NAGL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The poet is Brian Turner, and the book was called "Here, Bullet." And you wrote a really eloquent review of that book. Would you mind if I quote some of it?


GROSS: (Reading) It is Halloween as I read this, and I'm being visited by ghosts - some friendly, some not - whom I have kept away, locked inside me for years. But Brian Turner, Ghost 1-3 Alpha, that son of a bitch, he's calling them back. I've put them away, kept them inside, the ghosts of the lieutenants and the captain and the first sergeant, their bodies torn by shrapnel or a sniper's bullet or gone, just gone, into hundreds of shreds of flesh the size of my still-living hand. But Ghost 1-3 Alpha speaks to ghosts. He calls to his ghosts, and they bring mine along for company, and now they will not go away.

And you go on to describe, you know, some of what you experienced in war. And let me just read a little bit more. (Reading) If you have been to war, if you have held a microphone in your hand, begging for medevac with the blood of your friends on your hands, pouring out your soul over the airwaves to keep your friends from becoming ghosts, from joining the shades in an unholy company of men who have given limbs and eyes and hearts; if you have held that bloody hand mic, then Ghost 1-3 Alpha will take you back to that day, that day when time stopped and life stopped and never really started again, no matter how hard you try to make the ghosts go away.

That's really beautifully written. Do you write a lot?

NAGL: I wrote poetry - I still write poetry. I'm working on a novel, actually, about Iraq. So someone - I think it was Alfred Lord Tennyson - said that poetry is powerful emotions recollected in tranquility; and I was asked to write a review of Brian's wonderful book, "Here, Bullet," and it was Halloween, and (pauses) got to deal with some ghosts. And that was a good thing. And it is an enormous privilege to have worked with and fought with the men I fought with, and I will never forget them.

GROSS: Are the emotions that you expressed in that review that I read, things that you can't really keep on the surface when you're actually fighting the war? Lt. Col. NAGL: In the particular battle scene that I was remembering when I wrote - when I talked about that "with the hand mic in my hands, calling for medevac," someone told me afterwards that when I came on that scene - and it was my job as the operations officer to report to places where things were happening; so I saw the worst of what happened, and also the best - someone said that, one of the soldiers told me that I came in smiling and calm and collected. And I was shocked. I - that wasn't at all what I was feeling, at the time. And I'm pleased that I was able to maintain a positive attitude because it's important in that kind of environment to keep the soldiers focused and professional, and try to ensure that they maintain their professionalism. And if you show anger or rage, that can create an unhealthy dynamic. And so I tried very hard, in those circumstances, to be as professional as I could. And apparently - in that one case, at least - I succeeded, although the turmoil inside was very real, and still is. GROSS: You know, you were talking about the ghosts of the soldiers that you lost, the friends that you lost. You're now with a think thank, the Center for New American Security. You've recently retired from the military. What responsibility do you feel you have to those ghosts now, as somebody who's at a think tank that describes its mission as developing strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values, what do you feel you owe to those ghosts in your position now? Lt. Col. NAGL: Well, I came back from Iraq and I felt very strongly that we, as an Army and as a nation, weren't practicing counterinsurgency as well as we could or should. And so I was privileged to be able to work with General Petraeus, Con Crane, General Madison, others on the counterinsurgency field manual; and I've spent a bunch of time popularizing, proselytizing - Joe Collins calls me the Johnny Appleseed of counterinsurgency, as I wander around talking about this kind of war and trying to help people understand this kind of war. I still very much have that responsibility. I feel that I still have that responsibility. And what I'm doing now is working full-time on these problems of Iraq, of Afghanistan, which unfortunately we haven't been able to talk about, a war I'm very concerned about right now. I'm going to Iraq on Friday for a couple of weeks as a civilian to see what's going on and to learn, and also, conceivably, hopefully to help a little bit around the margins.

So I remain dedicated to the security of the United States. I hope that I'm able to contribute to smart defense policies that benefit from my perspective of having seen warfare on the ground, but also that think hard about second- and third-order effects of our decisions, and that I can use all of that somehow to continue to meet my responsibility to my soldiers who have given so very much.

GROSS: Well, let me just ask you one question about Afghanistan, which is maybe all we'll have time for, unfortunately. But, you know, it's been reported that more radical Islamists from various countries are going to the tribal areas of Afghanistan, that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is exactly where Osama bin Laden was believed to have been hiding right after September 11th. As American troops are still in Iraq and more and more radical Islamists go to these tribal areas in Pakistan, do you feel like we fought the wrong war?

NAGL: I certainly believe that Afghanistan has been the forgotten war, and we certainly need more troops in Afghanistan. What we most need in Afghanistan is additional combat advisers to embed with the Afghan security forces, the Afghan police and the Afghan army. And I also believe that we have an opportunity to build a much larger Afghan national army than the one that we currently have on the books. I was privileged to be able to go to Afghanistan briefly last year. The Afghan soldiers I met absolutely wanted to fight. There just weren't enough of them. And I think that addition of more Afghan national army soldiers, with more American advisers, could dramatically improve the situation in Afghanistan, which is a war I believe we absolutely have to win.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I hope we talk again. Thank you.

NAGL: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Lt. Col. John Nagl recently retired from the military and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. After hearing the impact that Brian Turner's poems had on Colonel Nagl, we wanted to talk with Turner.

Coming up, Turner reads two of the poems he wrote about his experiences as a soldier in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.