Thursday, January 17, 2008

John Nagl Rides Into the Sunset

I just learned that an old friend is leaving the Army after a 20-year career. Fred Kaplan summarizes at SLATE:

[Lt Col John] 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").

Normally this wouldn't be huge news, but John is special and this is a time of war. I met him when I was a sophomore at the AF Academy and he was an exchange cadet from West Point for the semester. As I recall, he wanted to see what life was like in the "Chair Force." I'm pretty sure we smashed Army's football team that fall...

For most young officers, the question is whether to leave the force after their minimum commitment (5 years) or stay until retirment. Lt. Col. Nagl stayed until retirement, but he obviously could have stayed longer. By retirement, for those who don't know, the military offers a stable defined benefit pension for anyone who serves 20 or more years. So when you hear that someone is a "retired officer" this is what it means. The lingo is similar to the nuances of academic professors, associate profs, assistant profs, adjunt profs, and lecturers.
I think it is unfortunate that John left, and here is why:

Any large professional organization needs a system of promotion to authority, especially one that grows all of its senior talent and never hires in senior staff from the outside. Promotions are based on some combination of talent and seniority. My thesis is that the Army (and military overall) has become exceedingly seniority-based in recent decades, to its detriment. When I left in 1995, the best and worst Lieutenants got promoted to Capatain at exactly the same point in their careers: 4 years to the day after swearing in. What's the incentive to excel? Low. What's the incentive not to make mistakes that lead to firing? Huge. The military culture -- and this is no secret -- is oppressively risk averse.

So why in God's name is a strategic genius like John Nagl - retiring after TWENTY years - leaving as Colonel and not a General? He just didn't wait long enough is the answer, and it's a lousy answer.