The Irregulars

6. The Irregulars

The Iraq war gave Major John Nagl an opportunity not merely to study an insurgency but to fight one. The odds of such an encounter had seemed remote a decade earlier, when he was writing his dissertation on Malaya and Vietnam. Most of his fellow officers had considered those kinds of wars ancient artifacts. He joked to friends that he’d written the decade’s best and worst dissertation on the subject, which was to say he’d written the only one.

His thesis was published as a book in September 2002, on the eve of the war, by Praeger Publishers, which specialized in scholarly books on military issues. But even among the interested, few read it because its retail price was $81.

Now, a year later, Nagl was off to Iraq with his old armor battalion, this time as its third in command. The unit hadn’t been called up for the March invasion, but it was among the first rotation of replacement troops, arriving on September 24, 2003, in the town of Khaldiya, in al Anbar Province, a hundred miles west of Baghdad, in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, the emerging locus of the insurgency.

Nagl was usually the smartest guy in the room and made no effort to hide that he knew it. He wasn’t overbearing in his arrogance; he could joke about it in a way that some of his men found winning. One of them drew a parody of a Dilbert comic strip, in which a caricature of Nagl is pictured saying, “At Oxford I learned to use my huge brain. But I try not to frighten ordinary people with any gratuitous displays of mental superiority.” Nagl taped the drawing up on the wall above his desk.

When Nagl first landed in Khaldiya, he figured he’d have the place cracked in no time. He’d read the counterinsurgency classics; he knew the histories. He had “something of a blithe sense,” he would later admit, that once Briggs and Templer showed the British army what to do in Malaya, defeating the communist insurgents was a sure thing; he thought that defeating the Sunni insurgents in Iraq would be no harder.

He learned fairly quickly that real war was more complicated. The British colonialists had been in Malaya for well over a century; they’d long acquired what the counterinsurgency theorists called “cultural awareness” and had formed tight relationships with several local leaders. By contrast, the Americans in Iraq knew next to nothing about the local culture, the social networks, not even the language—and Nagl’s unit, like every US Army unit in the area, had far too few translators to overcome that most basic obstacle.

Nagl remembered a line from one of the books he’d read on the subject, Colonel Charles E. Callwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, published in Great Britain back in 1896: “In a guerrilla situation, the guerrilla is the professional, the newcomer the amateur.” Nagl was experiencing the unfamiliar sensation of being very much the amateur.

Over time, things improved a bit. Nagl was surprised by how much his academic studies helped him grasp the nature of the conflict and was pleased at how quickly his battalion adapted to the tactical challenges. Within a couple of weeks, two of its three companies had abandoned their tanks and were patrolling in Humvees or on foot. They’d been trained to shoot at an enemy fighting in plain sight; now they were spending most of their time trying to find an enemy that was hiding in plain sight. It was a different kind of war, requiring a different style of thinking. At times, it seemed more like cracking a mafia crime ring than fighting a conventional battle; then, all of a sudden, it was like fighting a conventional battle, too.

Nagl had based his book’s title on T. E. Lawrence’s line “War upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” He now realized that he hadn’t fully appreciated just how messy and slow. His battalion departed Iraq on September 10, 2004, after a tour that lasted two weeks short of a year, way short of what was needed. At best, they were just getting started.

One of Nagl’s captains printed up souvenir coffee mugs that read, “Iraq 2003–2004: We Were Winning When I Left.” But most of the soldiers, very much including Nagl, knew they weren’t.

•  •  •

By this time, it was clear to a small but growing number of officials inside the Pentagon that the war was not going well. To a few, this had been clear almost from the outset. One of them was a deputy assistant secretary of defense named Jim Thomas.

As far back as April 2, 2003, one week before American troops rolled into Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s regime imploded, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by a retired Marine colonel named Gary Anderson predicting that, after Saddam’s inevitable defeat in the conventional war, the dictator would shift to a “protracted guerrilla war against the ‘occupation,’” in the hopes that the Americans would grow fatigued and leave.

Thomas had met Anderson in the mid-1990s, when the colonel was stationed at the US Marine Corps’s main base in Quantico, Virginia, thirty-five miles southwest of Washington. Anderson had a long history with low-intensity conflicts, having served as a UN observer in southern Lebanon and a marine in Somalia at the height of its insurgency. Now he was a war-game consultant, designing and conducting simulations of conflict under Defense Department contracts.

The previous January, he’d been part of a war game at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank in Alexandria, Virginia. It wasn’t billed as a war game about Iraq, but that’s clearly what it was. Anderson headed the “Red Team”—that is, he was commander of the bad guys, the Iraqi army under Saddam’s regime. The point of a Red Team in a war game is to give American officers a taste of some unanticipated challenges that a real war might throw at them. Early in the game, Anderson realized that he couldn’t beat the invaders, so he decided to go underground, telling his fellow Red Team players not to resist the Americans but instead to stand by and re-emerge afterward as an insurgency.

Anderson’s op-ed piece was inspired by this game. It was based not on any intelligence about Saddam’s actual intentions but only on what Anderson had figured he would do if he were an Iraqi commander. As it happened, whether planned or spontaneous, this was what many Saddam loyalists actually did.

Thomas knew little about insurgencies. In the 1990s he’d studied defense strategy as a graduate student at SAIS, the School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington, DC. But the only thing he’d read about insurgencies was a single chapter on the French experience of “Revolutionary War” in one of his textbooks, Makers of Modern Strategy, and Thomas remembered finding the topic “quaint.” Now, if Anderson was right, it was on the verge of staging a comeback.

So Thomas read every book he could find on the subject: Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare, T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Marine Corps’s seventy-year-old Small Wars Manual, Bing West’s

The Village, and Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (though that one, he borrowed from the Pentagon’s library).

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and Thomas’s boss a couple notches up the chain of civilian command, read Anderson’s op-ed piece, too. By mid-April, after Saddam’s regime was ousted, Donald Rumsfeld had lost interest in the war; this was clear to everyone around him. The Iraq beat fell to Wolfowitz, who was beginning to wonder whether the war might really be devolving into an insurgency. He called Gary Anderson and asked him to come by.

Anderson worked up a briefing and presented it to Wolfowitz in early May. One of his proposals was to train the Iraqi army not so much in border defense but in counterinsurgency techniques. Another was to organize local police and citizens into “neighborhood watch” groups, similar to the Revolutionary Development teams that Robert Komer had devised as part of the CORDS program in Vietnam. To Anderson’s thinking, not only was this a way to stabilize Iraq, it was America’s only responsible way out of Iraq. Thomas, who sat in on the briefing, agreed.

Wolfowitz asked Anderson and Thomas to go to Baghdad and present the briefing together to Jerry Bremer.

The briefing took place on July 3 in Bremer’s office. It was a disaster. The moment Anderson mentioned CORDS and Vietnam, Bremer stopped him short. Already critics were calling the Iraq War a “quagmire” and comparing it to Vietnam. “Iraq is not Vietnam!” Bremer shouted, pounding the table.

Yes, Anderson replied, but not everything went wrong in Vietnam; there were some lessons to be learned from that war.

“I don’t want to hear the word Vietnam in my office,” Bremer said angrily. “This meeting is over.”

And it was.

•  •  •

The following January, Wolfowitz sent Thomas and Anderson back to Iraq, this time to travel around the country, on their own if Bremer wouldn’t meet with them (he didn’t), and to come back with a written assessment of overall security.

American troops had found Saddam Hussein in his spider hole the month before, and many hoped that his arrest would demoralize the insurgents. (By this time, even most officials in the White House and Pentagon had acknowledged that they were fighting an insurgency.) But Thomas and Anderson’s report to Wolfowitz was grim. They noted a few bright spots, especially Mosul, where Major General David Petraeus was achieving remarkable things; he clearly understood what counterinsurgency was about, as did a few brigade commanders here and there. But their main finding was that the American forces had no overall strategy. Lacking guidance, most of the brigades did what they’d been trained to do by default: shoot first and ask questions later, with no vision of the desired end-state. Miller and Anderson also found the program to train the Iraqi security forces—the foundation for a clean exit strategy—ill conceived. The American trainers, most of them artillery soldiers with nothing better to do, were teaching the Iraqi army how to defend the border from an Iranian invasion; they’d been given no instructions on how to teach the army or the police about countering an insurgency.

As a short-term measure, the pair recommended that Petraeus, whose tour in Mosul was almost up, be put in charge of the program to train Iraqi security forces. That idea was approved. In the longer run, they called for an overhaul of the American war strategy. That one would take more time and more pushing.

•  •  •

That summer, Anderson introduced Thomas to a former colleague from his days at Quantico, a Marine one-star general named Robert “Rooster” Schmidle. It was natural, at this point, for the Marines to take a greater interest in counterinsurgency than most Army officers. The Marine Corps had a longer tradition in these kinds of conflicts; its Small Wars Manual, published back in 1940, had noted that they “represent the normal and frequent operations of the Marine Corps,” which, from 1800 to 1934, had landed 187 times in 37 countries “to suppress lawlessness or insurrection,” mainly in Latin America but also as far away as the shores of Tripoli, as the “Marines’ Hymn” put it.

After the First World War, the Marines split in two factions: one continued to stress these banana wars; the other pushed for evolving the corps into a “naval infantry,” the main mission of which would be to mount amphibious assaults on an enemy’s beachhead, then to fight on land alongside the Army. In both missions, the Marines relied less on heavy armor (which was too destructive for the banana wars and too heavy for the amphibious boats) and more on foot infantry, wheeled vehicles, and (starting in the 1950s) helicopters. In this sense, the Marines were cousins—albeit from rival clans—of the Army’s light-infantry and airborne-assault brigades.

Schmidle and Anderson had both been directors of the “experimental unit” at Quantico’s Warfighting Laboratory, created in the mid-1990s to develop new tactics and technologies for warfare in the twenty-first century, which the Marine Corps’s commandant, General Charles Krulak, thought would be dominated by urban conflicts. One of Krulak’s ideas was that a modern marine should be trained and equipped for a “three-block war”—in which he might be called on to wage combat on one block, conduct peacekeeping operations on the next block, and distribute humanitarian aid on the block after that. (There was family lineage here: during the Kennedy administration, Krulak’s father, Victor “Brute” Krulak, also a Marine general, was the military’s representative on the NSC’s top-secret Special Group on counterinsurgency.)

Like Thomas, Anderson, and a growing number of officials and officers in the fall of 2004, Schmidle worried that Iraq was unraveling and that the main problem was the American military’s lack of training on how to fight an urban insurgency. He wanted to organize a conference on the subject at Quantico and to invite more than the usual crowd of marines, expanding the guest list to Army, Air Force, Navy, and Special Forces officers, as well as high-ranking Pentagon civilians, a few think-tank types, and some officers from foreign governments that had joined the US-led coalition in Iraq. Thomas said that his office would cosponsor the event and defray some of the expenses.

The session was called the Irregular Warfare Conference, in part because “counterinsurgency” was still a frowned-upon term inside the Bush administration. It took place on October 6, in the officers’ club at Quantico, with fifty-five officers, officials, and like-minded defense analysts attending, including Schmidle, Thomas, and Anderson. But the unexpected star of the show turned out to be a thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel from the Australian army named David Kilcullen.

•  •  •

Kilcullen was born in Canada while his parents were on Commonwealth Scholarships, teaching at the University of Toronto and completing their PhDs, his father’s in medieval political philosophy, his mother’s in English literature. The family returned to Australia in 1971, after his father got a job at the national university in Canberra, just in time to march in the frequent campus protests against the Vietnam War. Dave, who was four at the time, often joined in on his father’s shoulders, although he had more fun (so he was told later) playing war in his living room, crouching behind a chair, pretending to dodge American bombs, while watching the nightly TV newscasts. A few years later, he took a youthful interest in the grit of warfare, reading Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls at age eleven and T. E. Lawrence’s insurgent memoir at seventeen.

In January 1985, several months before turning eighteen, he enrolled at the Royal Military College in Duntroon, the Australian equivalent of West Point, although, unlike American cadets, Kilcullen and his classmates studied irregular warfare routinely in their courses. The Australian army, after all, had fought almost nothing but irregular wars, from the Second Boer War around the turn of the twentieth century on through the campaigns in Malaya, Borneo, and East Timor, among others, sometimes fighting irregulars, sometimes “fighting irregular”—that is, sometimes as counterinsurgents helping to uphold a foreign government, sometimes as insurgents helping to overthrow it. And after Vietnam, where it deployed a counterinsurgency unit for several years, the Australian army—unlike the Americans—incorporated the war’s lessons into its curricula and doctrines.

Kilcullen took his first-year politics class from a civilian professor named William Maley, who happened to be one of the world’s leading scholars on Afghanistan. The Soviets were waging war in Afghanistan at the time, an unusual twist in the annals of insurgencies: an Islamist rebel force fighting to topple a regime backed by communist occupiers. Maley steered his precocious student to take an interest, getting him a pass to the National University’s library, so he could read articles on the war in English translations of Soviet military journals. Remarkably freewheeling discussions were going on in these journals: critical analyses of military operations, letters from company commanders debating tactics, detailed descriptions of battles in the eastern hills along the Pakistani border and in the southern green belt around Kandahar. Kilcullen found these articles riveting.

His final year at Duntroon was devoted almost entirely to cultivating skills in jungle warfare, parachuting, demolitions, and tactical leadership. Meanwhile, all cadets had to learn an Asian language; Kilcullen chose Indonesian and scored first in his class. He joined the infantry and was sent to advise Indonesia’s special forces, who were fighting insurgents in East Timor.

He moved on to West Java for advanced language training. One day, in a military museum, he came across an exhibition about Indonesia’s counter-insurgency campaign in the 1950s and ’60s against a separatist movement called the Darul Islam. Kilcullen had never heard of this war and, in his subsequent hunts, could find almost no books about it, even though the conflict had apparently been much larger than Britain’s famous and much-documented Malayan Emergency. Kilcullen, who had entered graduate school in political anthropology at the University of New South Wales (while still on active duty in the army), decided to write a dissertation on the Darul Islam. He went to live in a West Javan village and sought out former members of the movement for chats over tea. During his stay, he also witnessed the rise—and, in tense sittings, interviewed a few members—of a new, more extremist Islamist insurgency called Jemaah Islamiya, which had a loose affiliation with al Qaeda.

Kilcullen would later reflect that if he were a Muslim, he’d probably have joined a jihadist militia. “The thing that drives these guys—a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the moment, wanting to be in the big movement of history that’s happening now—that’s the same thing that drives me,” he told a magazine reporter.

Most of his friends thought that he was a bit daft, spending so much time researching some long-forgotten Muslim rebel group, just as John Nagl’s friends had clucked at him for obsessing over the ancient cult of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen finished his dissertation in March 2001. Six months later, al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His dual expertise in counterinsurgency and Islamist insurgencies was suddenly in demand.

In June 2002, by now a major, he was sent as the Australian army’s delegate to a conference on Afghanistan at the Royal Military College of Canada. The Americans at the conference, mainly Special Forces officers, gave a briefing on their invasion the previous year, specifically on the tactical aspects of their campaign to help the Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban.

Kilcullen responded with what he hoped would be a sobering blow. Yeah, yeah, very impressive analysis of the operation, brilliant, really, as far as it goes, he told them, but, he added, the war isn’t over. The invasion is over, he went on, but the next phase of the war, the counterinsurgency phase, is just beginning, and you need to start thinking about what happens next and how to follow through.

To Kilcullen, this was basic stuff, not even advanced Galula, more Clausewitz 101 (war as politics through other means). After the panel, he discussed his point further with the Americans over several beers at the bar, and he was struck that they’d never considered the distinction. They really did think that toppling the regime was the same as winning the war. It was Kilcullen’s first exposure to what he later realized was the classic American way of thinking about—as well as planning and waging—warfare.

Stunned as he was by the Yanks’ apolitical concept of war, he was flabbergasted when, nine months later, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Rumors of an invasion had been in the air at the conference in Canada, but nobody Kilcullen talked with—not even the guys from US Special Forces—believed it would really happen. He found the notion mindless beyond belief, not because he was antiwar or regarded Saddam Hussein as harmless, but because it would be a distraction of resources, manpower, and attention from the more important war in Afghanistan, which, as he’d argued, wasn’t nearly over. He regarded invading Iraq as a serious strategic error, along the lines of Hitler invading Russia in 1941 without having defeated Great Britain first.

At the time of the invasion, Kilcullen was a colonel stationed at army headquarters in Canberra. Australia had a Special Ops contingent in Iraq, so Kilcullen was tasked to watch the development of the war as a counterterrorism analyst. By late April, just a few weeks after Saddam’s ouster, he and his staff concluded that an insurgency was in the making; and, based on what he knew about patterns of insurgency, he knew it had to be nipped before it bloomed.

Kilcullen wrote a paper, sounding the alarms. It went up the chain of the Australian army command, then across the waters to the Pentagon, where it circulated in certain circles. The official response, sent via the two countries’ military liaisons, was polite but dismissive: interesting, but don’t worry, there’s no insurgency.

Over the next month or so, Kilcullen heard from a number of American colonels and one-star generals at Quantico, the Army War College, and the military’s various analytical branches. They all confided that they agreed with his analysis, or at least found it worth exploring, but they couldn’t pursue it because they weren’t allowed to discuss insurgencies or counterinsurgency, not even to utter the words.

As a result of these exchanges, when Bob Schmidle and a few other marines at Quantico were organizing the Irregular Warfare Conference in the fall of 2004, they invited Kilcullen to give a briefing as the Australian army’s delegate.

Kilcullen’s briefing was nothing remarkable, as far as he was concerned: a standard PowerPoint show, twenty-one slides in all, less a bold statement of his own ideas than a textbook recitation of the Australian army’s common wisdom. He even titled the briefing “United States Counterinsurgency: An Australian View.”

But Kilcullen had a fine sense of theater, and he’d discovered in Canada, as many Brits had learned about Americans long ago, that a droll accent and a dry wit could go a long way toward making banal ideas seem brilliant and uncomfortable ones seem palatable.

He opened with a slide asking the question that he figured many in the audience must be wondering: “Who cares what we Aussies think?” Then he answered it by listing several of the COIN wars that his country had fought through the decades. From an Aussie’s perspective, he went on, the name of this conference was all wrong: there was nothing “irregular” about the kinds of wars under discussion; the vast majority of wars in history had fit the definition, so they should be called “regular wars”; the only reason they were called “irregular” was that the establishment army didn’t want to fight them.

Then he went off on the themes, flashing the slides and narrating with a purposefully rowdy insouciance. The problem, he began, was that the American military saw COIN as a specialty when it should be mainstream. US commanders tend to attack the insurgents, when they should attack the insurgents’ strategy. They lean toward purely military solutions, but COIN is 75 percent hearts and minds, just 25 percent combat. They also favor technological solutions, but COIN was about controlling, influencing, and winning over the people; therefore, soldiers have to fight and live not in big, heavily protected, remote bases but among the people. The metrics of success aren’t how many enemy troops you kill but how many townspeople or villagers are spontaneously providing intelligence about where the enemy is (an indication of how much less they’re fearing the enemy and how much more they’re trusting you), how many community leaders openly support the government (and how long such leaders continue to live before the insurgents threaten or kill them), and how much spontaneous economic activity is going on in a town (reflecting the sense that it’s safe to go out on the streets).

Kilcullen’s final slide was labeled “Questions to Consider.” He recited some of them: “What are our key capability gaps and what should we be doing about them? Are there institutional obstacles to success? Is American military culture conducive to effective COIN? Who has overall responsibility for COIN within DoD?” Most people in the audience knew the answer to that last question: nobody. That was one of the big problems.

After the briefing, Jim Thomas came up to Kilcullen, introduced himself, and asked, slightly dumbstruck, “Who are you?”

Kilcullen responded with a puzzled chuckle. Thomas explained that he was in charge of the shop in the Pentagon that produced the QDR, the Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated report that outlines the nation’s strategy and links it to the Defense Department’s budget and programs. The last QDR, published in the fall of 2001, had reflected Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for the “revolution in military affairs,” although it triggered few actual changes in the way the Pentagon did business. Thomas was determined that the upcoming QDR, to be published in 2005, would advocate a big boost in resources for, and revive strategic thinking about, irregular warfare.

Thomas then popped the question: Would Kilcullen be interested in coming to work for him in the Pentagon? “You’re the guy from Central Casting that we need on the QDR,” he said.

Kilcullen was very interested. He was growing weary of the Australian army; his commanders hadn’t been giving him choice assignments; a change would be good, and a change placing him closer to the action better still.

The next day, Kilcullen went to see Thomas in his office. He noticed, with a raised eyebrow, two dog-eared books on his desk, both COIN classics: Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano. They talked a bit more about the job. Kilcullen warned of a potential hitch. Thomas (or, since he was a mere deputy assistant secretary of defense, someone higher up) would have to write the Australian defense minister a letter requesting the transfer.

Thomas didn’t think that would be a problem. He wrote a letter for Wolfowitz’s signature. Wolfowitz signed it, and off it went.

Officials in the Australian defense ministry didn’t like the idea at all. This Kilcullen, they replied, is just a lieutenant colonel. Let us send you a one-star general. Thomas was also hearing through back channels that in senior circles back home, Kilcullen wasn’t much liked, was regarded as a showboat. Clearly Thomas needed to take the pressure up a notch. He wrote back more firmly, again for Wolfowitz’s signature: We’re not asking for an Australian liaison; we want someone embedded in the project, as if he were an American, and Kilcullen is specifically the man we want. A compromise was finally reached: the Yanks could have Kilcullen, but they’d also have to take a colonel from the Australian army’s force-planning bureau, as a formal liaison.

In the first week of December, Kilcullen started work in the Pentagon, settling into a cubicle in a small office in a remote basement, where Thomas and the rest of his staff hoped to change the American way of war, preferably in time to affect the course of the war in Iraq.

•  •  •

By this time, John Nagl was working in the Pentagon, too.

He’d returned to the States a month and a half earlier, planning to take a breather and apply for an Army fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. But he got a phone call from a one-star general named Frank Helmick, a former assistant division commander to David Petraeus and now the senior military assistant to Paul Wolfowitz. The deputy secretary was looking for a new junior military assistant; Helmick had asked Petraeus if he knew of any suitable candidates. Petraeus recommended Nagl.

Nagl had taken on an unusually high profile for a junior officer. While he was in Anbar Province, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine named Peter Maass had come through looking for a story. The battalion commander hated dealing with the press, so he directed Maass to Nagl. Maass stayed for two weeks and wrote a nine-thousand-word article that focused specifically on Nagl, this Army historian of counterinsurgency who was now fighting a real insurgency. The article was published in the January 11, 2004, issue, under the headline “Professor Nagl’s War.”

In the months leading up to Helmick’s call, Wolfowitz was spending a growing share of his time on Iraq, initially by default but over time with real interest. He would phone several of the American commanders in Iraq at least once a week for updates. He spoke with Petraeus, who by now was a three-star general commanding the Iraqi training program, every Saturday night at seven o’clock East Coast time. Wolfowitz had read the Times Magazine profile of Nagl and, since the briefings by Thomas and Anderson, had been dipping into some of the literature on counterinsurgency. He interviewed Nagl, was impressed, and hired him.

Nagl started work on November 1. It was a hectic time in the Pentagon. A week into the job, the second battle of Fallujah got under way, with ten thousand US soldiers and marines mounting an offensive to clear the city of insurgents in what turned out to be the fiercest fighting any Americans had faced since the battle of Hué in Vietnam. Even the optimists in the building realized the war was getting dicey; the interim Iraqi government had, at best, a tenuous grip on its country; the US military strategy seemed, to say the least, inadequate. Meanwhile, President Bush was immersed in a tough reelection campaign, which most people figured he would lose, due in part to the war’s unpopularity.

The work schedule was brutal: thirteen-hour days, six days a week, and this with almost no downtime after a nonstop year at war. Nagl was exhausted. But in his meager spare time, he roamed the Pentagon’s corridors with a gaunt, hungry look on his face, seeking someone, anyone, who might take the slightest interest in counterinsurgency. Initially, to his shock and distress, he couldn’t find a soul. The United States was fighting an insurgency war, yet no one in the Pentagon seemed aware of the fact or knew how to deal with it.

Nagl met Jim Thomas early on in his tenure. They had mutual friends; Thomas said he’d read his book. But it wasn’t until March that Thomas told him about Kilcullen, who was about to give a briefing to the QDR group; Nagl should come down and see it. So Nagl followed the labyrinthine path to the group’s basement office. Kilcullen’s briefing was pretty much the same slide show that he’d given at the Irregular Warfare Conference at Quantico. Nagl sat transfixed. Here was the guy he’d been looking for, the guy who thought about war the same way he did. He leapt to his feet after the speech, dashed over to Kilcullen, and introduced himself.

Nagl was scheduled to speak on a panel the following month at the annual strategy conference of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Its organizer, a civilian professor named Steve Metz, had been studying low-intensity conflict, and trying to put the subject on the Army’s radar screen, for nearly a decade. He’d clearly decided the time was ripe, for the title of this year’s conference was “Defeating America’s Irregular Enemies.” Nagl was asked to present a summary of his book, which, he’d learned since getting back from Iraq, was going to be published in a paperback edition later in the year by the University of Chicago Press, whose board members had looked into acquiring the rights from Praeger after reading his profile in the New York Times Magazine.

Nagl told Kilcullen that he should come speak at the conference, too. Kilcullen said he was interested but hadn’t been invited. When Nagl got back to his office, he phoned Metz and urged him to add this guy to the panel; he was incredible; Nagl would even be willing to give Kilcullen half of his own time. Metz had no objections.

The two made the 115-mile road trip up to Carlisle together, Nagl driving while talking at a rapid clip, Kilcullen navigating with MapQuest, a service he’d never used, across terrain he’d never seen. They got lost a couple of times. As a result, the car ride turned into a long voyage, and the pair bonded, telling their life stories, talking family (they both had sons the same age), comparing West Point with Duntroon, teasing each other over which of them, Nagl the tank leader or Kilcullen the foot soldier, had the more authentic combat experience—all of this banter rooted in their mutual delight at finding someone with the same interest in COIN and the same commitment to changing the conventional thinking and the official policy.

About two hundred people—mainly officers, faculty, think-tank denizens, and a few congressional aides—showed up for the conference. During the panels before theirs, Nagl and Kilcullen sat in the back of the room, whispering commentary back and forth, finally taking their conversation out in the lobby when those around them grew visibly annoyed by their chatter and giggling.

The next day, during their own time on the stage, Nagl delivered what was essentially a replay of his dissertation defense from back at Oxford, with PowerPoint slides tacked on to satisfy standard Army form, while Kilcullen gave a slightly shortened version of his Quantico briefing.

They both raised a stir. Nagl learned, upon arrival, that he was already regarded in some circles as a folk hero, photocopies of key chapters from his (still prohibitively expensive) book circulating as a sort of samizdat critique of the Pentagon’s policies in Iraq. Soon after the conference, summaries of both their talks, apparently jotted down by someone in the audience, started appearing on a few online forums that dealt with military matters.

And so began what some of their friends, and a few disparagers, called “The John & Dave Show,” a tight friendship but also a joint venture, the two of them appearing at the same conferences, sharing notes on books and articles, talking regularly on the phone or in each other’s offices at the Pentagon, all with the aim of refining and spreading their ideas. To Nagl, it stirred fond memories of the heady bull sessions in the faculty bar and dining hall back at West Point. Only this time, he and his new comrade in arms were in the thick of things.