Modern War in Theory and Practice

A discussion with Dr. John Nagl on his new book Knife Fights
New America

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice by Dr. John Nagl, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and a former president of the Center for a New American Security, is a profound education in 21st Century warfare – its theory, its practice, and the often-tortured relationship between the two.

As an army tank commander in the first Gulf War, fresh out of West Point and Oxford, Dr. Nagl could already see that America’s military superiority meant that the age of conventional combat was nearing an end. He was an early convert to the view that America’s greatest future threats would come from asymmetric warfare – guerrillas, terrorists, and insurgents – and wrote Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, a book that eventually became the bible of the counterinsurgency movement. Nagl argued it was necessary for the U.S. Army to understand the nature of the insurgency, but also to be more flexible in its response, adjusting its strategy to properly deal with the threat.

While Dr. Nagl worked with Gen. David Petraeus on rewriting core army doctrine in the middle of two wars, helping their new ideas win acceptance in one of the planet’s most conservative bureaucracies, he has not been blind to the cost or consequences of counterinsurgency, noting that in war, there are only bad choices; the question is really which ones are better and which ones are worse.

The New America Foundation is pleased to welcome Dr. Nagl for a discussion about his book, his work on the United States’ counterinsurgency efforts, and the revolution in modern warfare that he helped lead.

Join the conversation online using #knifefights and following @NewAmerica.


Dr. John Nagl
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (retired)
Author, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice
Headmaster, The Haverford School

Daniel R. Green
Defense Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Peter Bergen
Director, International Security Program, New America