John Nagl Next Haverford Headmaster

John Nagl, who became famous as a leading counterinsurgency theorist and practitioner, is taking on a new challenge: grooming young boys for life.

John Nagl, who became famous as a leading counterinsurgency theorist and practitioner, is taking on a new challenge: grooming young boys for life.

Philadelphia Inquirer (“Battle-tested and set for new mission: Headmaster“):

Why would the nation’s foremost expert on counterinsurgency choose in his mid-40s to begin mentoring boys at an exclusive prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line?

For one elemental reason: the future.

“I get to work with a whole lot of smart people doing something that matters for the future of the country,” said John A. Nagl. “We can affect education across America from the ideas that are developed here.”

Last week’s news that Nagl, 46, an Army officer for two decades, had been plucked from a field of 65 to be Haverford School’s ninth headmaster, starting July 2013, surprised many; a former colleague guessed he would head up a university.

But during a visit to the 30-acre campus in Lower Merion, Nagl (pronounced nog-gle), the current Minerva Research Fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy, said the stop in Haverford dovetails perfectly with his plans.

“I always hoped to have three phases to my life,” the retired lieutenant colonel says. “First, the Army; second, service in Washington; and third, time in an institution of higher learning.”

Nagl, a former Rhodes scholar with combat experience in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, earned his doctorate in international relations from Oxford University in 1997.


Nagl, the oldest of six children from a Catholic family in Omaha, Neb., went to an all-boys academy and Jesuit high school as precursor to West Point.

At Haverford, he hopes to train boys for public roles, such as containing what he calls profligate spending in government. He’d like to prepare them for lives as fathers and husbands by introducing a coed course on marriage and the family.

“I’m not adverse to young ladies being present,” he says. His own son, 10, will enter the school’s fifth grade, and Nagl and his wife, Susanne, will likely stay to see him graduate. He hasn’t said what will follow.

There have been jokes on Twitter about Nagl teaching the boys to eat soup with a knife. That’s easier than molding them into good men.

As I’ve noted before, John and I were classmates at West Point and were briefly on the debate team together, where has was a star and I was, well, not. Even as an 18-year-old, he marched to his own drummer. Certainly, he’s taken an interesting career path. First, he retired from the Army at 20 despite clearly being on path to a general’s stars, to become a fellow at a fledgling think tank. Two years later, he was running the place.  Then, despite CNAS being a leading influencer of policy in the Obama administration, he abruptly left to take a much less visible role as a scholar at the Naval Academy. Now, he’s leaving the field he’s devoted 28 years to for something seemingly unrelated.

While I’ve known John a long time, I don’t claim to know him well; I read about each of these moves in the papers. Unless he’s thinking 17 steps ahead–and it’s certainly possible—he doesn’t seem to be running his career based on a traditional definition of moving ahead. And none of the moves would seem to be motivated by ego; he’s much less likely to be on TV or quoted in the papers at Haverford than at Annapolis, much less as president of CNAS.

From the outside, the common denominator appears to be family. While a general’s stars are great, they mean continuing to uproot the family every two or three years. And, while being president of an influential think tank does wonders for the ego, it means spending most evenings schmoozing with potential donors rather than with the wife and kids. If I’m right, I fully expect John to stay at Haverford until his son graduates—and not much longer.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    John Nagl, who became famous as a leading counterinsurgency theorist and practitioner, is taking on a new challenge: grooming young boys for life.

    Probably not the best words to use.