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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes

"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute

"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize


To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.


Q&A with Lt. Col. John A. Nagl (Ret.)

Lt. Col. John A. Nagl (Ret.) is the author of the new book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice. He also has written Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Dr. Nagl served in the U.S. Army, and cowrote the U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. The former president of the Center for a New American Security, he is the headmaster of the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and why did you decide on “Knife Fights” as the title?

A: I wrote Knife Fights in order to capture the reasons the United States was so poorly prepared for the wars it has had to fight in this century, and to attempt to ensure both that we fight fewer wars in years to come—but fight them wisely and well. 

My motivation for those desires is my memory of the many good soldiers and innocent civilians who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as we painfully relearned lessons of previous counterinsurgency campaigns that we have intentionally forgotten in the years since we fought them.

“Knife Fights” is a reference both to my first book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, and to the battles I fought on the ground in Iraq and in Washington to help us fight our counterinsurgency campaigns more effectively.

Q: You write that earlier in your career you decided to focus on counterinsurgency in your dissertation because it was “the kind of war that I thought was the most likely emerging challenge for American troops.” How successfully has the United States used counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what has the impact been?

A: In the words of T.E. Lawrence, counterinsurgency campaigns are messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been slower and messier than most. After a horrible start to an unnecessary war, Iraq turned out better than we could have hoped--well enough that Vice President Joe Biden in February of 2010 predicted that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” 

Unfortunately, by failing to maintain a long-term American security presence in Iraq after 2011, the United States opened the door for the return of Al Qaeda to Iraq; AQI’s successor organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now controls the western third of the country, ground over which I fought in 2004.

Afghanistan has also been a grinding, difficult campaign, now America’s longest ever. With the peaceful departure of President Karzai and his replacement by Ashraf Ghani, there is every chance for a long-term security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that will prevent the return of the Taliban to control of that country and give the Afghan people the stable, democratic government they deserve. 

I very much hope that the administration is studying the lessons of the premature American withdrawal from Iraq and will not make those mistakes again in Afghanistan, whose people have already suffered so much.

Q: As someone who’s studied and written about the lessons of Vietnam, how much do you think they are still playing a role in U.S. decision-making today?

A: Attempting to avoid the bitter memory of Vietnam was one of the major reasons the United States was so unprepared for counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th. 

Unfortunately, those who do not remember their past are doomed to repeat it, and our Army had to painfully relearn how to conduct counterinsurgency 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War—lessons codified in the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual of 2006 that replaced one last updated at the end of the Vietnam War. It is essential that we not yet again forget those lessons and have to pay for them again in blood.

Q: You’re now serving as headmaster of the Haverford School near Philadelphia. How are you enjoying that, and what similarities and differences do you see compared with your previous responsibilities?

A: I feel enormously fortunate to be serving as the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School, where every day I work with 250 faculty and staff to prepare 1000 boys for life.  

I enjoy managing a large enterprise and building a climate that encourages constant improvement and the creation of a culture of learning. I am pleased to be back in the classroom and on the lecture circuit, teaching and learning about American foreign policy. Most of all, I enjoy working with young people, helping them think about the purpose of their lives and how to best employ their considerable talents.  

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: I’m currently running at a pace of a book every 20 years! Right now I’m enjoying being a part of discussions about American security policy at a number of great schools across America; I’ve spoken recently at West Point and Annapolis and am scheduled to visit Harvard, Tufts, Notre Dame, Duke, UVA, and Cal-Berkeley over the next few months.  I think my next book may be about being a Headmaster—watch for it in 2034!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The most important choices our nation makes are those concerning war and peace. We must learn from the mistakes of the past decade of war and ensure that we follow the instruction of Saint Augustine to never again fight a war without a plan to build a better peace in the aftermath. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on For a previous interview with John Nagl, please click here.


Q&A with military expert Bing West

Bing West is the author of the new book One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon At War. A Vietnam veteran, he served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. His other books include The Village, The Strongest Tribe, and The Wrong War. He lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Marines of Battalion 3/5 in your latest book?

A: In my embeds over the years in Afghanistan, it became clear to me that the top command had a theoretical strategy of winning hearts and minds of 9th century tribes, while our troops were fighting for their lives. I wanted to show how our platoons were actually fighting, as contrasted with the foolish theories at the top.

Q: You write, “The counterinsurgency doctrines in Afghanistan and Vietnam were polar opposites in emphasis.” What were some of the key differences, and what impact did the two strategies have on the respective conflicts?

A: In Vietnam (where I served in the grunts), we fought to drive the Viet Cong guerrillas out of the villages. In Afghanistan, our grunts were told to drink tea with the elders, rather than to fight. That order made no sense. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese army with Russian and Chinese tanks and artillery, not to guerrillas.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you see happening in Afghanistan?

A: President Obama will be forced to keep U.S. troops there in combat. Were Mr. Obama to keep his foolish pledge to pull out all U.S. troops before he leaves office, Ms. Clinton would have to run for the presidency while disowning the Obama decision. That will insure the Taliban do not take over the cities, although they will control much of the countryside.

Q: Have you stayed in touch with the Marines you wrote about, and what is your overall sense of how their experiences affected them?

A: Yikes! I have friends in three generations of Marines! My son is a Marine. The generations show marked changes. During Vietnam, coming so soon after WWII battles like Iwo Jima, we accepted heavy casualties and death as normal. Today, fortunately, casualties are fewer and each loss is more publicly grieved.

Separately, the newest generation rely upon IT gadgets for their social interaction. This characteristic is brand new and has consequences for training and for performance in units that we do not yet know how to measure or direct.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a book with General Jim Mattis, a renowned warfighter, about his leadership style and how it changed as he commanded at higher and higher levels.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We are at war. The Islamist revolution sweeping the Middle East has not been tamed. Mr. Obama, as our commander-in-chief, has the obligation to explain why this is a war, why we will continue to take casualties and the means by which we must win. He has not done this. So within the American public there remains an unease about our commitment and about the stakes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also appears on


Q&A with Professor Randall B. Woods

Randall B. Woods is the author most recently of Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA, a biography of the late former CIA director. His other books include LBJ: Architect of American Ambition and Fulbright: A Biography. He is John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, and he lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of William Colby?

A: I teach courses on American history, and I’ve taught a course on the Vietnam War. If you look at the literature of the war, for most scholars, the war ended after Tet in 1968. The number of pieces in the media on Vietnam dropped off. After Mr. Nixon was in office, he and [Henry] Kissinger decided eventually to get out.

Initially, the Johnson administration [followed General William] Westmoreland’s policy of search and destroy. People like Bill Colby in the foreign policy establishment were arguing that this was the wrong way to fight the war—we are trying to build [a country], let the Vietnamese fight their own fight—and they began to turn Johnson around. He authorized CORDS [Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support], which was really a Colby brainchild.

This got me interested in the political, psychological type of warfare, and I began to go back and saw that two cultures developed [in the CIA]—espionage and nation-building.

Colby is an interesting figure….[In the CIA] there are good, principled people doing very bad things, and that makes for nice literary tension….

There were two trajectories—on the ground in South Vietnam, we were building communities and making the countryside more secure; we could never do anything about the government in Saigon. This was a fairly successful operation. It’s as if counterinsurgency and pacification was going in one direction and the White House was going in another. There’s a tragic element to that.

In the military, the CIA, USAID, there were very bright people, a lot had advanced degrees. They were very thoughtful about the war, and very interesting to interview.

Q: What surprised you most as you were researching the book?

A: These people on the ground who worked for Colby…a lot of people came to believe by the end of the war that the National Liberation Front, if not the North Vietnamese Communist Party, were Vietnam’s best chance for [success].

 [Given] the lack of political cohesion in the South, the enemy they were fighting was going to be the country’s salvation. That was very tragic. Colby was a true believer; he never bought into that. His disciples admired him, but they saw him as flawed in that respect.

Colby was trying to organize civilian defense groups. The idea was that the communities fought to defend themselves; that may or may not have been true. From the point of view of the government in Saigon, what Colby was doing was subversive; any independent armed group in the countryside, they viewed as a threat. Colby was trying to create secure communities, while they were trying to undermine it.

There’s been some stuff on CORDS, but the books written have been very bureaucratic and dry. It’s full of stories…there’s a lot of romance.

Q: You write, “In truth, despite his goodwill and good intentions, Bill Colby…would do more to divide and demoralize the CIA than any of his predecessors.” Why was that?

A: It was force of circumstances; he didn’t do it on purpose. He was confronted with the [CIA’s] “family jewels,” [various illegal or controversial tactics or plans that were coming to light in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam], and the White House wanted him to stonewall. He thought that was wrong.

The community is still divided; there are people who think he’s a traitor. On one level, he’s a constitutional lawyer, that’s how he was trained. He perceived that if Congress determined to find out things about CIA, it not only could do that but had a right to. His loyalty was to the Constitution.

Politically, he believed that if he wasn’t forthcoming to Congress and the press, in the wake of the antiwar movement, Congress might do away with the CIA, which he loved. In his eyes, he was making compromises to save the CIA. Others didn’t see that. There were people I interviewed, old professionals, who believe he erred. It’s very much [former CIA director Richard] Helms [versus] Colby.

Q: Colby’s death was mysterious. What do you think really happened?

A: I think he was murdered….You never really leave the CIA. He was involved in things I just caught a whiff of. People were operating out of Australia; he had probably some involvement with the contras. I think he knew the truth about Oswald’s connections with the Cubans. There are just so many things. I think he was killed, but I have no proof about who did it.

Q: What did his family think of your book?

A: They’re deeply divided. The oldest son and youngest son [gave] complete cooperation and encouragement. The middle son was initially cooperative. He’s an independent filmmaker, and made a film on his father that features his mother. [The idea in the film is that] he left and betrayed his family…and drowned himself in a fit of depression….The surviving daughter didn’t like the way I treated her mother, so she’s mad at me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Eight or nine years ago I did a big biography of Lyndon Johnson, but there was a lot I had to leave out. I’m doing a book on the Great Society as a great reform movement, and trying to compare it with other great reform movements of the 20th century. There are lot of 50th anniversaries coming up…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Phoenix program [in Vietnam] was very controversial at the time. It became a whipping boy for the antiwar movement. We were doing to the Vietcong what they were doing to the South Vietnamese. The Vietcong had terrorist units that were probably responsible for [thousands] of deaths. The Phoenix program was designed to eradicate them.

The idea was that American special forces and Seals would work with the South Vietnamese intelligence and counterterrorism teams, and gather information at the local level, and arrest or kill them.

The Phoenix program is a predecessor to the current drone program; the techniques are the same, the methods are different. It’s an iteration of that. There are shadows of CORDS in Afghanistan. [General] David Petraeus worked for Colby. The issues Colby had to deal with are very much alive today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A is also posted on


Q&A with author Lan Cao

Lan Cao is the author of the new novel The Lotus and the Storm. Her other work includes the novel Monkey Bridge and the work of nonfiction Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History. Born in Vietnam, she teaches at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, California.

Q: Why did you choose “The Lotus and the Storm” as the title of your new book?

A: I like the contrasting images -- the lotus being a Buddhist symbol of serenity and the storm conveying the very opposite of serenity. The storm represents Bao and the lotus represents ... that's a question that different people will have different answers for. The book is in many ways a journey through the storm, chaos and fragmentation of war.

Q: What more can you say about the significance of the character Bao?

A: Bao means storm literally in Vietnamese, so the character represents the turbulence of trauma.

Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started writing, or did you make changes along the way?

A: I rarely ever know where each chapter will end, how one chapter will follow another, much less how the book will end when I start writing. It's all very organic for me and for fiction writing, that's how I like it. My first drafts tend to be a bit picaresque and my revisions once the book is finished are meant to tighten, not change the story line. 

Q: In addition to your novels, you’ve co-authored a nonfiction book about Asian-American history, and you are a law professor. How is your fiction affected by your other work?

A: My legal scholarship has focused on international trade, international economic law (World Trade Organization law)  and an area of law called law and development. The latter involves the relationship between law and economic and political development in developing countries.

My fiction deals a lot with transitions -- outsider to maybe insider, half lives to less halved lives (maybe more whole lives), war or wasteland to peace, immigrants to Americans (or one's ideas of what makes an American). My law work is also focused on transitions -- emerging economies transitioning to a different system and the legal framework that is needed (or not) to facilitate this transition.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In law, I'm revising a legal book to be published by Oxford University Press called Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change (looking at how the field of law and development -- and related fields such as public international law, private international law (international trade), international human rights, international relations -- have all excluded culture from their academic lens (focusing instead on states and markets)).

I argue that cultural norms must be incorporated into law and development if it is to be effective. Much of the book explores the meaning of development, how culture is bound to and affects development and controversially, may sometimes have to be purposefully changed to implement a development agenda that includes not just economic development but also human rights, particularly women's rights. 

I am going to start writing a collection of short stories loosely bound together by a core group of common characters. It's just too new now to know where it's going. So I don't have enough to say anything more about it. The characters will be from different parts of the world, so all ethnically diverse.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview is also posted at


Q&A with author Cara Hoffman

Cara Hoffman is the author of the new novel Be Safe I Love You. She also has written the novel So Much Pretty. She teaches at Bronx Community College, and she lives in New York City.

Q: In a recent New York Times piece, you wrote that "stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture. It’s not that their stories are poorly told. It’s that their stories are simply not told in our literature, film and popular culture." Why is that?

A: A very simple answer: Sexism. Until recently women have been prevented from serving a full range of occupations in the army, the same way that women in other eras were prevented from a full range of opportunities including voting, going to college, working in professional fields.

Over time these things changed. But it often took a while for fiction to catch up to reality. This is certainly the case when it comes to women in the military and women veterans. Their stories are not told because of discrimination, in the same way stories of African American senators or doctors or lawyers were not told in the 1930s or '40s or earlier.

Q: How did you come up with your protagonist, Lauren Clay?

A: There is no specific real world inspiration for Lauren Clay. She’s like many people who’ve made the decision to join the army for financial reasons, and who have strong ties to family.

I interviewed women who enlisted and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. I already knew a number of men who’d been soldiers including my brother.

Lauren’s musical skills and love for holy minimalist music come from my own experiences, as well as the setting in which she grew up.

Q: Why did you choose "Be Safe I Love You" as the book's title?

A: It’s the phrase Danny uses to sign off on his dispatches to his sister while she’s in Iraq.

And it expresses the urgency of the novel. I’m sure we’ve all used this phrase at one time or another talking to those we care about.

Q: Which authors have particularly inspired you?

A: My favorite writers are generally outsiders: David Wojnarowicz, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Jean Genet, Louis Ferdinand Celine. These are the writers that have I turn to again and again.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel about homeless kids living in Athens, Greece.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on