A Life Well Lived: The Warlord’s Legacy

February 26, 2019

Like many of his friends, I first “met” John Collins online.

In early 2004, I was serving as the operations officer of a tank battalion task force in Al Anbar, Iraq. I was mentioned in a New York Times article, and soon after received an email from a man who identified himself as “WARLORD.” John Collins was a retired Army colonel who had served in uniform from World War II through the Vietnam War, then enjoyed another full career as a national security writer and lecturer at the Congressional Research Service. In his second retirement, John created an online national security discussion forum, populated first by his friends from both of his careers and then, over time, by hundreds of other thinkers John or his friends bumped into along the way. John’s 2004 email was an invitation to join the Warlord Loop, or, for convenience, “the Loop”.

Never have I been so glad to receive an email. The Loop enriched my understanding of the war in which I was fighting on the occasions when I could manage to log into it after acquiring an unclassified internet line. Upon my redeployment and assignment to serve as a military assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the Loop became much more. I was responsible in my day job for helping the deputy secretary understand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader global war on Islamic extremism. The content and analysis on the Loop found its way into numerous conversations I had with Paul, and through him to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and beyond. Later, many ideas from the Loop found their way into the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual I helped Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Jim Mattis write, directly influencing the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2008 “surge” and beyond.

I had the pleasure of getting to know John Collins personally while I was serving in the E-Ring of the Pentagon. He hosted an annual “Warlord Picnic” so that members of his virtual thinktank could meet up in person once a year, collecting the checks to cover the event’s costs himself. As I was addressing the envelope to mail him my dues, I was surprised to see that he resided in the same zip code I did in Alexandria, and I set off on foot to deliver my check in person. A pristine red Miata with the license plate “WARLORD” let me know that I had found the correct ranch house in Alexandria, and John invited me inside for the first of many visits with him and his lovely wife of more than 60 years, Swift, who kept the house as clean as John kept his cars and gardens.

His living room was a military history museum. On later visits, my young son was fascinated by the fighting knives and tiger skull on the coffee table, and so we often moved our discussions out to the front porch or the garden. John was deaf as a post, but it was often possible to convince him to tell war stories from his past while Swift contentedly worked in the kitchen or read a novel nearby. I will always treasure those stories and those times together.

John gave up leadership of the Warlord Loop four or five years ago, about the time I moved to Philadelphia. His departure only made more evident how special the Loop had been under John’s leadership, and how rare were his talents and character. He passed late last year, earning a loving eulogy from longtime Loop member Greg Jaffe in the Washington Post, and will soon be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Ceremony, joining many of his fellow Loopers there.

Great as were his contributions to national security in uniform and at the Congressional Research Service, in the books and articles he wrote and in the speeches he gave, John himself viewed the Warlord Loop as the biggest difference he made in the world. I am inclined to agree, which makes me even more distraught that it effectively predeceased him. Without him, it is not what it was, and the national security community — and the nation — are the poorer as a result.

Rest in Peace, Warlord. We have the watch.

 

John Nagl has served as the ninth headmaster of The Haverford School since 2013.  A retired Army officer, he served in both Iraq wars and taught at Georgetown, West Point, and the U.S. Naval Academy.  He is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife and Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War.

Image: Senior Airman Rylan Albright