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Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife
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Invariably, armies are accused of preparing to fight the previous war. In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl—a veteran of both Operation Desert Storm and the current conflict in Iraq—considers the now-crucial question of how armies adapt to changing circumstances during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared. Through the use of archival sources and interviews with participants in both engagements, Nagl compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 with what developed in the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975.

In examining these two events, Nagl—the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story by Peter Maass—argues that organizational culture is key to the ability to learn from unanticipated conditions, a variable which explains why the British army successfully conducted counterinsurgency in Malaya but why the American army failed to do so in Vietnam, treating the war instead as a conventional conflict. Nagl concludes that the British army, because of its role as a colonial police force and the organizational characteristics created by its history and national culture, was better able to quickly learn and apply the lessons of counterinsurgency during the course of the Malayan Emergency.

With a new preface reflecting on the author's combat experience in Iraq, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is a timely examination of the lessons of previous counterinsurgency campaigns that will be hailed by both military leaders and interested civilians.

Customer Reviews:

  • Very enjoyable PhD Thesis
    Exceptionally well written book. If this reviewer understands the forward correctly, Maj Nagl (now LCOL) wrote this book as his PhD thesis at Oxford University. However, it reads like a popular and best-selling history and not with a dry stilted academic tone.

    Likewise, this book is exceedingly well researched. Despite feeling fairly well-read on military history in general and Vietnam in particular, I must have jotted down 20 - 30 books for future reference and study. One can certainly see that LCOL Nagl earned his PhD at Oxford.

    The best part of the book is that it is not really about fighting a counter-insurgency, but rather about how institutions learn (or fail to learn) when confronted with radical change. In this sense, the British come off much better in the Malay experience than America does in Vietnam.

    However, the book has several weaknesses.

    First, the book has several errors of fact in the examples of the Chinese Civil War. These are not glaring errors, but since LCOL Nagl uses the Chinese Civil War as a basis to begin his discussion of the Malay conflict, they are relevant. Strangely, the revolutionary doctrine that Mao exports more closely resembles what LCOL Nagl reports vice what actually happened so, perhaps, for the purpose of this book, this failing is an academic one.

    Second, Nagl implies that only had we followed all the great ideas the British had, we could have easily won in Vietnam. This is not knowable and may ultimately be false. The conflict in Vietnam was far more violent than the one in Malaya. Likewise the Viet Minh and North Vietnamese Army had several advantages that the Chinese Terrorists (CTs) in Malaya did not. Just a short listing of those are: (1) an effective standing Army, (2) large and powerful allies who provided technical and logistic support, (3) political and geographical points of refuge beyond the reach of the United States, and (4) an enemy (the regime in South Vietnam) that were a religious minority (Catholic) attempting to rule over a majority (Buddhists). Indeed, in Malaya, the CT's were the ethnic minority.

    Third, while the best part of the book is the assessment of how a large bureaucracy learns, these ideas are not spelled out to this reader's satisfaction. The question of how an agency learns is not answered adequately.

    Overall, this book is an excellent read and raises many important questions. However, it falls a bit short in providing adequate answers to these questions....more info
  • Valuable for all institutions--how institutions adapt
    Vietnam redefined the American military. Unfortunately, the myths rather than the facts of Vietnam survive. These myths still warp American use of military force. This 2005 edition includes Nagl's Iraqi experience as a preface titled "Spilling Soup on Myself." Many people will find this to be dry reading, but the lessons on organizational behavior have applicability in business and government. The same things that led to American defeat in Vietnam are creating a failing K-12 school system in the United States.

    Nagl's "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" examines what worked in the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960 and what failed in Vietnam from 1965-1972. Nagl organized his book into four parts: Setting the Stage, Malaya, Vietnam, and Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

    Setting the Stage is three chapters: How Armies Learn, the Hard Lessons of Insurgency, and the British and American Armies. Counterinsurgency requires stubborn patience, flexibility, and other un-American attributes.

    Part II has two chapters: British Army Counterinsurgency Learning During the Malayan Emergency and The Empire Strikes Back.

    Vietnam is also organized as two chapters on the "advisory years 1950-1964" and the "fighting years 1965-1972."

    Hard Lessons is Chapter 8. The final chapter is titled Organizational Culture and Learning Institutions. All that precedes these two chapters is merely setting the stage. The meat of "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife" is in these last two chapters. Malay was totally different than Vietnam. The Malay insurgency was based upon an ethnic minority, and the Republic of Vietnam's insurgency was both based on the majority ethnic group and featured forces both internal and external to South Vietnam--North Vietnam was "independent" by international agreement even as it was seeking to re-unify with South Vietnam. More differences existed--enough for several books--plus the institutional differences between the political and military structures of the United Kingdom and the United States made Malaya and Vietnam different worlds! There's more: Britain acted unilaterally in Malaya and the United States lead a multi-national coalition in Vietnam. It is the American thing to do: get world approval before blundering about.

    Nagl didn't point out this multi-national versus unilateral approach. It is one of the enduring myths of the Vietnam War that the United States acted alone. How this affected the outcome is beyond the scope of this book review--except to note that American operations in Iraq, the subject of Nagl's preface, is a multinational effort requiring approval from several score governments as well as "world opinion" and United Nations support. There is no unified command in Iraq, which may be either a solution or part of the problem. The Iraqi insurgency has similar divided command problems.

    I think "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife" is a valuable addition to my library because John Nagl addresses how institutions learn and adapt. These lessons are applicable to non-military organizations, too. American schools have the same institutional structure as the U.S. Army--and the same biases and mindsets. Multinational corporations are mostly based upon the American model and have the same top-down prejudices as the American military. I shouldn't even mention that institution that created and maintains the American military--the U.S. Congress. Nagl focuses on the U.S. military even though America's military doesn't run America's wars--which is the major weakness of "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife." In the United States, the military is controlled by politicians and subject to civilian control. There is no purely military operation involving American forces, nor has there been since at least the 1805 war against the Barbary Pirates. American foreign policy--and its shortcomings--drives American military policy. American foreign policy is driven by domestic politics.
    ...more info
  • Refreshingly introspective and honest
    As a military history buff I feel like I have a good understanding of the dynamics of the Vietnam War and the reasons for the outcome from the perspective of the United States. However, Colonel Nagl puts the whole issue in a much more focused perspective than anything else I have ever read. (A quick note: Although the book addresses the British experience in Malaya and the US experience in Vietnam, the clear objective is to better understand Vietnam by comparing and contrasting it to Malaya. Hence, my focus here on Vietnam). By taking a methodical, academic approach, this book sets forth very specific criteria by which to measure the performance of the British and US militaries, delivering a well thought out and rational discussion of what must be done to counter an insurgency and how Britain and the US fared in their respective conflicts. More than that, it explains why the outcomes of Malaya and Vietnam were so different, not just from a tactical or strategic perspective, but also in terms of the overall structure and philosophy of the British and US armies. Much has been written about why the US failed to achieve its objectives in Vietnam, but I found this book to be far more thorough and insightful - and therefore more credible - than anything else out there.

    On another note, it is extremely refreshing and encouraging to see this level of introspection and intellectual rigor from an Army officer, something I have noticed more and more in today's Army. To lead the US military into the future and prepare its personnel for the conflicts of today and tomorrow, this is precisely the kind of thoughtful self-examination and open inquisitiveness that officers will need to demonstrate....more info
  • The Next War
    The next war and how to fight it are primary concerns today as the Army finds itself engaged in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while in the midst of its transformation to a more mobile force. Of utmost concern is how to combat the guerrilla forces in Iraq, well resourced insurgents that strike and then disappear into the population.

    Major John Nagl addresses the problems of fighting a guerrilla force with a conventional army in his book "Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam." In this study, Major Nagl looks at the British Army's experience in Malaya in the 1950's and the American experience in Vietnam. In both of these conflicts, Major Nagl provides an in-depth analysis of the military institutions and how they adapted to combat an unconventional enemy.

    The British Army of the 1950's was a conventional force fresh from the battlefields of World War II. In the early days of the conflict it was a force unsuited for the task of trying to subdue the Communist guerrillas of Malaya, wasting manpower in huge battalion sweeps of the jungle. Yet its organizational culture allowed it to evolve over time. A history of colonial policing and small unit actions along with a receptive command climate permitted the British Army to adapt to its environment and over time destroy the communist insurgents.

    The author contrasts this counterinsurgency success with the performance of the American Army in Vietnam. Solely concerned with the next big conventional war and misusing lessons from Korea, the Americans failed to adapt to their environment, preferring to use indiscriminate firepower as the solution and viewing the eventual North Vietnamese invasion rather than the Viet Cong forces within South Vietnam as the enemy. Refusing to learn from the lessons of the British and their own junior leaders in the field, the US Army failed to learn as an organization and eventually lost the conflict.

    Impeccably researched and well written, Major Nagl has chosen a subject critical to today's Army, namely how to defeat an insurgent enemy. He contends that in order to succeed in the future "savage wars of peace," the Army must be able to adapt as an organization and step away from the preoccupation with solely waging conventional warfare against other nation-states. Overall a great book and a must read....more info

  • Excellent
    An outstanding treatise. A little heavy on the academic structure and references for a grunt, making it more accessible for the academics than the on-the-ground warriors, but still a fascinating read and an outstanding volume....more info
  • Nagl wrote the book on counterinsurgency - before the current war in Iraq
    How does an army learn to fight an effective counterinsurgency? Sound relevant to today's headlines? John Nagl asked this question before it was "cool" - before the pundits of CNN or MSNBC knew how to spell "counterinsurgency". This book - Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife - is his answer. John is a scholar and a soldier who combines academic prowess and firsthand experience in counterinsurgency. LTC John Nagl is a West Point graduate (and in the interests of disclosure, a classmate of the reviewer), an armor officer, a Rhodes Scholar, a former instructor of International Affairs at West Point, and a veteran of the insurgency in Iraq.

    The insurgency in Iraq had not begun when the hardcover edition of his book came out in 2002. Unfortunately, it's not at all certain that the people who opened the current war in Iraq read it. This 2nd edition includes a new author's preface discussing the relationship between his earlier scholarship and his recent combat experiences in Iraq. He candidly discusses what he now thinks of his own work based upon his first-hand experience with insurgency.

    The depth of LTC Nagl's research is evident in every chapter and should satisfy the rigor of academia while, at the same time, his writing style is clear, concise, and leaves little doubt as to his reasoning. To be successful in an age of insurgencies, Nagl concludes that the Army "will have to make the ability to learn to deal with messy, uncomfortable situations an integral part" of its organizational culture. It must, per T.E. Lawrence, be comfortable eating soup with a knife. Victory in a fluid insurgency requires the ability to learn and to adapt and may even require differing victory conditions, organizations, and core competencies depending upon the context.

    Nagl's own experiences have only hammered home the truth of this necessity. His unit was required to change its equipment, its organization, and develop new core competencies to transform from a tank battalion focused on a Soviet-style armored threat into a counterinsurgency (see "Professor Nagl's War" in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, Jan. 11, 2004). They integrated people and tools not normally found in a battalion task force in conventional battle (such as Civil Affairs and Counterintelligence teams - see "Soldier Uses Wits to Hunt Insurgents" by Greg Jaffe in the Wall Street Journal, Sep. 10, 2004). They hunted the enemy while at the same time acting as impromptu diplomats, aid workers, military and police trainers, and tribal mediators. This experience in Iraq was what Nagl describes as the most intense learning experience of his life.

    This book was worth it - without the new information - as a hardcover at $89.95. At $17 in paperback, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" should be on the shelf of every American interested in the current situation in Iraq and in how the US can prevail.
    ...more info
  • Excellent Building Block
    This book is an excellent building block for those militaries that expect to be sent by their political masters into harms' way "in every clime and place."

    Blessed with a Foreword from General Peter Schoomaker, formerly Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command and today the Chief of Staff of the severely beleaguered U.S. Army, this revised edition integrates the reality check that the author received under combat in Iraq, the book's first edition having been an academic reflection. The improvements are pointed out in an author's preface, and require that this edition be the one to be studied in war colleges.

    The most important point in the book for me is that organizational culture--a willingness to learn and innovate or not--is an independent relevant variable for determining success under ambiguous conditions.

    The author excels at documenting two facts for the future: 1) it is civil war inside of states, rather than inter-state conflict, that will be the primary military challenge; and 2) the U.S. military is not yet ready to learn and innovate, exceptions not-with-standing.

    The comparison of British and US organizational cultures on page 51 is alone worth the price of the book, and can be summed up as the British excelling at long-term presence, regimental memory, bottom-up learning, emphasis on civil solutions and a minimalist use of force. The Americans are naturally the opposite, substituting technology for thinking, quantity for quality, and "shock and awe" force for reasoned instrumentalism. More tellingly, the British will go for the very long haul built on a century worth of localized presence and individualized relationships that built trust, settling for an independent country that gives England a 51% win, while the Americans demand dominance now, and 100%.

    The author notes that a major contribution to British success in Malaya was the idea of a junior policeman, to offer channels for anonymous tips. The US has implemented this in Iraq, but typically relies on cell phones that most Iraqis do not possess.

    The author credits Mao with having been the logical successor to Sun Tzu, Jomeni, and Clausewitz, and I would add Ho Chi Minh and today Bin Laden. Ho Chi Minh mastered tunnels; Bin Laden has leveraged suicide as a common means that changes everything about war and peace. Interestingly, the author of FIASCO was on television as I read this book, and pointed out that Paul Bremmer single-handedly gave the Iraqi insurgency the leadership (de-Bathification), the guns and volunteers (dismissing the Iraqi army), and the financing (opening the door for Iran) that would not have existed without his incredibly arrogant and ignorant decisions. It was Paul Bremmer who created the Iraqi insurgency and gave Bin Laden enormous international prestige and an increased following. See my reviews of "Blood Money" and "Squandered Victory."

    I was interested to learn from this author that the original view of the Viet-Nam war at the national level was as a replay of Korea, with the Chinese as the actual threat. Our ignorance of Viet-Nam's independence, and our deliberate refusal to allow elections, are as shocking are the ignorance of the White House regarding the Sunni-Shiite split, and its willingness to occupy Iraq rather than liberate it, to use torture and humiliation as a tactical measure without regard to its strategic cost.

    The author does a good job of focusing on the importance of "the man." History will show that Tony Zinni had it right, and Tommy Franks had it completely wrong.

    I found the author's passing discussion of how the U.S. military is increasingly being charged with being an executive agent for non-military sources of national power to be especially interesting. The U.S. Central Command has 90 foreign military liaison teams co-located at its Headquarters, and a mere handful of people representing the varied agencies and departments of the U.S. Government. Inter-agency strategy and inter-agency campaign planning today are as non-existent as inter-agency tactical cooperation.

    The author points out that an organizational learning model is virtually the opposition of the bureaucratic politics/budget share model that now prevails in the Department of Defense. In combination with the importance of inter-agency operations, I can anticipate the U.S. Army both replicating diplomatic, information, and economic capabilities to make up for the deficiencies of those departments, and simultaneously creating a new breed of military officer, one with the power to persuade, to be dedicated over the course of a career to herding cats--the autonomous and largely oblivious elements of the U.S. Government that are not pulling their weight in Iraq or anywhere else.

    Since the early 1990's several of us have been independently proposing "four forces after next" that would cut the big war force in half, while redirecting the savings to taking small war/gendarme special forces up to $75B a year (a tripling), peace forces from zero to $100B a year, and homeland security from $15B (then) or $36B (now) to $75B a year. This author not only gets it, he helps make the case for doing precisely that. Goggling for "The Asymmetric Threat: Listening to the Debate," no. 20 (Autumn/Winter 98-99), pp. 78-84, available online, is a good way to prepare to read this book.

    I liked this book so much that I am creating a list of 13 books, none having to do with Iraq, that I recommend be read by anyone who wishes to learn not only how to eat soup with a knife at the tactical level, but how to avoid being part of someone else's soup in this new world disorder. Here is that list by title--I have reviewed all of them"

    See also, with reviews:
    Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict
    Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror
    Policing the New World Disorder: Peace Operations and Public Security
    Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
    Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods
    The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War
    The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050
    The Fifty-Year Wound: How America's Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World
    The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
    The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project)
    The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People
    Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights
    Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century
    Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places: 5th Edition (Robert Young Pelton the World's Most Dangerous Places)

    See also my list of serious DVD's.

    This officer has the mind-set that I want to see more of in our civilian as well as our military seniors....more info
  • Primer for Asymmetrical Warfare
    Highly recommended. If you don't know what the job is, it's pretty hard to choose which tools you need or how to employ them. This book should be read by every government official, elected or appointed, with any responsibility for the conduct of the War on Terror. It should be read twice by anyone tempted to criticize the ones on the ground actually doing the fighting. This from a former Marine and father of Marine sons that have been fighting since Desert Shield....more info
  • Mandatory Reading on Insurgency for the Realist
    Colonel Nagl, quite simply, determines realistic and time-proven measures of success in counter-insurgency campaigns, then applies them in a comparative analysis of the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War.

    While not a tactical handbook, it clearly benefits the senior soldier, NCO and officer in understanding insurgency in all its manifestations (and the means to counter it), beyond the base concept of 'military effects'.

    Moreover, it affords an appreciation for the necessity of civil-military cooperation and coordination, and the crucial role of civil servants (as opposed to military administrators) in the insurgency theatre....more info
  • Is the U. S. Army a learning institution ?
    This was required reading for a graduate course in the history of American military affairs. The purpose of John A. Nagl's book was to explore the reasons why the British army was able to change its strategy and tactics of war fighting in order to successfully conduct a counterinsurgency operation in Malaya from 1948 through 1960, and why the U. S. army failed in its counterinsurgency challenge in Vietnam from 1950 through 1973, because its leaders clung to their strategy and tactics of annihilation. Nagl's thesis, for which he cogently argued in his book, was that the answer lied in the "organizational culture" differences between the British and U. S. armies. "The organizational culture of the British army allowed it to learn how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign during the Malayan Emergency, whereas the organizational culture of the U.S. Army prevented a similar organizational learning process during and after the Vietnam War" (213).

    As Nagl so aptly pointed out, the British army was structured on a regimental system whereby soldiers and officers served together for their whole careers, which gave them several advantages to learn and improve their war fighting skills. Units could quickly change their tactics and training methods as they found the counterinsurgency techniques that brought them mission success in the field. The British also learned from over one hundred years of colonial rule around the globe, that it was prudent to cultivate the trust and listen to the local populace. Since the British army was small, its senior leadership was in closer contact with the military operations in Malaya and more readily willing to listen to their junior officers' advice. In sharp contrast, Nagl argued that the institutional culture of the U.S. Army was too intransigent to change its learning cycle. "An army that saw its raison d'etre as winning wars through the application of firepower and maneuver to annihilate enemy forces simply could not conceive of another kind of war in which its weapons, technology, and organization not only could not destroy the enemy, but usually could not even find or identify him" (198).

    No doubt, Nagl was correct in implying that had the U.S. commanders listened to the advice of those who called for using counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam, they may have faired better. However, it is important to note that the British failed in conducting a successful counterinsurgency in Palestine, mainly because they could not win the trust of the Jews to help them since virtually the entire Jewish population were united in their quest for independence. Similarly, the North Vietnamese Communists under the inspired leadership of Ho Chi Minh, commanded the respect and support of probably more of the Vietnamese populace than the U.S. or the intolerably corrupt government of the South Vietnamese could ever hope to win over. Thus, another lesson for governments to learn is to carefully pick and choose when and where to militarily intervene.

    Recommended reading for anyone interested in American history and military history.
    ...more info
  • learning to Eat Soup with a Knife
    Served in Malaya 1949 to 1952 and went through the whole learning exercise of large formations down to Platoon level. Although by 1951 we had in fact become small silent units , before the time the author gives us credit for.
    Great deal of good background research, which pulled many events together for me.Felt he did not really understand the full value of close regimental units nor the fact that we had the National Servicemen for a full 18 months, giving us 6 months to train a acclimatize them and 1 year of fully trained first class men with a great spirit.
    A Fine book for anybody interested in this period of military history...more info
  • The clearest explanation of institutional learning available
    John Nagl is not only a scholar of the first rank, a soldier with incomparable combat experience and author of the highest caliber, he is also passionately devoted to helping others learn about themselves and the institutions they serve. This is evident in the book he has written. I know of no finer work. I have extended paragraphs on each page highlighted and starred. Cogent. Insightful. Wise. Buy this book....more info
  • Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife
    Excellent book that can't be read without thinking of what's going on in Iraq. The lessons are clear. Why don't we learn them? Democracy at the point of a gun isn't very effective, even if its in our national interests. This book gives a much better recipe for success than the one we're using now. ...more info
  • The best book for understaning Iraq, that is not about Iraq
    John Nagl, an active duty Army LtCol, is a rare breed of warrior-academic. He has the unique ability to produce first rate military analysis with the benefit of real operational experience. This book was written for a PhD thesis years before Iraq, but as Nagl states in the new paperback introduction after a tour in Iraq, the thesis still rings true.

    To be 100% honest there is little that is revolutionary in its analysis. The great majority of the counter-insurgency theory is based on the "standard" works. The chapters on the U.S. Army's failure to learn as an organization as a root cause behind loss of Vietnam was first proposed in Andrew Krepinevich's groundbreaking "The Army in Vietnam" back in the late 1980s. Nagl rightly gives Krepinevich ample credit.

    What makes this book so vital is its timing and readability. It became popular at the exact time it needed to be. It showed the world the continuing value of the study of history. While Nagl borrows heavily from previous academics, most of those academics are barley known outside small groups of military historians, academics, well-read military officers, and think tank circles. Nagl's book makes you want to read it, and its writting style is a primary cause for its success. It is one of the best books about Iraq, without having to mention Iraq or even be about Iraq. You do not need to have a PhD in military history or Middle Eastern Studies to see the how this book is so important today. Too many "experts" believed "technology" changed the very basis of warfare. Nagl's work reminds us yet again that there is little new in current affairs, only old mistakes forgotten.

    I do not believe that if U.S. policymakers simply read this book, Iraq would be any different, but if books like this were used in military staff colleges and upper level graduate programs throughout the 1990s, the thousands of brave Americans would not have had to learn its lessons the hard way, in the mountains of Afghanistan and the back-alleys of Iraq.
    ...more info
  • Overrated, but still worth reading.
    Read this book when I was still on active duty. It got a lot of hype when OIF turned into the "long, hard, slog" and military professionals from the brass on down had to get smart on counterinsurgency real quick. I didn't feel his thesis was well supported, so in that regard this effort falls short. On the other hand, I found it a great guide to further reading on counterinsurgency - great value for the professional. For the nonprofessional, this is a decent introduction....more info
  • Important lessons for today
    Colonel Nagl has written one of the best books on recent military history I have yet to read. He examines the past experiences in Vietnam and Malaya, pointing out what the failures and success of those experiences and translates them into an astounding piece of history for the present and the future. It is a blueprint for what to do and what not to do, given the current and quite likely future of warfare. It is a telling book by a combat leader. He writes with exceptional clarity and he work is replete with references and the bibliography is extraordinary. Everyone should read this book. In addition he is also the author of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgeny Field Manual, another excellent and detailed book on COIN operations. ...more info
  • Have we really learned anything yet?
    I found this book to be interesting and very timely. It is not a quick read however. It compares the British experience in Maylasia with the US one in Vietnam. I find the comparison a bit stretched as the insurgents in Maylasia were mostly of an ethnic group different from the general population and were isolated by geography. In the Vietnam insurgency, the insurgents were indistinguishable from the populace and they had sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam for retreat and resupply. However, I think the point that the US Army has not been successful at learning how to fight insurgencies is very well taken. I Iraq, our troops are still thrashing around trying to find, fix and annihilate the insurgents without good intelligence. We also have been unable to provide any kind of security to the locals and are not even able to protect US personnel in all cases. ...more info
  • Learning Organization
    The author review military doctrine in dealing with local insurgencies. He compares the British experience in Malaysia and the American experience in Viet Nam. The focus on the book is in describing a "learning organization." This is one that adapts and learns; that evolves to meet new challenges. While this applies in combat, it also has value in all organizations that deal with challenges.

    This is an excellent companion book to the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual
    ...more info
  • Wonderful book
    This book provides wonderful description of how the Armed Forces are changing to fight terrorism with the lessons of the past. I would suggest this book for anyone who likes history and current events....more info
  • Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: The Deeper Lessons
    Military and political pundits often advocate John A. Nagl's excellent book, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam", as the definitive source for understanding an insurgency and how to defeat it. It is often quoted and some have implied that if the US were only to follow the British example in Malaya for our current war on terror--especially in Iraq--we could expect a better outcome.

    An interesting historical point is that the British did not manage the insurgency in Cyprus, which occurred at about the same time, in the same manner as Malaya. As a result, the outcome in Cyprus was completely different from what they had originally envisioned.

    James S. Corum's March 2006 monograph for the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, "Training Indigenous Forces in Counterinsurgency: A Tale of Two Insurgencies", contrasts the Malaya and Cyprus insurgencies in detail.

    The important point that comes to mind is that in Malaya the leadership made early mistakes too. However, Nagl points out that they eventually learned from them and put leaders in place who genuinely understood that the conflict was not primarily a military war, but a socio-political conflict. The Malaya Emergency was managed as a large-scale policing operation, and their military operations were subordinate to the greater political aims of providing security and justice at the local levels where the insurgents operated. In the end, the communist terrorists were utterly defeated.

    Nagle reminds us that in South Vietnam, the flawed US strategy was ultimately about firepower and technology and implies a hugely significant question for the Bush Administration.

    Have they learned these important deeper lessons about insurgency?

    The administration and Department of Defense are now talking about their soon to be released field manual on counterinsurgency. This may be a significant advance as far as the military's role is concerned, but the US government as a whole must apply all of its resources and agencies in a coordinated manner in order to defeat the insurgents. It must be ready to work with outside resources as well, like the United Nations, non-governmental aid organizations, and religious institutions.

    Unfortunately, the Bush Administration, the Secretary of Defense, and the other key leaders have not demonstrated much in the way of flexibility or adaptability. This ability to learn, along with understanding that insurgency is a war of ideas that relies upon the military being subordinate to local political needs are the key points implied by Nagl's research.

    Due to the intensity of the internal conflicts in Iraq that have resulted from US occupation, it appears that a counterinsurgency model by itself may no longer be effective there. However, the principles of counterinsurgency as described above always apply in any war and it is not too late to apply these lessons in Afghanistan.

    This is a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone studying the nature of unconventional warfare.

    Matt Rowe, [...]...more info
  • Timely and Relevant
    My own multiple interests in organizational redesign, learning and adaptation, and national security issues led me to read this book. MAJ Nagl is an armor officer, a Rhodes Scholar, and a former instructor of International Affairs at West Point. His book, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaysia and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, discusses the way armies learn within the frameworks of the British experience with counterinsurgency in Malaya and the American experience in Vietnam. It is particularly timely as the army finds itself in a global war against shadowy networks more reminiscent of insurgencies than conventional armies. These networks have turned the "rules" upside down. Networks that can change direction at will or that can go in different directions simultaneously are not easily defeated by bureaucratic juggernauts that require fifteen years to field a new weapon system or that still apply failed tactics from thirty years ago. Victory in multiple, rapidly changing environments requires the ability to learn and to adapt and may even require differing victory conditions, organizations, and core competencies depending upon the context.

    MAJ Nagl presents a twofold thesis. First, the British Army developed a successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Malaya due to its performance as a learning institution. Second, the American Army failed to do the same in Vietnam and in fact actively resisted the necessity of learning to fight a new sort of war. But what is organizational learning? Learning theorists tend to recognize the inherently iterative nature of the learning process whether they characterize it using a simple model such as Boyd's OODA loop or Ackoff's more complex organizational learning and adaptation model. To develop his thesis, the author first looks at Richard Downie's model of the learning cycle as applied to the development of doctrine [1]. This model is more complex than the OODA cycle and less complex than some other models. Overall, Downie's model provides a reasonable framework for this study. MAJ Nagl then evaluates each army's experience using a set of questions to measure the effectiveness of each as a learning institution.

    To answer these questions, the author provides a summary history of insurgency itself, a description of the historical context in which each army's organizational culture developed, and the details of the respective British and American experiences in Vietnam. He finally sums up his conclusions in a "lessons learned" chapter that provides recommendations to foster learning within the army.

    Largely due to its historical context, the British army developed an organizational culture characterized by a focus on limited war, diverse, global experience, a decentralized organization, and doctrinal flexibility. In contrast, American military history led to an organizational culture focused on absolute victory, large wars characterized by technology and overwhelming firepower, and political and cultural naivete.

    After establishing the historical context for these very different organizational cultures, MAJ Nagl described in detail their specific experiences in Malaya and Vietnam. The British army in Malaya went through two distinct phases in evolution as a learning institution. During the first phase, the army was still focused on its most recent experience in conventional war in World War II and Korea despite the presence of a significant number of officers with experience in "small wars". This hindered effective learning in the face of the insurgency. During the second phase, the British army developed fully as a learning organization. The key difference between these two phases was the leadership imposed by General Miles Templer and his recognition that victory meant political victory as well as operational and tactical victory. He fostered a climate of innovation that ran the gamut from free primary schooling for children of all ethnicities (Malay, Indian, and Chinese) to extensive use of intelligence, clandestine operations, and psychological warfare to the steady development of a government capable of taking over after independence. The combination of these innovations enabled the forces fighting the insurgents to truly win the "hearts and minds" of the people of Malaya and to remove the fish (the insurgents) from the water (the people). Coupled with these innovations, and probably one of the keys to their effectiveness, was a limitation on the use of overwhelming firepower and the subordination of the military to the political.

    In contrast, the author effectively makes the case that the US Army in Vietnam failed to develop as a learning organization and, in fact, actively resisted the adaptations necessary to develop an effective counterinsurgency doctrine. MAJ Nagl cites ample evidence that the military refused to listen to its own civilian leadership when it called for a more politically-sensitive approach to counterinsurgency, that it rejected internal studies pointing out its own flaws and refused to learn from them, and that it did not foster tactical and operational innovation but, instead, relied upon superior technology and overwhelming firepower even when these could prove counterproductive. The US approach largely lost the "hearts and minds" of the people and lost the war politically and, ultimately, militarily.

    The depth of the author's research is evident in every chapter and should satisfy the rigor of academia while, at the same time, the writing style is clear, concise, and leaves little doubt as to the author's reasoning. Overall, MAJ Nagl has made an impressive contribution to the study of organizational learning that will prove valuable to anyone interested in these concepts as well as those for whom there is no substitute for victory. This study is especially relevant today. One must wonder, for example, if the Army, 10 years after Mogadishu, has developed effective doctrine for fighting on urban terrain in the developing world or has merely chosen to avoid that fight and to remain unprepared for an enemy who wisely uses terrain to avoid superior technology and firepower. To be successful in an age of "small" wars, Nagl concludes that the Army "will have to make the ability to learn to deal with messy, uncomfortable situations an integral part" of its organizational culture. It must, per T.E. Lawrence, be comfortable eating soup with a knife....more info