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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam [Paperback]

John A. Nagl , Peter J. Schoomaker
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 15, 2005 9780226567709 978-0226567709 1st
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.

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Editorial Reviews


 "[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual."
(Michael Schrage Washington Post 2006-01-15)

"The success of DPhil papers by Oxford students is usually gauged by the amount of dust they gather on library shelves. But there is one that is so influential that General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, is said to carry it with him everywhere. Most of his staff have been ordered to read it and he pressed a copy into the hands of Donald Rumsfeld when he visited Baghdad in December. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (a title taken from T.E. Lawrence — himself no slouch in guerrilla warfare) is a study of how the British Army succeeded in snuffing out the Malayan insurgency between 1948 and 1960 — and why the Americans failed in Vietnam. . . . It is helping to transform the American military in the face of its greatest test since Vietnam. "
(Tom Baldwin Times (UK) 2006-03-28)

"An extremely relevant text. Those interested in understanding the difficulties faced by Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who want to grasp the intricacies of the most likely form of conflict for the near future, will gain applicable lessons. [Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife] offers insights about how to mold America's armed forces into modern learning organizations. As the Pentagon ponders its future in the Quadrennial Defense Review, one can only hope that Nagl's invaluable lesson in learning and adapting is being exploited."
(Frank G. Hoffman eedings of the United State Naval Institue 2006-04-01)

"Brutal in its criticism of the Vietnam-era Army as an organization that failed to learn from its mistakes and tried vainly to fight guerrilla insurgents the same way it fought World War II. In [Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife], Col. Nagl, who served a year in Iraq, contrasts the U.S. Army's failure with the British experience in Malaya in the 1950s. The difference: The British, who eventually prevailed, quickly saw the folly of using massive force to annihilate a shadowy communist enemy. . . . Col. Nagl's book is one of a half dozen Vietnam histories -- most of them highly critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam -- that are changing the military's views on how to fight guerrilla wars. . . .The tome has already had an influence on the ground in Iraq. Last winter, Gen. Casey opened a school for U.S. commanders in Iraq to help officers adjust to the demands of a guerrilla-style conflict in which the enemy hides among the people and tries to provoke an overreaction. The idea for the training center, says Gen. Casey, came in part from Col. Nagl's book, which chronicles how the British in Malaya used a similar school to educate British officers coming into the country. 'Pretty much everyone on Gen. Casey's staff had read Nagl's book,' says Lt. Col. Nathan Freier, who spent a year in Iraq as a strategist. A British brigadier general says that 'Gen. Casey carried the book with him everywhere.'"
(Greg Jaffe Wall Street Journal 2006-03-20)

"As the United States enters its fifth year of the war on terror, military leaders are conducting low-intensity and counter-insurgency operations in several different areas around the world. Of the different books produced on this subject, LTC John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is an absolute must for those who want to gain valuable insight on some of the hard lessons of fighting an insurgency before actually getting on the ground. The book expertly combines theoretical foundations of insurgencies with detailed historical lessons of Malaya and Vietnam to produce some very profound and topical implications for current military operations. The true success of the book is that Nagl discusses all of these complex issues in an easy-to-follow and straight-forward manner. . . . I read this book upon returning from my tour in Iraq after commanding a company on the ground for a year. I was amazed at how insightful and 'true' the conclusions were and wished that I had read it before I deployed."
(Nick Ayers Armor 2006-01-01)

"Nagl, currently a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, focuses on organizational culture as the key to defeating insurgencies: successful militaries learn and adapt."—"Recommended Reading on Counterinsurgency," Nathaniel Fick, Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute
(Nathaniel Fick Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute 2005-12-01)

"The capacity to adapt is always a key contributor to military success. Nagl combines historical analysis with a comprehensive examination of organisational theory to rationalise why, as many of his readers will already intuitively sense, 'military organisations often demonstrate remarkable resistance to doctrinal change' and fail to be as adaptive as required. His analysis is helpful in determining why the U.S. Army can appear so innovative in certain respects, and yet paradoxically slow to adapt in others."—Nigel R F Aylwin-Foster, Military Review
(Nigel R F Aylwin-Foster Military Review 2005-11-01)

"One key army text is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by Lt. Col. John Nagl, which focuses on counterinsurgency lessons from the 1950s war in Malaya and from the Vietnam War. The title phrase was used by Lawrence of Arabia in describing the messy and time-consuming nature of defeating insurgents. Nagl focuses on the ability of armies to learn from mistakes and adapt their strategy and tactics—skills in which he finds U.S. forces lacking. He shows how the British in Malaya were nimble enough to defeat a communist insurgency, while the U.S. military in Vietnam clung to a failing doctrine of force. Sadly, the Pentagon had not absorbed such insights before invading Iraq. Nagl himself says he learned a lot more during a one-year tour in Iraq. His ideas, if applied back in mid-2003, might have checked the growth of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and prevented Sunni Islamists from provoking a civil war with Iraqi Shiites. It may be too late for the Army's new doctrine to stop Iraq from falling apart....It's past time to make Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife required reading at the White House."
(Trudy Rubin Philadelphia Inquirier 2006-08-16)

"As the Baker/Hamilton club considers America's options in the Middle East, its members would do well to browse currently hot books on counterinsurgency [including] Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam...Stimulating, thoughtful and serious."
(The Jerusalem Post Michael Leeden 2006-11-19)

About the Author

Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl is a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. Nagl led a tank platoon in the First Cavalry Division in Operation Desert Storm, taught national security studies at West Point's Department of Social Sciences, and served as the Operations Officer of Task Force 1-34 Armor in the First Infantry Division in Khalidiyah, Iraq.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: The University of Chicago Press; 1st edition (September 15, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780226567709
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226567709
  • ASIN: 0226567702
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #150,377 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
142 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable PhD Thesis December 8, 2005
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.
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84 of 92 people found the following review helpful
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.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timely and Relevant June 11, 2003
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Relevance in the Modern Era
First: I read this book before joining the army, and have no knowledge of the Audio-Book version.

I am an intelligence Analyst and have been deployed to Afghanistan, and... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Homer Mallow
5.0 out of 5 stars The best "summary" of what happened in Vietnam
Yes, I did not serve. Let's put that up front first. I found this most useful, because it speaks of lessons learned in two theaters of war, both in SE Asia and the different... Read more
Published 2 months ago by World traveler
3.0 out of 5 stars Very Goog
It was a very good and interesting book! I enjoyed it! I found very interesting all the books regarding COIN!
Published 2 months ago by Yiannis
4.0 out of 5 stars Good stiry from a little known conflict
Excellent research, good relevant topic, and told with a clear and concise manner. Obviously the Brits take advantage of the Malaysian racial divide at the time to assist their... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Chris Dewart
4.0 out of 5 stars An important but flawed book it is not THE book on COIN
This is an important book about COIN. Nagl earned a PH.d. for researching and writing it from a University older than the country he serves but like many academics he gets overly... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Sgt. Rock
2.0 out of 5 stars This book is going to get people killed
This book has become something of a sacred text those people in the American military and defense establishment who are seeking to be able to wage (and win) a counterinsurgency. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Maybe
4.0 out of 5 stars A very important book on the way to understanding counter insurgency -...
If you are looking for the one book that is going to make it all clear; LCOL John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is not it. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Phred
5.0 out of 5 stars very good overview
Do not pay attention to those who dispute the content in this book. There are many ways to approach history, and this book provides a very thought provoking perspective, especially... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Rule Johnstone
4.0 out of 5 stars A different perspective of why the U.S. failed in Vietnam (and why it...
The oft-repeated story of why the U.S. did not succeed in Vietnam is that the U.S. military was forced by politicians and meddling civilian leaders at home to fight with one arm... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Luke T. Evans
5.0 out of 5 stars Nagl on COIN Lessons
Nagl on COIN Lessons

A co-author of the Army's Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, Nagl compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine in the Vietnam and... Read more
Published on May 18, 2012 by T.A.L. Dozer
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