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Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife Hardcover – October 30, 2002

4.3 out of 5 stars 84 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"[A]n acclaimed book on counterinsurgency." - The New York Times Sunday Magazine

"If you're interested in the intellectual arguments that are shaping the surge and changes in military doctrine brought on by the failures so far in Iraq, this is a great place to start." - Christian Science Monitor

"[B]rutal 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. . . . [c]ontrasts 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. . . . Colonel 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 Wall Street Journal

"[T]he insurgents-always-win school skips over the textbook example of successful counterinsurgency, the British victory in Malaysia in the 1950s over a communist guerrilla movement. The British experience is related in John Nagl's cult-classic book Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. It has become a must-read for high-level officers in Iraq because its lessons seem so directly applicable to the situation there." - National Review Online

"[O]ne of the finest books written on how to fight an insurgency, have an open culture that encourages adaptability and innovation [and] quick turnaround on lessons learned." - The Insider

"Pentagon insiders say that the Army chief of staff, General Peter Schoomaker, has distributed copies of Nagl's book to all Army generals. Whether they will learn Lawrence's lessons remains to be seen." - The Washington Post

"[An] excellent stud[y]. . . . very important." - Royal United Services Institute Journal

"[W]ell-crafted comparison of the British and U.S. responses to the challenges of insurgency in Malaya and Vietnam." - Foreign Affairs

"[J]ohn Nagl's book is a valuable asset for identifying key aspects of a succesful counterinsurgency strategy. Lessons from the Malaya insurgency and the Vietnam conflict should be beneficial for American political and military leaders." - Parameters

"[N]agl provides an in-depth analysis of the military institutions and how they adapted to effectively combat an unconventional enemy. . . . Impeccably researched and well written, Nagl has chosen a subject critical to today's Army, namely, how to defeat an insurgent enemy. He contends that to succeed in future savage wars of peace, the Army must adapt as an organization and step away from the preoccupation with solely waging conventional warfare against other nation states. Overall, this is a great book and must be read." - Armor

"John Nagl takes a fresh look at the differences in the organizational culture of the British and U.S. armies, how this difference affected their respective approaches to Malaya and Vietnam, and how it contributed to victory for one and failure for the other. The volume is strongly recommended for students of counterinsurgency, as it is well crafted, draws on extensive primary sources and secondary research, and is lucidly written. The lessons could not be more poignant. . . . [s]mall wars are not going away, and the U.S. Army had better learn how to fight them." - The Journal of Military History

"[A]ttempts to shake up the Army by getting it to seriously consider the neglected field of counterinsurgency. For this, Nagl deserves kudos. . . . [t]his is an important book because it raises the need to reconsider the Army's readiness to conduct counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency should not be the exclusive realm of the SOF community because many of the tools for counterinsurgency belong to the conventional force. Insurgency is likely in the current operating enviornment. The force needs to prepare to meet it; the debate on how best to do it should begin now." - Military Review

"As the author ably points out, the U.S Army in its arrogance thought that it had nothing to learn from the British or French experience or even from the success of the U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Program. This narrow vision and self-inflicted blindness persisted, and finally the U.S. Army found the fight that fit its view in the 1991 Gulf War. A victory in the Gulf was all well and good, but as the author concludes, small wars are not going away, and the U.S. Army had better learn how to fight them." - The Journal of Military History

"[O]f timely interest. . . . [s]eeks to explain how conventionally trained armed forces can learn to adapt to unconventional problems in the course of a conflict." - The International History Review


"Do Armies really learn from their experiences, or does military bureaucracy reign supreme? As citizens, we should fervently hope the former is the real case; but, alas, as John Nagl shows in this brilliant analysis, foreign armies can on occasion learn more rapidly and thoroughly on their own. As now it attempts a massive transformation, the future of America's Army rests significantly on its ability to absorb and act on the rich insights of its younger generation of leaders, one of whom produced this incisive analysis." (Don M. Snyder, Professor of Political Science, Department of Social Science, USMA West Point)

"This book is a powerful examination of the learning cultures of two of the world's most prominent and capable fighting forces. John Nagl sheds much new light on why the British Army recovered from early failures in the Malayan Emergency and, even more importantly, why the U.S. Army did not profit to the same extent from its early experiences in the Vietnam War. Nagl couples extensive historical analysis with a dedicated soldier's eye as to what is practical. The book has both reassuring and disturbing lessons for us today." (Robert O'Neill, Chichele Professor of the History of War Emeritus, University of Oxford)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Praeger; First Edition edition (October 30, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0275976955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0275976958
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,829,096 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By C. Davis VINE VOICE on December 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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By A Customer on June 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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