- Paperback: 280 pages
- Publisher: The University of Chicago Press; 1st edition (September 15, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226567702
- ISBN-13: 978-0226567709
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 88 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,339 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam 1st Edition
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"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) --This text refers to the Digital edition.
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While this book is excellent, its assessment, as the author notes, is not the only reason why the United States lost the Vietnam War. The book is is a quick read and because of that it may feel at times to be an oversimplification of a very complex conflict. Readers should be reminded that Vietnam was a much harder conflict for the United States to fight than Malaya was for the British. The British had a much more stable government situation in Malaya and it allowed for a much better coordination of counterinsurgency tactics. The United States however, was forced to deal with a South Vietnamese Government that was incredibly corrupt and did little to win the support of their own population. The United States also had to face the problems of constant infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and a endless amount of supplies that could flow into South Vietnam from the North. These problems were not present or greatly reduced in the British experience in Malaya. Despite these criticisms, this book presents a well researched argument for why the US military failed in Vietnam and how it can adapt its tactics in the future. Given the United State's unparalleled conventional military strength it stands to reason that the United States will face many more unconventional conflicts in the future. More Vietnam's, Iraq's, and Afghanistan's may be on the way. If the military cannot change and adapt its culture to face the nature of unconventional wars it will continue to fail.
First and foremost is the fact that no other topic is more pressing in the world of defense policy today than how to successfully wage a counterinsurgency. Even if the author of such a book as this were of limited ability and narrow experience, many policy-wonks and decisionmakers would read the case studies and conclusions closely.
Which leads to the second reason this book is worthwhile: the author's impressive academic credentials and recent real-world brush with counterinsurgency operations. John Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who spent the better part of a decade studying counterinsurgency operations. It was only after this book was first published that he was sent to the Sunni Triangle as operations officer for an Armor unit thrust into a counterinsurgency mission for which it was totally untrained and unprepared. Nagl calls his year in Iraq the "most searing educational experience of [his] life" - and this from a man who survived Plebe Summer at West Point and years at Oxford. Unfortunately, there is precious little insight into his personal experience in counterinsurgency operations in the new foreword to the paperback edition. He notes that fighting an insurgency was even more difficult than he had imagined and confirms his earlier conclusion that accurate field-level intelligence is the sine qua non for success, but offers little more than that.
Last but certainly not least is the core message in Nagl's study, which is highly persuasive, although it provides little reason to believe that the US will "prevail" in any meaningful sense in Iraq. The irony is that the most convincing aspects of this book have little to do with the main thesis the author puts forward.
Nagl's central argument is that in order to be successful in counterinsurgency operations military forces need to be "learning organizations." To demonstrate this, he relies heavily on an organizational learning model developed by Richard Downie in his book "Learning from Conflict: The U.S. Military in Vietnam, El Salvador, and the Drug War."
In the end, there are two significant problems with Nagl's chosen approach. First, the Downie model does not add much substance to his argument. Is it really a surprise that an Army that embraces a closed loop learning process will be more effective than those that do not? Indeed, that is difficult to argue against and, in fact, is something of a tautology. Second, Nagl makes a credible case that each Army develops a unique ethos - an organizational genetic code, if you will - that is based on a number of fundamental group characteristics, such as its age, size, historical mission and the specific national culture from which the officers and soldiers are drawn.
At a high level, Nagl argues that counterinsurgency operations need to be viewed holistically - as an inseparable combination of political, economic, administrative, police and military activities that stress the minimum usage of firepower necessary. Nagl's real point, it seems to me, is that the British Army, owing to its unique history in colonial operations, was naturally better suited to counterinsurgency operations than its American counterpart, which is the primary explanation for such widely different approaches and outcomes to their experience in Malaya and Vietnam, respectively.
For instance, Nagl notes that the British Army in the 1950s had traditionally played a secondary role in national defense behind the vaunted British Navy. The administrative and peacekeeping initiatives the British Army often undertook in the colonies made the organization more flexible and naturally geared to fighting limited wars with limited objectives. Nevertheless, the British learned relatively slowly as the Malaya Emergency developed in 1948, but they did learn. The British have a tradition of treating each conflict as fundamentally unique owing to differences in local culture and the circumstances involved in the war. Moreover, like their Constitution, British military doctrine had long remained unwritten. The experience gained by the British in counterinsurgency and jungle war - such as the Boer War, the Burma theater in the Second World War or the peacekeeping in Palestine - were ultimately leveraged in the fight against the ethnic-Chinese dominated communist party of Malaya. Yet, the British Army did much worse at "learning" in the Second World War when forced to adapt to the conventional juggernaut of German combined arms warfare. The British Army simply was not conditioned for large-scale conventional operations.
Nagl then contrasts this to his own US Army, which has a rich tradition as the primary defender of the nation in great wars of annihilation, with the US Civil War, World War I and World War II playing an especially important role in the Army's self-conception. Even though the armed forces of United States had plenty of experience with counterinsurgency-like operations over the centuries - the wars against the Plains Indians, the Philippine insurrection, the numerous "small wars" fought by the Marines in the Caribbean and elsewhere - such operations were not seen as the ethos of the US Army. Thus it was natural for the Army to resist fighting a war it did not consider its own. Nagl adopts the viewpoint made by Andrew Krepinevich in "The Army and Vietnam" that the Army paid plenty of lip service to reform and special operations forces in theory but never wavered from longheld conventional views on the American way in war - victory by overwhelming offensive firepower - in practice.
So, if an Army's ethos plays a fundamental role in its ability to wage counterinsurgency, are there any things it can do to improve on the margins, nevertheless? In short, Nagl says, "yes, there are."
Although he does not say so specifically, Nagl embraces the "maverick" model of doctrinal innovation posited by Barry Posen in "Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain and Germany Between the World Wars." Nagl cites the critically important role British General Gerald Templer played in changing tactics and unifying efforts successfully in Malaya. In the Vietnam case study, Nagl calls the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program the "most remarkable of American institutional innovation" in the war and says that it was all made possible by the work of Robert Komer, whose colorful sobriquet "The Blowtorch" says everything about his intensity and wherewithal. It is noteworthy, too, that Komer was a civilian in Vietnam.
Nagl argues that General Creighton Abrams understood better than any other senior commander the need for change in US doctrine to meet the demands of counter insurgency, but that the Army's conventional culture was too much for even him to completely overcome. Abrams had led the influential 1966 study known as the Program for the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam (PROVN), which explicitly rejected the current US policy and instead encouraged a unified command under the civilian ambassador and stressed the need to focus on local security operations and pacification efforts rather than firepower intensive "search and destroy" missions that did much to alienate the rural population from the US and allied government in Saigon. Yet, when Abrams took over for Westmoreland in 1968 Nagl claims that Abrams stopped short of rejecting (and thus discrediting) the tactics employed by his former superior.
Interestingly, Nagl frequently cites the deleterious effects of the pervasive "can do" attitude in the US Army and especially emphasized by Westmoreland at MACV. He argues that few things did more to stifle innovation and learn from past experience than the Army's long tradition of slogging through to victory in the face of dreadful defeats, from Brandywine Creek to Fredericksburg to Kasserine Pass. In the end, Nagl concludes, "The US Army's concept of how to fight and win precluded the development of a successful counterinsurgency doctrine in South Vietnam."
In closing, this is an excellent primer on two major twentieth century counterinsurgencies with two very different paths and denouements. Anyone interested in current events in Iraq and one perspective on counterinsurgency operations should read this book.
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