Top positive review
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Excellent: well written and incisive
on January 5, 2007
Excellent. Some of the early chapters suffer from an overly academic style, but overall it is well written and incisive.
Nagl analyzes the very different counter-insurgency approaches of the British in Malaya and the US in Vietnam.
In Malaya, Britain had a rocky start, but then installed military leaders who were willing to learn. Central to this was placing a primacy on winning the political war and treating the physical war as secondary. So rather than focusing on large scale search and destroy missions, the emphasis was on "people control" by creating local combined military/police units to secure villages and deny the insurgents access to food and recruits. (Some of this reads as rather draconian by 21st century ideals, such as denying villagers access to uncooked rice and only providing food at central kitchens.)
In Vietnam, the US was locked in a conventional war doctrine that focused on destroying the enemy forces. This led to a continual focus on large scale operations with massive firepower to defeat enemy combatants. What Nagl sees as the real war, of securing the population and winning their loyalty, was seen as (at best) a secondary issue. This failure wasn't universal: many junior officers and even a later American commander argued for the primary importance of the political war. But they were unable to change the style of an army that was locked into an offensive doctrine.
Nagl offers conclusions at two levels:
First, in defeating insurgents, he argues that the true war is to secure the population and win their loyalty (or at least acquiescence). This is best done by small scale local units, embedded in the population. Large firepower-focused search-and-destroy missions are a distraction.
Second, he argues that it is essential that an army be a "learning organization" which adapts to what is actually happening in the field. In reading Nagl one is left with the impression that the US Army went to considerable efforts to create a combat doctrine and to infuse it into officers, but the very success of that exercise made it hard for the army to adapt to a situation which was utterly different from the one expected by the doctrine. By comparison the British army had very little formal doctrine and (rather to my surprise!) a much greater expectation of people inventing solutions as needed for the local situation.