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on February 16, 2017
Was under the impression this would be about actual Infantry Soldiers in VN. It's not. It delves into what were experienced in tactics used by the British & US in & before VN.
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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.
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on November 4, 2014
This book is the result of retired US army Lt Cl John Nagl's various academic studies into counter-insurgency. It was published before he saw action in Iraq in 2003.

The book compares Britain's experiences dealing with the communist insurgency in Malaysia from 1948 to 1957 with those of the Americans fighting a communist insurgency in Vietnam from 1950 to 1972. His basic point is that the British succeeded with a minimum amount of military force, and the Americans failed with a maximum amount of force. Today Malaysia is a typical south-east Asian crony-capitalist democracy, with a dubious human rights record, and a complacent inward-looking ruling class that only got rattled when it was scrutinised by the world press after the tragic and mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. But at least the Malaysians have democratic opportunities to toss out their current government, at least in theory. And today Vietnam is a communist authoritarian state, with a much worse human rights record, and a ruling class that cannot be removed, even in theory.

I'd say that the British would be happier with the outcome of their war in Malaysia than the Americans with their war in Vietnam. When the last British soldiers left, they departed leaving solid democratic institutions, even if those have been eroded in the decades since. The Americans left behind nothing in Vietnam, a hollow pseudo-democracy that collapsed even before they evacuated their last soldiers.

Nagl praises the British for their adaptability, their willingness to learn lessons from those in the field, and their realisation that winning did not just involve bombing the bejezzus out of anything that moved. He condemns the Americans for exactly the opposite. The major force of the book is on how the British army and government as institutions were capable of learning, but the American army and government were organisationally incapable. I think his thesis is sound.

However, in his six-page preface to the paperback edition (2005), written after his service in Iraq, Nagl walks back from this position. Actually 'gallops back', would be a better term. He does not resile from his opinions on the American experience in Vietnam, but he goes out of his way to backtrack from his praise of the British in Malaysia. I get the distinct impression that some other high-ranking US Army theorists have been having some cosy fireside chats with Lt Cl Nagl.

Nagl concludes the preface by fulsomely commending today's US army for adapting so admirably to the insurgency in Iraq, "making remarkable strides". As I write in late 2014, I can only ask Lt Cl Nagl: exactly how did that work out?
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on November 26, 2016
On time, as described.
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on January 30, 2017
Great read!
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on December 17, 2015
Used it, loved it, still refer to it. This book was given out to soldiers in Iraq.
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on March 14, 2016
We seem to never learn even when the truth is set before us.
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VINE VOICEon November 14, 2006
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.
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on January 5, 2007
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
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on September 4, 2015
Great book, makes a lot of sense.
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