Review: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife

Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl’s book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is extremely relevant today. It compares the experiences of the British Army in Malaya and the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The U.S. Army doesn’t come off well.

LTC Nagl, a West Point instructor, Rhodes Scholar, and Oxford international relations DPhil, focuses on the ability of the two armies to adapt to counterinsurgency missions. The British, drawing on institutional memory of colonial wars and policing, were able to learn on the spot:

The British army demonstrated a remarkable openness to learning during the years from 1952 to 1957. Bottom-up input was welcomed, from tactical innovations, such as walking backward, through operational ones, such as food denial operations; district advisers, British army privates, and Surrendered Enemy Personnel were asked for ideas on better ways to accomplish the objectives of the organization. … the learning experience of the British army in Malaya is a remarkable example of an organization’s institutional culture’s remaining open to innovation while retaining a clear sense of the objectives it was trying to accomplish.

The British effort was comprehensive, including political, economic, and military measures and cooperation. The U.S. Army, on the other hand, never stopped seeing Vietnam in terms of fixing the enemy in the field and destroying him with superior firepower. It was tactically innovative, but operational innovations such as the Combined Action Platoons (Marine Corps) and Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CIA) were rejected.

[I]n the final analysis, [the Army] had just one solution to the problem of countering insurgency [according to General Westmoreland]…: “Firepower.” … The United States Army in Vietnam relied on the tools that it had used with such success for the past century: firepower and maneuver, battalions and divisions. Completely conditioned to seeing all wars as purely military problems, it repeatedly rejected innovators who suggested that perhaps a political-economic-military screwdriver was necessary.

The techniques required to defeat the current insurgency and restore stability to Iraq are obviously closer to those required in Vietnam and Malaya than to those required in World War II and Korea. Has the U.S. Army unlearned the conventional triumphs of Desert Storm and the 2003 Iraq invasion: to merge civil and military efforts, to fight with the minimum required force, and to cultivate bottoms-up innovation? Josh Manchester, writing in the Weekly Standard, believes it has:

Adaptation on the part of the American military has been, since the invasion of Iraq, too slow in coming. But it is gaining steam. Throughout the military, new initiatives, organizations, and techniques are undergoing an accelerating process of adaptation.

But Phil Carter at Intel Dump, citing a Wall Street Journal article, has doubts:

Josh is right that it takes an adaptive and flexible organization to win at counterinsurgency. At its core, counterinsurgency is basically a problem-solving exercise writ large. On one day, the problem may be security. The next week, the problem may be sewage. Nimble, adaptive, flexible, decentralized organizations tend to do better in these kinds of operations than hierarchical, ponderous, over-bureaucratized organizations. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the U.S. military (and U.S. government generally) still falls largely in the latter category.

(Mr. Manchester responds here.) I tend to agree with Mr. Carter. What prevented the changes that Mr. Manchester notes, such as the expanding training program for military advisers or language-training software, from being implemented 24 months ago? In a corporation, the market would punish such inertia. Unfortunately, failure in Iraq could have far worse consequences.

LTC Nagl’s book is short and very readable. It is required reading for anyone seeking to understand our position in Iraq.

* * *

UPDATE 12/3/06 and 12/15/06: Welcome and thank you for coming! There’s a steady flow of search engine traffic to this post. If you are interested in counterinsurgency or Iraq, feel free to have a look at these related posts: Iraq and the War on Terror: Fall 2006 Roundup, In Defense of Idealism, In Defense of Idealism Part 2, RMA and the Gates Confirmation, Twenty Questions on Iran, What Are They Up To in Tehran?, and John Hinderaker’s Modest Proposal for Iran.

UPDATE 12/5/06: Other blogospheric reviews of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife:

Hope is Not a Plan: “…Nagl concludes that the American military still is not a very good learning organization when it comes to adapting out of its role in national survival.” See also this gloss on British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster’s “fairly sober critique of the [U.S.] Army’s specific weaknesses in dealing with the current effort in Iraq. [Foster] argues that the U.S. Army is first and foremost designed to be a tool for national survival, rather than for enforcement of political policy.

The Redhunter: “As the Brits found out in Malaysia, you win these wars not by sending in “More troops!” but by going back to counter-insurgency basics.” Tom also points out that you can read the preface to the book at the University of Chicago Press.

LTC Nagl’s talking points from an April 2005 presentation at the Air War College.

John P. Cann of the Marine Corps Staff College: “…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.”

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6 Responses to “Review: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife”

  1. RMA and the Gates Confirmation « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] Take that one step farther: aside from military and military police, what functions should be integrated with the peacekeeping force? Construction? Media (propaganda)? Microlending? In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, LTC John Nagl argued that successful counterinsurgency must incorporate political and economic intervention, as well as military, and faulted the U.S. Army for not making that leap in Vietnam. What missions does Mr. Gates foresee for the military, and how will he pursue innovation? […]

  2. Review: The Utility of Force « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife by LTC John Nagl […]

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